Out onto the streets

Out onto streets prisoners & homelessness

Released prisoners are a significant – and often forgotten – driver of homelessness, says Mike Trace.

We all know that the causes of homelessness are complex, and affect different groups in different ways.

At The Forward Trust, we do a lot of our work in prisons. Through this, we see how short periods of imprisonment contribute significant numbers to the overall totals of people becoming and remaining homeless. For example, in London, an estimated 30 per cent of all rough sleepers have spent some time in prison.

Ours is not the most fashionable cause. When most people think of prisoners, they have a picture of dangerous violent criminals who the rest of us need to be protected from. There are some of these, and where they have committed serious offences, they are rightly given long prison sentences. However, the majority of the 140,000 people who pass through our prisons each year are serving short sentences for relatively minor offences – for example theft, drug offences, non-payment of fines. This proportion is particularly high among women prisoners.

We cannot forget or condone the offences people have committed, and often the courts impose a prison sentence as a last resort in response to repeated offending, but these people are not the monsters of popular imagination. They are people who are struggling in life – with poverty, alienation, addiction and mental health problems. All too often, their behaviour is rooted in difficult childhoods involving abuse, neglect and trauma. All too often custodial sentences are applied because of the lack of community provision available to judges at sentencing.

prisoners accommodationSeen through this lens, a short period of imprisonment rarely acts a deterrent, doesn’t allow any positive rehabilitation efforts, and actually adds to the causes of the offending by increasing the prisoner’s isolation from friends and family, jobs, and accommodation.

Looking at accommodation specifically, many short-sentence prisoners lose whatever stable accommodation they had on entry into prison. This can be as a result of relationship break down, or cancellation of tenancies due to non-compliance or non-payment of rent (of course, once in prison tenants can no longer earn money or receive benefits to continue rent payments).

Whether already homeless or newly homeless as a result of imprisonment, most released prisoners (52 per cent) do not have settled accommodation to return to on the day of their release. Furthermore, there’s little they can do in this situation to find a roof over their head – the discharge grant of £76 does not cover accommodation costs, and universal credit payments don’t kick in for between five and nine weeks after release. The most common options are to find a homeless hostel, or stay with friends – both options that can leave people at risk of being victims, or perpetrators, of crime.

There are housing and homelessness services targeted at released prisoners, and the government has increased funds in recent years to the prison and probation services to reduce the numbers of prisoners released without accommodation. The main government initiative is the Community Accommodation Scheme, which last year offered 12 weeks accommodation to 2,300 released prisoners – in hostels and shared houses.

There are also housing advice and placement services for prisoners, provided through the probation service. However, if we are to make a real dent in the tens of thousands of released prisoners becoming homeless every year, we need to provide them with access to the private rental market. Forward Trust does this through our ‘Vision Housing’ scheme.

support housing homelessnessCurrently small scale, and limited to specific areas of South London and Surrey, Vision Housing is an example of a ‘Housing First’ approach – provide those who need housing with a place to live, and work with them to address any problems that threaten their continued tenancy. It’s much easier to provide support around addiction, mental health and relationships when someone has a safe and comfortable place to sleep each night.

Our Vision Housing teamwork with private landlords who would not normally think of letting their properties to a prisoner. We de-risk it for them – working with the prisoner to prepare them for the responsibilities of being a tenant, and providing support and mentoring throughout the tenancy to avert or respond to any problems that may arise. Despite the many challenges facing our Vision Housing clients, they’ve achieved a 90 per cent tenancy sustainment rate at six months, and 77 per cent at 12 months.

A recent study by the prison inspectorate revealed that two-thirds of people without settled accommodation on release were later returned to custody, while around one-third of those with settled accommodation were not. Efforts to get released prisoners into secure accommodation on the day of release therefore make sense for their rehabilitation, and for reducing crime rates.

Ending homelessness will not always be easy and difficult decisions lie ahead, but we know that there are practical ways to stop the routes to homelessness. That’s why what happens after prison is key to long term solutions.

Mike TraceMike Trace is CEO at the Forward Trust

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