My job includes helping formerly incarcerated individuals reunite with their families, as well as providing resources for counseling, job training, job placement assistance and other services. The challenges are enormous. I feel helpless before the issues of housing, high market rents, low wages, and out-of-touch laws involving the CHA and Section 8.

Housing is a human rights issue. If we continue punishing formerly incarcerated individuals by preventing them from joining their families in subsidized housing, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. The foundation of the family structure is needed to aid people in transitioning back into the community. If we continue to strip our men of their purpose as role models, then how can they ever feel a sense of self-esteem? I feel this is one of the biggest reasons why youth in adult prisons have doubled in the past decade.

An elderly woman from Austin spoke of getting help for her son, who will be released from prison soon. She wants him to join her in subsidized housing. The housing management program informed her that her son could not live with her because of his prior conviction. Her words were, “I’ll be homeless and on the street before I turn down one of my children for a place to stay.”

About a month ago, I received a phone call from a young man who was looking for assistance in finding housing. He had been recently released from the Dept. of Corrections, got a job, and reunited with his family (three children and their mother), who live in a CHA apartment. Everything was going well until it was time to be recertified for the lease.

The woman was honest, and reported her man’s income. She was told he would have to move out or her lease would not be renewed with CHA. It seemed so unjustifiable. The children lost their father while he was incarcerated; then he returns home only to leave again. Children can’t rationalize why their father is leaving again, except by acting out in anger, rebellion or internalizing it as their fault.

Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of jobs for the formerly incarcerated; nor is the pay the greatest. We have men ready and willing to do the right thing, and then we put a stumbling block in their way with senseless laws. In doing so, we instigate the possibility of the breakdown of a family unit, while innocent children are twice traumatized.

A single, middle-aged, formerly incarcerated woman asked for assistance with housing. Her mother accepted her into her apartment. The management brought it to the mother’s attention that her daughter was not on the lease. She’d have to comply or else her lease would be terminated. The daughter has yet to find a job. I’m still looking for housing for her, which is difficult because she is off parole and without income.

According to the 2000 Census, almost 70 percent of black children are born into female single-parent households. These women have a huge concern because they can’t receive subsidized housing if they’ve been incarcerated. Many of them have small children. Once the women are released, they face problems of employment and sufficient housing. What are we going to do now? When are we going to say “time served?” When will we stop the continuation of punishment with less than human rights?

The government gets 30 percent of a person’s income when they live in subsidized housing. When a formerly incarcerated individual returns home to his family, if it’s mandated that he works, that’s more income the government can collect. And ultimately, that’s more tax relief for taxpayers and accountability for formerly incarcerated individuals, who can prevent the cycle of repeated incarceration through the generations.

According to a Criminal Justice Department report, there will be about one million people released from prison by the year 2010. Do we have a viable solution to employ?

The laws need to be changed. Prisons are getting smarter and people know it’s cheaper to teach and equip an inmate with a skill set and GED to get a head start upon release. These measures can reduce recidivism and increase public safety. Ill. Dept. of Corrections has gone so far as to give community money to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into the community. Guess what? It’s working.

It’s high time we reassess laws to align with our values and goals, and save the family structure in America.

Frankie White is coordinator for Prisoner Re-Entry at the West Side Health Authority.