Kevin Brooks hopes he won’t have to go to a homeless shelter. In 1999, Mr. Brooks and four others were convicted of murder, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Now 52, more mature and remorseful, he has a clean disciplinary record and a bachelor’s degree. He believes he has a good shot at getting out after he appears before the parole board in January 2024.
He’s less confident about where he’ll live.
Before Mr. Brooks went away, he was living with his newborn daughter and girlfriend in a three-bedroom apartment in a brownstone in Crown Heights that rented for about $800 a month. Today the space would go for more than $3,000 a month. The average rent in Manhattan is $4,200, in Brooklyn it’s about $3,700.
So next year around this time, Mr. Brooks figures he is likely to join thousands of other formerly incarcerated people who will leave prison and have nowhere to live. Among all releases to community supervision in New York state during 2021 (not just those released from prisons), about 23 percent went directly to shelters, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision; another 8 percent were “undomiciled,” or went to places like halfway houses and hotels.
There isn’t much assistance for people getting out of prison. We get $40 and a one-way bus ticket. Many of us head to the Port Authority in New York City. I say us, because I, too, am in prison. I interviewed Mr. Brooks as we sat at a table bolted to the floor in the communal space of a cellblock in Sullivan Correctional Facility, the prison where we both currently live.
Feeling priced out and left out, many parolees turn to illegal hustles. The state corrections department told me in an email that about 38 percent of people released in 2017 returned to the agency’s custody within three years.
Looking for Help
Our access to assistance is currently being discussed among New York state legislators. In January, Brian Kavanagh, a progressive Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, reintroduced the Housing Access Voucher Program (S. 2804B), which had support from both the senate and the assembly last year, but ultimately did not receive that same support from the Governor’s office during budget negotiations. The bill would provide vouchers to people in immediate need of housing assistance, either facing eviction or homelessness. Its language has recently been updated to include people about to be released from state prisons.
“They should be allowed to apply for various resources in advance of their release date so they get a chance of not going from prison to shelter,” the senator told me.
It could be significant for formerly incarcerated people who are shut out of other housing and programs. We can’t stay with, or even visit, family or friends who live in public housing projects. This is prohibited by New York City Housing Authority, but another bill, currently before the New York City Council, aims to prevent housing discrimination on the basis of arrest record or criminal history.
Similarly, some formerly incarcerated people — those with lifetime sex offender status, those who were previously convicted of certain drug offenses in federally assisted housing, and anyone for whom there is a “preponderance of evidence” of criminal activity — are excluded from participating in the federal Section 8 program that subsidizes rent for people who earn less than 50 percent of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which they live. (In New York City, the median individual income is $41,625, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Mr. Kavanagh expects legislation to pass. “I don’t know of any individual or organization that’s opposing this bill,” he told me in the fall, as a I called him from the prison yard. “What’s unusual is that the large real estate interests of New York have been quite active in supporting this.”
But there is some pushback.
Though Howard Husock, a senior fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, said he believes housing for formerly incarcerated people is important, he questioned the practicality of making vouchers more accessible to people getting out.
“There will be a limited number of vouchers. We don’t want justice-involved persons in competition with poor New Yorkers,” Mr. Husock told me. “Saying ex-offenders are not precluded — I think that’s unfortunately likely to set off tensions. People who have not been justice-involved and are on that waiting list may be like, ‘Wait a minute. I worked and played by the rules and now I’m at the back of the line?’”
Mr. Husock also wondered if it made sense for a single individual leaving prison to get a voucher over a struggling family household. To him, it seemed more practical to send someone getting out to a halfway house or re-entry program.
Turns out, those beds are pretty limited, too.
Mr. Brooks is looking to go to a re-entry program like Fortune Society, which began 55 years ago as a support group for former prisoners and now helps about 7,000 people who were previously incarcerated with education, employment, and housing services. In 2002, Fortune opened the Castle, on Riverside Drive, which houses a community of 90 former prisoners at a time and offers individualized case planning and support groups. In 2010, it opened Castle Gardens, in Harlem, which is a residential building that provides stable housing for 63 Fortune Society clients.
That’s a total of 150 beds.
“In limited circumstances, we’ll screen an incarcerated person, like Mr. Brooks,” Stanley Richards, Fortune’s deputy chief executive, told me when I called him from the prison yard, “and we’ll consider him for placement in the Castle and work with parole to certify him as homeless and hold a bed.”
Mr. Brooks said he feels like it’s his only hope. His daughter, now 23, recently graduated college, but because of high rent, she’s still living with her mother, who purchased a home out in Canarsie with her new partner after Mr. Brooks went to prison. He can’t go there.
