NYC Council Joint Committee Oversight Hearing on Housing and Reentry

Testimony to NYC Council Joint Committee Oversight Hearing on Housing and Reentry

Good afternoon, my name is Rev. Kevin VanHook and I serve as the Minister of Justice, Advocacy, and Change at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this critical hearing to address our city’s reentry system and the impact it’s having on thousands of New Yorkers seeking a second chance after incarceration.

On behalf of the twelve hundred families that make up The Riverside Church, we’re proud to be a part of a coalition of faith leaders, activists, and advocates called Faith Communities for Just Reentry—fighting to support our friends, family, and neighbors returning home from Rikers Island.

Many years ago, William Sloane Coffin would often mount the pulpit at Riverside and say, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” We know that this is a time in history when the world desperately needs both truth-tellers and those who are willing to respond to a crisis with love.

As we gather in this moment of crisis, there are some hard truths about our current reentry system that we cannot afford to leave unaddressed.

The truth is that: Each year, nearly twenty-thousand New Yorkers are caught in the cycle of homelessness and incarceration due to holes in our current reentry system, and four in every five individuals affected by this are people of color.

The truth is that: During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been released without identification, critical medication, or coronavirus testing and, as many of us know, accessing housing and healthcare is nearly impossible without government identification for justice-involved individuals.

The truth is that: involvement in the City’s criminal justice system should not put someone on the path to homelessness or poverty in the middle of a pandemic and we, as people of faith, must respond with love and demand that our current system does more to support those who are on the margins.

Therefore, today we are calling on our city’s leadership to:

Provide safety for justice-involved individuals during the COVID pandemic by providing identification cards for individuals upon release, effectively transitioning people’s healthcare from Rikers to their community, and ensuring everyone has access to COVID testing during the discharge process.

We are calling on our city’s leadership to: Unlock the housing supply for justice-involved individuals and their families by eliminating the NYCHA permanent exclusion policy and combatting landlord discrimination by increasing both the supply and value of housing vouchers.

We are calling on you to: Develop a coordinated reentry system accountable to the well-being of each person.

As we say in our tradition, “We who believe in [true] cannot rest until it comes.” Again, thank you for this opportunity and we look forward to working alongside you to build a more just future for all New Yorkers.