Felons Struggle For Housing, Jobs in Northwest Arkansas
By Whitney King
The Razorback Reporter
Coty Jeter has been chronically homeless since age 13. His attempts to find a job and housing have been greatly complicated by his criminal record, which includes 14 felonies ranging from first-degree forgery to residential burglary, drug possession and driving under the influence.
With this record, Jeter says finding permanent housing is “pretty hard, because a lot of places don’t give you any kind of a chance.” For some, getting released from incarceration means getting to go home to their families, but for others, it means a new sentence to homelessness, unemployment, and missed opportunities.
Jeter’s struggle to re-enter society is not unusual. According to a 2015 report by the Community and Family Institute, some 72% of the 2,500 homeless people in Northwest Arkansas have been arrested at least once, and 59% report one or more arrests with a felony charge.
Nick Robbins, the executive director of Returning Home, a transitional housing initiative in Springdale, Arkansas, says that finding a job is “extremely difficult” for felons.
Returning Home works with people just released from prison. Robbins says employers are unforgiving of criminal records. A “majority of them would just throw away your application, you’ll never even hear from them,” Robbins said.
Through Returning Home, Jeter has found a path towards stability. After completing a 90-day transitional program, Jeter has a full-time maintenance job at a poultry processing plant called George’s Inc. in Springdale, Arkansas. He currently resides at a transitional facility and volunteers five to ten hours a week at the facility, helping others recently released from custody.
For other felons, finding stable work is nearly impossible. Jack Kuhnle Jr. has been chronically homeless since 1973. Kuhnle claims that he has several felonies, including a murder charge that he believes, was overturned after he served an eight-and-a-half-year sentence in 2005. He claims that his criminal history makes finding a home difficult.
“Being a felon, fresh out of prison up there [in Seattle], it was real hard to get work,” said Kuhnle, “Things got real bad, couldn’t find a job.” He then came to Northwest Arkansas in 2005 in hopes of finding work. Fifteen years later, he is still homeless and unemployed.
For Kuhnle, housing affordability is a significant challenge. His only income is a $785 monthly check from Social Security for disability and retirement, which puts renting his own apartment out of reach. In Fayetteville, the average apartment rent was $642 in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The struggle Kuhnle faces, being homeless and unemployed, is multifaceted. “If you’re filling in an application, and you don’t have an address to put down, you don’t have a cell phone number, and you have a criminal record, the likelihood of you getting employed is slim to none,” says Robbins.
Another roadblock is the digital divide in the homeless community. Many businesses only hire through online applications, creating yet a disconnect between employers and homeless felons. “Most of the folks in the homeless population, they don’t have those things,” Robbins said, “As the world has progressed with technology, the population in poverty …haven’t adapted to filling in applications online.”
Robbins can empathize with Jeter and Kuhnle since he also served time, over seven years in prison for two armed robberies. He says he “was greatly impacted by the volunteers and the organizations that were coming in and pouring into us [prisoners].”
Returning Home helps address the needs of formerly incarcerated people, providing men’s transitional housing, food, clothing, therapy, hygiene, recovery classes, mental health, life skills, and job placement. The program had more than 250 graduates of their 90-day program in the last year.
Another organization assisting people released from prison, The Genesis Church, provides free expunging services, which allows first-time offenders to have their records sealed from state and federal court records. Glenn Miller, the Local Missions Coordinator for the Genesis Church, says the problem of formerly incarcerated people being shut out of housing or jobs is “devastating.”
Miller says every apartment complex and prospective employers will run a background and credit check. “And if something comes up, a lot of the property managers will just say no,” he said. Making matters worse, the applicant usually has to pay for the background check.