Abigail Stevens is a senior Economic Development major at Eastern University, who has recently been granted a Research Prize from the Center for Public Justice because of her research on housing for returning citizens in Philadelphia. The grant is offered specifically to students from Christian universities and provides funding for the recipients to continue their research and develop policies or safety net programs in their areas. This award will allow Stevens to continue to pursue her research under the Center for Public Justice with the help of funding from the organization.
For Stevens though, her work goes much deeper than just a grant. Stevens began her research when she was writing a paper for a class, and quickly, she found herself completely immersed in the topic.
“Our paper was only supposed to be 15 pages long,” says Stevens. “But I ended up turning in around 40 pages. With a lot of sources, graphics, I just got really into it, but yeah. 40 pages.”
From there, her interest continued to grow. Stevens began doing research on her own time, examining the systems and laws on housing. She found that many of the policies at work in housing are discriminatory towards people who have been in the prison system, and in some cases can make it nearly impossible for a returning citizen to avoid homelessness. According to Stevens, people who are homeless have an 11% higher chance of being sent to prison. This pattern only worsens recidivism rates, sending troves of returning citizens back to prison.
“I had this idea that I really wanted to tackle the re-entry system so that when people are coming out of prison, they have people that are actually
It is not all numbers and statistics, though. Stevens herself has a personal connection to the issue. Stevens admits that while her research is reliable and true, she is biased because of her childhood, as she was one of the 2.2 million children[a1] who had of incarcerated parents in America.
“I grew up with my dad in prison…so I definitely have personally experienced the effects of incarceration and what that does to families and communities and of course it was really hard for my family…so that was my personal connection to it. I’m definitely biased when I’m researching this, and you know it’s personal for me but also a lot of people have experienced this and it’s not just my niche story, you know? It definitely keeps me going just recognizing that like, this is a big issue that affects a lot of people” Stevens said.
Stevens believes though, that through policy change and community-based solutions, returning citizens can be given a better chance not only at housing, but at success in general. Stevens’ research is funded by Philadelphia’s Housing and Urban Development, or H.U.D.
“I’m kinda looking at that social safety net system, and saying these are the policy recommendations I have for H.U.D., to be better at improving the re-entry system, but then even if they do all of my recommendations, it’s not going to be enough to actually address the problem, so I’m talking about community-based strategies to actually help them so for example, what can a church do, what can a business do, what can individuals do, and what should they be doing to help embrace these people” Stevens said.
Motivated by her faith, her data and her belief in social reform, Stevens is ready to see Americans alter their perspective on returning citizens by encouraging them to embrace them instead of ostracizing them. For Stevens, it seems clear that the first people to do this would be Christians.
“You know, Jesus talks a lot about visiting people in prison. So you know, Christians are the first ones to have a prison pen-pal or to evangelize to prisoners, but what I find is that as soon as those people are released from prison, churches turn their back on them, faith-based organizations don’t want anything to do with them. So we want to evangelize to them, but we don’t want to hold their hand or walk with them, which can be really discouraging as a Christian, but I’m also hopeful” Stevens said.