Afomeia Tesfai

Afomeia Tesfai
Afomeia Tesfai is a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a Master in Community-Oriented Public Health Practice. While in school, Afomeia co-founded the Committee on Oppression, Race and Education to deepen the utilization of anti-racist approach within the department and across the University to dismantle social, political, and economic oppression and to build and sustain relationships with community organizations. Guided by anti-racist organizing principles, Afomeia was a community organizer with Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, which works to end mass incarceration and prevent the building of a youth jail in Seattle, WA.

The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records

For individuals with a criminal history, finding affordable and stable housing becomes extremely difficult in a place like the Bay Area, with high cost and limited supply. People with a criminal history can legally be excluded from housing. In a survey from the 2015 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Forward Together report, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” 79% of people who had been incarcerated were either ineligible or denied public housing as a result of criminal history. More than half of those released from jail or prison have unstable or nonexistent housing.

Safe and affordable housing is a fundamental basis for success in all areas of life, and without stable housing, an individual’s health, employment and education opportunities, family reunification and social networks are compromised. In Alameda County, California, nearly 20,000 people are at risk of residential instability because of having a recent criminal history.

Having housing improves health directly and indirectly, decreases recidivism, improves the chance of becoming employed and having more income, and helps with family reunification. These factors, known in public health as the social determinants of health, create opportunities to succeed and are known to be important for health and wellbeing. For example:

  • Moving often affects recidivism. The odds of recidivism increase by at least 70% for every time someone who is formerly incarcerated changes their residence.
  • Six randomized control trials analyzed supported employment in public housing against other approaches to help residents find jobs, and found 58% of public housing program participants obtained employment compared to 21% in the control group.
  • More than 70% of those leaving prison indicated that family is an important factor in keeping them out of prison, and up to 82% of people leaving prison or jail expect to live with or get help from their families.
  • Having stable housing upon leaving jail or prison decreases a person’s chance of having their probation revoked.

It’s clear from the research; the lack of stable and affordable housing forces families to frequently move and live in unhealthy and crowded environments, increases stress and depression, and can lead to homelessness. Homelessness brings higher rates of infectious diseases; substance use and mental health disorders; exposure to violence; overexposure to cold and rain; and suicide. Studies show that 25% to 50% of people who are homeless have histories of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Public housing admissions screening policies play an important role in creating the conditions for successful reentry of people who were incarcerated. HIP recently released a report called, “The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records” done in partnership with Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC). I worked closely with EBC staff starting in September 2015 to complete this Health Impact Assessment (HIA), as part of my Health & Equity Fellowship with HIP. We studied the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) as a case study to understand the impacts of screening policies on health.

To fully understand OHA’s admission and screening policies, HIP met with two staff from their office. We learned that OHA denials due to a criminal history in the first round of screening have decreased significantly from 12% to 0.8% between 2010 and 2012. Of those who were screened out by OHA due to a criminal history, 75% request an informal hearing, and 64% of those have the decision reversed, allowing them to continue on in the application process. This is a powerful statement for the presentation of mitigating circumstances; at OHA, when people are allowed to tell their story and present supporting documentation, it often results in a reversal. We know that historical policies have created racial inequities in housing and health outcomes. However, data on race and ethnicity is not being recorded or reported, making it impossible in OHA’s case to analyze inequities in screening practices.

While more people with criminal histories are able to move forward in the screening process when OHA allows them to present mitigating evidence, there are additional changes OHA and other public housing authorities can make to improve housing stability for individuals with criminal history:

  • Allow mitigating circumstances to be presented in the initial application for public housing
  • Ensure proper implementation of policies that allow individuals with criminal history to join their family in public housing, and eliminate any practices of evicting existing residents from public housing for allowing a family member returning from prison or jail or denying admission if there is no valid reason for doing so
  • Collect, track, and publicly report the race and ethnicity of applicants and those screened out due to their criminal history to examine the potential impact of screening policies on people of color with a criminal history

Read more of the findings & recommendations in the full report.

Does Organizing Have a Place in Public Health?

Many social movements in the United States have used community organizers to mobilize and strengthen collective power to liberate communities from systems of oppression. Today, the concept of “organizing” is becoming mainstream as we watch Black communities unite to address police brutality and reform the criminal justice system.

Some people relegate “organizing” as an advocacy strategy to push a single-issue, minimizing the historical impact. I consider organizing a strategic process that brings together community to influence institutions, policies, and government through relationship building and education.

The purpose of public health is to protect the health of individuals and communities from harmful conditions in the workplace and the environment where they learn and live. With public health’s unique focus on improving the health of populations, the field has set workplace safety standards, enacted policies to ban smoking indoors, and created nutrition programs in schools. These are all institutional, policy, and government changes; the same kind of changes influenced through community organizing. By organizing and framing issues as a public health matter, our profession has been able to elevate the health of communities.

Historically, communities have relied on their own power to organize against injustices they were experiencing and/or witnessing. The long history of organizing is rooted in changing structural systems to grant civil liberties to those who have been marginalized. Ella Baker, a community organizer during the Civil Rights Movement, was a leader in collective leadership development. Rejecting the need for a charismatic leader and formal hierarchy, Baker preached, “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed…It means facing a system that does not lend its self to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”

My own experience with organizing started while I was a public health student in Seattle, Washington. I worked closely with Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), a coalition organizing to prevent the building of a new youth jail. Organizing around mass incarceration helped me to understand the intersectionality between systems of oppression and health outcomes.

Over the past two years, I’ve been on the ground working with EPIC to bring public health analysis to the No New Youth Jail campaign. EPIC uses ten anti-racist principles from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to transform communities by providing political education to understand their power and hold elected officials accountable. During my time with EPIC, I along with other public health students expressed our strong opposition and challenged city council members to consider their support of the jail as being in direct contradiction with the goals of protecting our youth. We highlighted the health consequences of incarceration; beyond individual health, we talked about community and economic effects like the high costs associated with incarcerating youth, the justice system’s perpetuation of racism and discrimination against Black and brown youth, and incarceration’s inability to solve the underlying problems of communities.

Because of our strong organizing, we garnered support from one city council member, Kshama Sawant who voted “no” to investing over $200 million dollars in building a detention center. The persistent pressure from organizing groups and community did not end even in the face of adversity. Modeling alternatives and changing the narrative of incarceration, a resolution to end youth incarceration was written with the support of EPIC and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism. On September 17, 2015, the City Council’s Public Safety committee voted to end youth incarceration in Seattle and now the measure will go to the city council for approval.

The fight to end youth incarceration is far from over. Patrick McCarthy, CEO of Annie E. Casey Foundation in June 2015, urged states to close down youth prisons. “We need to admit that what we’re doing doesn’t work, and is making the problem worse while costing billions of dollars and ruining thousands of lives,” said McCarthy.

On the ground organizing is pushing elected officials to consider the unfair treatment of Black and brown people from early childhood to adulthood in school, employment, housing, criminal justice system, and other sectors. Public health has a unique opportunity to use anti-racist community organizing principles to frame issues to radically transform the living conditions and opportunities for communities.