The Newark Housing Authority has joined forces with four other public housing agencies in Delaware to pilot a program aimed at helping recently released inmates transition back into the community.
The family re-entry program will give people recently released from incarceration an opportunity to reunite with family members living in public housing for up to two years. During the program, participants must comply with the terms of any applicable community supervision, and will be offered various support services such as help securing employment, continuing their education and obtaining benefits. After participants successfully complete the program, they can request to be added to their family’s lease permanently.
“The key is making sure that they have stable housing so that they will be able to function and transition into society,” NHA Executive Director Marene Jordan said. “Without housing, the chances of you becoming a repeat offender or picking up another charge is far greater.”
Under current NHA policy, those on probation or with a conviction in the past five years are automatically denied entry, meaning that people released from prison couldn’t go live with a spouse, parent, sibling, etc. in public housing while trying to get back on their feet.
“That put a lot of strain on a lot of people that were trying to find housing and reconnect with family members,” Jordan said. “They were just not able to do that under the old policy.”
Program participants and their family members will be required to sign contracts binding them to strict guidelines. Those who violate the guidelines or commit another crime would be required to leave the residence.
To start, the program will apply only to properties that are owned by public housing authorities, which for NHA includes the 36-unit senior community in George Read Village and a few smaller properties scattered around the city. Officials hope to expand the program to Section 8 housing and privately owned facilities, like Alder Creek on Cleveland Avenue. However, participation is voluntary for private landlords.
The re-entry program is a collaboration between the Delaware Department of Correction, the Delaware Center for Justice and the state’s five public housing agencies – Delaware State Housing Authority, Dover Housing Authority, Wilmington Housing Authority, New Castle County Housing Authority and Newark Housing Authority.
“Giving individuals who are returning to their community the opportunity to live with family members can provide the strong support they need in the right environment to chart a new positive path,” Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said in a prepared statement. “Delaware’s Family Reentry Pilot Program applies best practices from New York and other places which have demonstrated that programs like this can work effectively while supporting community safety.”
NHA’s participation has drawn the ire of Mayor Jerry Clifton, who criticized the agency for how it went about joining the program.
Clifton said that while he “fully supports” re-entry programs and efforts to reduce recidivism, he accused NHA of approving the program in secret and leaving the public and Newark’s government in the dark.
“The public has had no time and no ability to weigh in with any opinions on it,” Clifton said. “It was literally done by, in my opinion, secret society without any transparency or public involvement for the city or for its residents. I find that extremely disconcerting.”
Clifton said neither he nor City Manager Tom Coleman were aware of NHA’s plan until July 7 – two days before the agency signed a memorandum of understanding to join the program – when an NHA representative called the city asking for a letter of support.
“It’s a travesty and an affront to the people of Newark that their own government wasn’t even aware of it,” Clifton said.
He called on NHA to delay joining the initiative and commit to an open, transparent process to get input from Newark residents and the city government.
“We need a process to occur that is totally, absolutely transparent, and that has not occurred,” Clifton said.
Earlier this year, both the Wilmington and New Castle County housing authorities released formal public notices regarding their proposed involvement in the program. Wilmington’s notice established a public comment period and advertised a public hearing in April.
NHA’s website, however, has no mention of the program.
Jordan said NHA had planned to have a public hearing in April, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. The agency is now planning a virtual public hearing for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Details can be found at newarkhousingauthority.net.
She emphasized that NHA is still early in the process. The next steps are to create a working committee of the different agencies involved and establish bylaws.
“I’m sorry if he felt that he was blindsided or the city wasn’t aware of it, but again, it’s been on our agenda for at least a year now, and we’ve been discussing it at our meetings,” Jordan said.
NHA is governed by a seven-member board of directors – four of whom are appointed by Clifton and city council and three of whom are appointed by the governor.
Meeting minutes show the board discussed the re-entry program last fall and hinted there would be a forthcoming public comment period. However, until late last week, the agency had not published a meeting agenda or meeting minutes on its website since November. [After the Newark Post raised questions about the availability of the documents, NHA posted six months’ worth online.]
Jordan said that even though the agendas were not posted online, she sends a copy to the city each month and hangs up a copy at the NHA’s Main Street headquarters.
“I received board approval to go ahead and sign the MOU. We knew that we still had to do the public hearing, but it was postponed,” Jordan said. “Once we complete the public hearing process, we’ll be able to filter and address some of those concerns, but there was no ill intent here.”