Systems Change: Housing First and the Criminal Justice System – Lindsay Mesa

What does it take to change?

One thing I know about working to end homelessness and institutionalization is that it requires a particular dance of steadfast, unwavering commitment and the ability to pivot on a dime that I can’t imagine is quite matched in other lines of work.

So, I’ve had a lot of time to think about change, why it matters, and how it happens.  

I was never a runner. I never played team sports in school and didn’t consider myself particularly athletic. For years I believed I couldn’t run; well-meaning doctors told me my particular set of chronic conditions would be aggravated by the repetitive movement.

I started running in my early twenties after I lost my dad to suicide. My dad was a runner and I thought maybe in the experience I could find a way to connect to him. At first, it did not work. For a long time, really, I was breathless, pushing too hard, too fast. I had to slow down. It felt infuriating to see a future state but to have to accept how long it would take to get there. But eventually, painstakingly, step by aching step, and only in hindsight, I realized running was a part of who I was. Even when I was forced to take a break, I knew I’d return to it.  

So, what does it take to change a system? 

In 2010, Pathways Vermont partnered with the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) to pilot a Housing First program for people exiting incarceration in our state. It made sense. People who have been incarcerated are far more likely to experience homelessness than people who have not been.1 In turn, people experiencing chronic homelessness are often caught in what we call the “institutional circuit,” cycling between our most expensive social systems including psychiatric institutionalization, emergency care, and incarceration.  

In Vermont, it costs $260 a day for a bed in prison. Our Housing First program – for both services and housing subsidy – runs around $53 a day. When we piloted this program, we had a growing percentage of people in our communities being held in prison past their release date for lack of housing: people who had served their time but lacked the resources to return to their communities. This partnership seemed like the right thing to do. 

We asked: what would it look like to in-reach? To connect with people while incarcerated, rather than waiting for outreach to happen once they likely entered homelessness. Could we adapt Housing First to meet the needs of folks involved with Corrections? 

We started with a small pilot program: 10 people, one community. We found independent apartments for folks in our communities and we leased them ourselves, subletting to our program participants. This gave landlords some added confidence, and it allowed our tenants to navigate returning to the community knowing their housing would remain secure should they temporarily need to be away. We built a community-based support team using a modified Assertive Community Treatment model. We saw people frequently and worked to meet them where they were holistically and comprehensively.  

Like anything, it was beautiful and messy and we learned a lot. But overall, people came out of incarceration and they stayed out – and they stayed housed.   

One of the most confounding and interesting parts of the project was our funder and partner: Department of Corrections. At the outset, it seemed like an unlikely match. Pathways and Housing First are so deeply entrenched in the values of individual choice and autonomy we often run the risk of being viewed as too permissive, or ‘giving something, asking nothing.’ DOC? Well, pretty much the opposite. 

But for the program to work it required that we work closely together – probation and parole officers, caseworkers in facilities – they became our partners.  We met frequently: joining our participants at their meetings with their probation officers, holding interagency team meetings, providing cross training about how each entity operates and our respective best practices. 

And slowly, step by aching step, things began to change.  

For our part, we quickly realized that to support people to live in community well we had to think broadly about what that asks of us. There are social contracts and rules to living in community for ALL of us. For folks working with the DOC and under conditions of release, there are undoubtedly more rules, though framing it in that way for folks we served made it more tangible.  

As we worked to honor personal autonomy, restore dignity, and reduce shame, we encouraged the DOC to learn more about harm reduction and to rethink their understanding of risk and safety. Through our conversations and our shared experiences – we talked endlessly about how to best support each other. We grew our muscles for tolerating discomfort and envisioned differently what it looks like to stick with people in a truly restorative way. 

In 2021, the DOC engaged in justice reinvestment work to restructure elements of community supervision and support, with the following vision: All Vermonters under supervision have the housing resources and relationships they need to thrive and keep themselves and communities safe. Through our partnership with the DOC, we have seen their values shift in real time. With their financial support, we expanded our program to nine counties across our state and now serve over 100 individuals in independent apartments across the state at any given time. Now, the main resource for people exiting incarceration in our state is Housing First.  

It is Pathways’ belief that a strong investment in people – both interpersonally and systemically – reduces their reliance on expensive social systems and supports a fuller community for all. Our ultimate hope is for massive change: communities without carceral institutions. For now, through our ever-evolving relationship with the DOC, we are continuing to incrementally change the system from within. Through the power of human connection and mutual relationships between Pathways, the DOC, and the individuals we support, we are able to build genuine, dynamic relationships that are transformative for all of us.

One step at a time

About the Author

Lindsay Mesa (she/her) currently serves as the Assistant Director at Pathways Vermont.  She has nearly 15 years of experience working with people exiting homelessness including 10 years directing the first rural Housing First implementation at Pathways Vermont. Prior to that, Lindsay worked with people experiencing homelessness in New York City in shelters and soup kitchens throughout the city. Lindsay holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from New York University. Her foundational lived experiences include coming off psychiatric drugs, losing a parent to suicide, and parenting a child with a disability.

Related articles

  • FEANTSA Forum 2024 – Vienna

    From June 17th to 18th, stakeholders combating homelessness throughout Europe convened in Vienna for the 2024 FEANTSA Forum. Hosted by FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with...

    Check it out here


  • Transforming Homelessness Solutions in Spain: Community-Centred Approaches, Social Policy Transformation, and Deinstitutionalisation

    The opportunity presented by the Spanish Recovery, Transformation and Resilience fund in the framework of the Next Generation EU Funds included among its lever policies an initiative called a...

    Check it out here


  • WHAT ABOUT ME? – The first Housing First pilot project in Croatia

    Croatia is a nation of property owners, with a very small social rental sector in major cities and without a national requirement to provide general social housing. According to...

    Check it out here