LONG BEACH, Calif. — On a warm spring morning, a lone Los Angeles County probation officer stood across from a parking lot lined with cars full of homeless families. His goal was to meet with men who had recently left prison, some with no place to call home.
Several county Probation Department colleagues had been scheduled to join the officer in the parking lot. As part of the agency’s efforts to reach former inmates struggling to find housing, officers staff vans that fan out across the county and serve as mobile resources centers. But at the last minute, officials said, the probation officers had been rerouted to work in understaffed county residential facilities for juvenile offenders.
Undeterred, the officer got to work. Alberto Perez, 46, a recently released prisoner who had spent most of his adult life cycling in and out of California prisons, walked up to him and asked for help getting a pair of construction boots. Perez’s most recent conviction was for illegal gun possession. The officer cut to the chase.
“Where are you sleeping?” the officer asked. Perez said he’d been couch surfing. “You trying to put me in the shelter?” Perez asked. “I don’t have anything else to offer,” the officer replied. Perez immediately refused and walked away.
The officer said he wasn’t authorized to give an interview, but Perez explained his decision. He said the shelter, where he was required to obey strict rules regarding his comings and goings, mirrored life in prison. “A shelter is worse than a jail,” he said. “Why do I have to be in a controlled, prisonlike environment to get assistance? That’s what I don’t understand.”
California, unlike other states with large prison populations, releases inmates without requiring them to have places to live. Correctional officials in other states with large prison populations, such as New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois, mandate that parolees have housing when they leave prison. If they don’t, they are required to live in halfway houses or, in some states, shelters. Those who refuse can end up back behind bars.
Since 2019, at least 36,400 inmates have been released from California state prisons without fixed addresses. A quarter of them — roughly 8,900 people — were sent to Los Angeles County, according to an NBC News analysis of data obtained through public records requests.
The number of homeless former prisoners arriving in Los Angeles County nearly doubled from 1,621 in 2019 to 2,945 in 2020, when officials accelerated releases in response to the pandemic. Another 2,371 were released last year, according to the data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Los Angeles County probation officers, who are tasked with monitoring low-level felons released from prison, are already struggling with dwindling staffing, enormous caseloads and being assaulted on the job.
Los Angeles County probation officials denied that officers were diverted to a juvenile facility and said the van didn’t arrive in Long Beach because the driver had a family emergency. But current officers and supervisors who asked not to be named said the county is struggling to fulfill its mandate to “meet clients where they are.” The vans are just one part of an increasingly broken system that sends thousands of felons to the streets with limited support and monitoring, according to interviews with parole and probation officers, former prison officials and inmates, and re-entry advocates.
“The manpower and resources aren’t there,” said Ralph Diaz, who ran California’s prison system from September 2018 to October 2020. “I don’t see how it’s going to improve without some major intervention.”
‘We knew this was going to be a disaster’
Because of multiple factors, including the pandemic, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County has continued to rise in recent years — topping more than 75,000, according to the latest tally by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — despite major efforts to stem the problem.
At the same time, the proportion of homeless people who spent time in prison has risen. Last year, 1 in 5 homeless people in Los Angeles County reported being on parole. Former prison officials blamed the increases on a round of criminal justice reforms that went into effect five years ago and gave many inmates early release dates.
Then the pandemic hit, and prisons pushed people out even faster. “We knew this was going to be a disaster,” said Douglas Eckenrod, the former deputy director of parole for the California prison system.
It’s unclear how the rise in homeless parolees has affected public safety in the city of Los Angeles. Since 2018, the city police department has required officers to document whether suspects were homeless. For seven months, NBC News requested the number of homeless parolees arrested in violent crimes from the Los Angeles Police Department. Officials failed to provide it.
But being homeless does increase the odds of becoming a victim of a violent offense.
Twenty-four percent of homicide victims in the city of Los Angeles last year were homeless, even though the unhoused make up only 1% of the city’s population, NBC Los Angeles reported in January. Out of 381 homicide victims, 92 were homeless.
“When you are living amongst homeless people, whether you’re a felon or not, you are living amongst a high-risk and statistically more violent group of individuals,” Eckenrod said. “It becomes a petri dish of violence.”
“Many times the homeless population is victimizing itself,” he added. “They are both the perpetrator and the victims.”
State and federal officials have spent more than $12 billion since 2018 to combat homelessness in California, with limited results.
California, which has 12% of the U.S. population, is home to nearly one-third of the nation’s homeless population, with numbers on the rise, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. Last year, 17% of people on parole said they were homeless, according to data obtained from the California prison system.
Gabriella Aguilera, a regional parole administrator with the state corrections department, said the agency is doing the best it can.
“It is not illegal to be homeless,” Aguilera said. “We do have formerly incarcerated offenders who want to be homeless and don’t want any programs that we offer. And in order to not violate any type of due process or their rights, we ultimately allow that.”
Homeless people recently released from prison have particularly long odds of finding housing. Some public housing programs bar people convicted of certain felonies. The options are particularly limited for formerly incarcerated men who struggle with drug addiction and mental health issues, advocates say.
