Matthew Charles, Kim Kardashian shine light on ex-prisoner housing struggles - Southern Business Review

Breaking

Facebook Follow

Monday, March 25, 2019

Matthew Charles, Kim Kardashian shine light on ex-prisoner housing struggles


Finding affordable housing in Nashville is hard enough. 


But it's an especially daunting, sometimes impossible, task for those who have been incarcerated.


When criminal justice reform advocate and ex-inmate Matthew Charles, whose supporters include President Donald Trump and reality TV star Kim Kardashian-West, was released in January, his Nashville apartment applications were repeatedly denied because he had spent two decades behind bars. 


Like him, thousands of Tennessee prisoners released each year face nearly insurmountable odds to find a secure, affordable place to live. Often, their complicated individual life stories are boiled down to a lack of credit or a criminal rap sheet — sometimes decades old. 




A formerly incarcerated person is nearly ten times more likely to experience homelessness than someone without a criminal history, according to an analysis of the National Former Prisoner Survey. 


"After you've been incarcerated, if you don't have a parent or family member to stay with, then your other options are to go to a homeless shelter or to just stay out on the streets," Charles said. "You can try to find a boarding house but most of them are already crowded based on people having mental illnesses or addictions." 


The Fair Housing Act protects people from various kinds of discrimination from housing providers. But it does not necessarily help ex-prisoners.


In 2016, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance about the issue. The ruling instructed property managers to consider each application carefully and on an individual basis because former African American inmates are more likely to be denied homes — opening the door to discrimination lawsuits. 


Still, Charles' housing denials came despite that federal advisory and outspoken support from Trump in the State of the Union address in February. 


"In 1996, at the age of 30, Matthew was sentenced to 35 years for selling drugs and related offenses," Trump said in the address. "Over the next two decades he completed more than 30 Bible studies (correspondence courses), became a law clerk, and mentored many of his fellow inmates. Now Matthew is the very first person to be released under the First Step Act. Welcome home." 


Last week, Charles signed a lease on a home after staying on a friend's couch for months.


But this opportunity only developed after a March article in The Tennessean about his struggle to find housing drew attention and support from Kardashian-West.


“This is an overwhelmingly prevalent issue,” said Bettie Kirkland, executive director of Project Return, which works to help former prisoners successfully re-enter society. "The issue of housing a person (who has been incarcerated) trying to get an apartment is a daily issue that we see." 


A small group of landlords is working with Project Return to help house former Tennessee inmates. But it's not nearly enough to meet demand, and the organization is now buying homes to rent to former prisoners to prevent them from living on the streets. 




'I tried to better myself'


In 1996, Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling 216 grams of crack cocaine. He had a prior history of assault and kidnapping, and was deemed a "career criminal."


But shortly after being locked up, he began working to turn his life around.


"I made a personal decision to accept the lord Jesus Christ," he said. "I took whatever courses were available just to stay busy and to stay away from some of the things that were taking place at the institutions. I was just bettering myself so that, when the day came, I could hit the ground running."


In 2010, the mandatory sentencing guidelines that imposed his 35-year sentence were reversed under the Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Barack Obama.


As a result, Charles, who had been a model prisoner, was granted early release in 2016.


He set out building the new life for himself that he had diligently worked toward during his two decades behind bars. 


With the help of Project Return, he graduated from halfway and boarding houses to his own apartment. He got a car and a job.


He joined a church, volunteered in the community, and developed a romantic relationship. 


Then, government officials said that he shouldn't have been released because of his decades-old offenses prior to the drug conviction.


"I had my apartment, my vehicle, a good job, a church family," Charles said. "But I was sent back. So I lost all those things. It was, like, heart-wrenching."


He returned to prison in May 2018. 


But by then he had drawn supporters, including prominent criminal justice attorney Shon Hopwood, who took his case pro bono. 


Soon after, Kardashian-West tweeted a news article about it, saying: "This man has completely rehabilitated himself. So sad."


She introduced his case to Trump, who signed the First Step Act in December 2018. The law reinstituted Charles' 2016 reduced sentence, and he became the first prisoner released under the act the following month. 


He will return to the White House on April 1 for a meeting with other ex-inmates freed because of the First Step Act. 




Should landlords house felons? 


After his release, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice reform nonprofit, hired Charles as an advocate.


Since then, he has been traveling the country telling his story and advocating for sentencing reform, voting rights for some felons and other issues. 


"There are thousands of people who deserve second chances, who have extensive sentences to the point I believe they were severely over-sentenced," Charles said. "They have no recourse and no voice. So whenever I do these speaking engagements, I have them in mind."


Despite his high profile and seeming protection from housing discrimination based on HUD's 2016 advisory, landlords summarily rejected his apartment applications. 


On March 15, Kardashian-West tweeted about his ongoing struggle. She asked Nashville landlords willing to rent from him to contact Charles' friend. She also offered to pay his rent for several years. 


The tweet drew national media attention and he received more than 400 responses, including several legitimate housing offers. 


"A burden has been lifted by Kim Kardashian's offer," Charles said. "I wouldn't have been able to do this had she not stood up for me in a major way after me running into these nonsensical barriers."


For landlords, the decision to rent a property to an ex-inmate often comes with the fear that they could harm their other residents. 


But Tennessee Fair Housing Council Executive Director Kathy Tenison Trawick said federal law suggests that property managers should carefully weigh each applicant's story — or they could face a federal discrimination claim from her office. 


"When you're talking about a crime that happened 15 to 20 years ago, you have to look at the bigger picture," Tenison Trawick said. "As long as you have a current job and you can show current stability, you should be considered on the same level as anyone else. It's not one-size-fits-all."


Freeman Webb, a large Nashville property management company, said its software program filters applications from ex-inmates based on the severity of their crimes and length of time since their convictions. Arrests alone should never be considered against applicants, officials said. 


"We carefully review any positive results obtained from this initial screening process and determine whether there was an actual conviction and whether the criminal history indicates that the applicant may pose a legitimate threat," the company said, in a written statement. 


The company offered to help house Charles.


But a large-scale solution for housing ex-inmates hasn't been presented. 


"We know that it's fundamental that everybody that's released from prison have a place to work and a place to stay," Charles said. "Those are just basic things. This person has returned to society. He's paying taxes. He's paid his debt. Now does he have a right to a place to live so that he can be a productive member of society or are you going to force him to be homeless?"


Doing stories that make our community better takes times and resources. A Tennessean subscription gives you unlimited access to stories that make a difference in your life and the lives of those around you. You also get the ability to tap into news from the USA TODAY Network's 109 local sites.


Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.