My little sister, Angie Testerman, and I once got into a thunderous, profanity-filled, wall-rattling argument in a well-appointed restroom of a funeral home – at our mother’s funeral.
Arguments – big, loud, ugly ones – have defined our relationship since she first started stringing words together. We are like opposing magnets. However, now that Angie and I are living close to each other for the first time in decades, we are attempting to form a loving sisterly relationship.
Angie, wanting to provide more opportunities for her son, JB’eon, and herself, recently moved from our West Virginia hometown to the Charlotte area. She decided to move before securing her own apartment so that JB’eon could start first grade in a new school. They are living with her best friend.
Despite Charlotte being thick with bright, shiny apartment complexes, Angie is having a hard time finding an apartment that she feels secure living in with her young son.
This is not because she can’t afford it or because she has a basement-dwelling credit score. No, she is unable to secure one of our regions’s ubiquitous apartments because six years ago she was convicted of a felony.
According the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) my sister is one of the nearly 100 million U.S. adults that has a criminal record of some kind. Having a criminal record can make it very difficult to rent an apartment because many leasing management companies, private landlords and public housing projects have policies against or screening processes that complicate renting to those with convictions.
My sister didn’t just wake up one day and decide that she was going to break a law. The path that led to her conviction was complicated. It was a scary, dangerous road, one that she was much too young to be on by herself. Yet, while I was away at college, scared to even glance back, and our parents’ drug addiction was reaching a frenzied stage, Angie navigated her route the best way that she could.
This is not offered as an excuse for the crime she committed. I was devastated when I found out. She broke a law and she was punished accordingly, but she, like anyone else, deserves to be seen for more than one horrible, mistake-riddled decision.
Her arrest and conviction also served as a turning point for her life.
Since then she has dissolved a tumultuous marriage, gained full custody of her son and become gainfully employed. Furthermore, during that time she started saving money to move away from our hometown, one that is battling both an economic depression and an opioid epidemic.
Angie was not naive about the potential difficulties of securing an apartment, but the search has still been frustrating.
A few days ago when we were searching for apartments on the Internet, my normally too-tough-for-her-own-good sister became overwhelmed when the online potential renter questionnaires asked about felony convictions and only offered a “yes or no” option.
“It’s just so frustrating, Sosh,” she said. “I know I messed up. It just seems like the system sets you up to keep failing. Is my debt to society ever going to be paid in full?”
In 2016, Brooklyn federal-judge Frederic Block shocked the legal community when he opted to give a drug smuggler probation instead of years in prison. Block’s rationale was that the “collateral consequences” that come with being a convicted felon served as punishment enough. Block’s 42-page opinion cited how having a conviction on one’s record often makes it difficult to secure housing, public assistance and a good education.
Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney, a Charlotte-area prison abolitionist and President/Founder of ExodusFoundation.org, an organization that wants to stop the flow of African-Americans to prison, talked with me about the “revolving debt” former prisoners pay.
She noted that although stable housing has been proven as a key to reducing recidivism, it is often extremely difficult for those with “blemishes on their records” to secure affordable housing.
A report about the recidivism rates of North Carolina Department of Correction prisoners who were released to Mecklenburg County from 2009-2011 showed that 35 percent of offenders were arrested again within one year of their release. Recidivism rates increased to 47 percent after two years.
“We have a housing desert in Charlotte,” McClenney said. “It is counter intuitive for communities to proclaim that they want want to provide affordable housing, but then refuse that housing to those who need it most.”
As of now, Angie and her son are still living with her best friend as she continues to look for an apartment and prepares to send JB’eon to a new school.
For those like Angie in need of assistance securing housing or job opportunities despite criminal records, here are some Charlotte organizations that may be able to help:
Charlotte Reentry: Charlotte Reentry is a website dedicated to helping those who have been in jail or prison connect with resources to help them reconnect and thrive in society.
ExodusFoundation.org: The ExodusFoundation.org wants to stop the flow of African-Americans to prison by providing one-on-one culturally competent mentorships to individuals returning from jail/or prison. Although the organization focuses on African-Americans, they will attempt to assist any of those in need.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, Inc. (The Housing Partnership): The Housing Partnership is a non-profit that helps low- and moderate-income families find stable, affordable homes to rent and buy.
Supportive Housing Communities (SRC): The SRC states that it has one mission: “Put a permanent end to homelessness and to do so in a way that creates dignity, hope and community.” The organization helps secure permanent and stable housing to the homeless, those suffering from disabilities, including mental health and substance abuse.
Photos: Sosha Lewis