Asked this winter how many homeless offenders are under its purview, the Los Angeles County Probation Department, under its previous chief, said it could provide only approximate figures. In June, after a new chief took over, officials said that on average there were 1,192 homeless offenders on their roster every month. And 35% of them were in housing programs. A department spokesman said he couldn’t explain why the department originally released approximate numbers.
Housing availability was even lower for people who applied through a separate county program known as the bridge housing program. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said in May that 184 beds were designated for program participants countywide. The beds are open from three months to a year.
Michael Bornman, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s captain whose duties included trying to find shelter for people leaving jail, said it was a constant struggle. “We would have maybe 1,000 inmates released, and we’d be lucky to place three,” Bornman said.
Former inmates are often left on their own to figure out how to apply for housing. But many struggle with illiteracy, how to use a smartphone or how to get online.
“The biggest problem is that there is no continuum of care,” said Mara Taylor, the founder of Going Out by Going In, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group of hundreds of former inmates who help recently released felons navigate life on the outside.
Terri Hardy, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said prisons offer an array of classes, from basic reading to college level, as well as job training to help prepare inmates to find employment when they are released. The agency said it had spent more than $84 million as of last year on housing and support programs for people on parole, which can last from six to 15 months.
“While we understand how important it is to deal with this initial homeless issue right now, we are definitely working on ways to work on this issue in a long-term, more systemic way,” Hardy said. “We have extended the runway within the institutions. We are training them and giving them more ground and preparing them while they are incarcerated.”
‘No one gives a f--- about prisoners’
California’s prison system was overhauled in 2011. At the time, about 156,000 inmates were squeezed into the state’s prisons, double the legal capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowded conditions were “toxic,” “exceptional” and unconstitutional. The court ordered the state to release inmates as quickly as possible.
Among other changes, legislators created a two-tier parole system that shifted inmates with nonviolent felonies to county supervision. Counties across the state have responded to the influx differently.
The San Diego County Probation Department contracts with a nonprofit group that picks up released prisoners outside prison gates and takes them to a transitional center where they have access to housing for 90 days. In Sacramento, probation officers take some transient former inmates to a city-run tent encampment that’s staffed around the clock and has bathrooms.
But in Los Angeles County, probation officers say they are at a breaking point. The agency is flooded with dozens of lawsuits, as reported by “NBC Nightly News,” featuring hundreds of former juvenile offenders who claim probation officers sexually abused them in youth facilities. There’s a severe staffing shortage, records show, and there’s a spate of officers being attacked on the job.
Probation officers in Los Angeles County are expanding efforts to connect with soon-to-be-released inmates on video calls to, among other things, see whether they have places to live. If they don’t, officers direct them to a nonprofit group, HealthRIGHT 360, that tries to find them transitional housing. Officials said they also plan to add five more outreach vans by 2025.
“We’re trying to get them all the support that we can,” said Jennifer Kaufman, a bureau chief with the Los Angeles County Probation Department. “Unless there’s a violent felony that’s committed, and that is when we put them back in custody.”
County probation officials said they offer better housing than many homeless shelters and have a maximum of three people sharing rooms. Former prisoners are also required to attend classes about addiction and life skills. Officials acknowledged that it’s a challenge to persuade recently released inmates to sign up voluntarily.
“They don’t want to, necessarily, have to follow a curfew. They don’t, necessarily, want to have to follow house rules,” said Jennifer Kranzer, a program manager with HealthRIGHT360. “With transitional housing, there is a lot more structure, because the goal for us is to get some sort of permanency that they can maintain on their own.”
After Donald Erving was released from prison in 2020, a parole officer directed him to Safe Parking LA, a program that allows homeless people to sleep in cars parked in garages with security guards.
Erving, 49, had spent 15 years in prison for armed robbery and carjacking. He said he was homeless during his two years on parole, which ended in March 2022.
“I would start yelling at God. I had every intention of doing right,” Erving said. “You had two choices: Go back to prison for good and commit something heinous enough so you don’t have to worry about society ever again, or take yourself out.”
Erving eventually got a job helping run security at a marijuana dispensary. He rents a room for $1,000 a month.
“No one gives a f--- about prisoners,” Erving said.
This spring, near the city of Compton, workers from HealthRIGHT360 sat beside a white probation van and handed out Irish Spring soap and other toiletries. Regino “Reggie” Torres, the president of the Los Angeles probation supervisors union, acknowledged the deep problems and said officers wished they could do more.
“If they don’t get more help, they commit crimes,” Torres said.
Jose Ruiz, 27, who had been released from prison four weeks earlier, went to the van looking for help. Ruiz, the father of three, had been convicted of stealing and stripping cars and needed a stable place to stay. His mother had kicked him out because of his methamphetamine addiction.
“If you don’t have nowhere to go, you go back to the streets,” Ruiz said.
Three months later, Ruiz is off drugs and back at his mother’s house. He even landed a job working at a chicken restaurant, but he doesn’t credit probation’s outreach with his turnaround.
“The system isn’t helping me. I am doing everything on my own,” he said.