“I just want to get out, land a gig, and find a spot to live,” he said. “I hope Fortune can help with that.”
Reading the real estate section of The New York Times, I see a Hell’s Kitchen studio co-op in the On the Market feature. It’s a half a million bucks and half the size of the old rent-stabilized railroad apartment where I lived around the corner on West 51 Street between 9th and 10th avenues as a teenager in the early ’90s. My mom tells me we paid $350 a month then. Today it goes for $3,700. Before that, we lived in a housing project, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Rent: $100 a month.
I regularly see brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant advertised for millions. Darius Turner, who’s 34 and slim and tall, grew up in Bed-Stuy all his life, on Bedford Ave, between Greene and Lexington, around the corner from Lafayette Gardens.
“Yo, my brother just told me that he sees white people walking their dogs through L.G.,” Mr. Turner told me, laughing. “In a way, it’s good because Blacks and whites are mingling more. They’re not as fearful. But them white people pushed up the cost of living. I mean, a crib in the Stuy is thousands of dollars a month.”
He told me he grew up his whole life in the Stuy — played tag in the Stuy, shot hoops in the Stuy, hustled drugs in the Stuy, got shot in the Stuy, on two separate occasions. Mr. Turner, who’s rapper stage name was Propa Balla (now it’s Picasso XO) recalled opening shows for bigger artists.
In 2011, he pleaded guilty to robbery and received 10 years. In 2014, in Attica, he got two and a half more years added after a jury in rural Wyoming county found him guilty of promoting prison contraband (He was found with a sharpened toothbrush that he says was planted).
Mr. Turner will be released in February 2024 and he plans to live with his wife, who rents a two-bedroom apartment for $2,100 in East Flatbush. If the rap game doesn’t work out, his backup plan is to be a personal trainer. What if the relationship doesn’t work out, I asked? I pointed to the TV, which was playing “Love After Lockup,” a ratchet reality show that reminds us that romance is difficult after you are released.
“I mean, I always got a plan B,” Mr. Turner told me. “My Mom recently passed away and she left me a one-bedroom co-op. A family friend sublets it.”
Sometimes those sublet situations can get complicated, I told him.
When I was maybe 11 or 12, living with my mom and stepfather in Hell’s Kitchen, mom would put her name on lists for rent stabilized apartments. She’d fix them up and illegally sublet them. Onetime, she left a spare key with the super, who she believed had entered her tenant’s apartment and stolen money. When my family confronted the super, chaos erupted. Mom, my sister, my stepfather, and the tenant were all arrested. Outside the building, my brother-in-law had managed to pull me into the crowd. The super’s daughter cried for her father and pointed at my mother, cuffed behind her back. “You don’t cry for your mother?” Mom yelled to me.
Mom eventually went legit, got her agent’s license, became a broker, then opened up her own shop with the eponymous name “Laura O’Connell Real Estate.” I became a drug dealer. In 2001, I shot and killed a man in Brooklyn. At 24, I wound up with 25 years to life, plus three more for selling drugs. I made Mom cry. I broke another mother’s heart, too. The young man I killed grew up in the same Brooklyn projects I did. Over the years, I felt a lot of shame for what I did, remorse for the people I hurt. It makes me want to get out and do things the right way this time.
Around 2010, in Attica, I joined a creative writing workshop and honed my craft in a cell, sitting on an upturned bucket, tucked between the toilet and bunk, reverse engineering magazine articles, poking at a typewriter for hours. I’m about to submit a clemency petition to the governor, asking for her to shave some years off my sentence. Having a solid re-entry plan, how you’ll earn income, and where you’ll live, is all part of the process.
Mom is 77 now. She closed her real estate agency, cashed out and bought a condo in Florida. Since I’ve been earning income and paying taxes, Mom tells me she regrets she didn’t put my name on a few different lists for rent-stabilized Manhattan buildings. They didn’t need to know I was incarcerated, she tells me, because it takes years for your name to come up.
I’ve done OK for myself, I tell her.
Today I’m a contributing editor for Esquire, and I recently landed a book deal. In the last few years, I’ve been earning income, paying taxes, and saving money. I also won a fellowship from Galaxy Gives, a private foundation that funds organizations and leaders focused on criminal justice reform.
I can’t stop thinking about what it means that all these achievements are my only hope to afford a place at the market rate. And what it means that Mr. Brooks, and most of the others leaving prison, only hope to avoid a shelter.