Freedom shouldn’t mean transition into homelessness

In 2018/19, 1,822 homeless applications were recorded as having been from people leaving prison, which represents five per cent of the total. It is likely that this figure does not represent the full scale of the problem, with applicants often unwilling to reveal their background. With discussion around more widespread early release of prisoners across the UK gathering momentum due to the pandemic, Martin Gavin – Homeless Network Scotland’s head of external relations – asks, ‘Could it be the time to break the cycle?’

Leaving prison – particularly after a lengthy sentence – is daunting in normal circumstances, and these are not normal circumstances. When a support provider described having to explain the nature, scale and significance of COVID-19 to a person leaving prison this week, it captured for me how disconnected someone can become inside, and how frightening it must be transitioning in the throes of a pandemic.

COVID-19 is causing real concern in prisons. Both prisoners and prison officers have very sadly died as a result of contracting the virus, and others feel trapped in an environment where self-isolation is near impossible. It’s understandable why early release is one of several measures mentioned in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act. While the power to order early release is now in place, my understanding is there are no immediate plans to use that power; the caveat being, this is a fast-moving train.

Despite no concrete plan to release early, numbers up to 4000 have been circulating. I’ve been told that a more realistic estimate, should this happen at some point in the future, is 200 – 700 prisoners released, made up of people close to finishing their sentence or appropriate prisoners in one of the high-risk groups for COVID-19.

A large-scale release of people without accommodation waiting is potentially a challenge for councils and housing associations but there may be cause for a more positive take. Under the Shore Standards, government makes clear that housing services, as part of wider society, have a key role in ensuring people in the justice system and those leaving it get the support they need to make a new start and ensure better shared outcomes. Surely this is a further opportunity for landlords to show their mettle in this national emergency, as many associations have by identifying empty homes and voids for use as temporary accommodation at very short notice.

I learned this week that the first 72 hours represent the critical window for transforming a person’s chances of a successful transition. This is enough time for a bank account to be set up, people can be taken to appointments in order to avoid missing out on benefits, and arrangements put in place to discourage unhelpful contact with people or places linked to previous offending. Settled, safe accommodation sits at the heart of this process.

Second only to a roof, evidence points to the value of solid, well-resourced support services being in place straight away, able to react from the moment someone is released, being crucial to successful transition. More than 1500 prisoners leave jail each month, many from remand or short sentences, so organisations that support them are not panicking at the prospect of an additional cohort.

The good news is that strong partnerships providing this support exist already, are often long-established and where possible the process starts before someone is released.

Everything about programmes such as New Routes mentoring support for people leaving prison, managed by Wise Group and delivered by local partners, is aimed at reducing reoffending and with great success. Currently, not being able to meet prisoners routinely, New Routes providers are distributing ‘liberation packs’ that include a basic mobile phone, bus timetables and other practical items to help people negotiate the outside world, along with advice on benefits and accommodation plus telephone and email support. This can be enough to set someone on the right path.

At HMP Low Moss the prisoner support pathway starts inside jail, and is designed to offer holistic and person-centred support, from sentencing through to pre-release, on-release and after-release community support, which is co-ordinated by a Pathway Practitioner. The partnership covers all the bases, and includes Turning Point Scotland and Action for Children, among others.

In Edinburgh, Your Home is a partnership between Sacro, Four Square, Link Living, Streetwork and Y-People, that provides help to maximise income, benefits, improve budgeting skills and reduce debt as well as accessing Housing Options to secure social or other housing. The service has 35 staff and supported more than 900 people last year.

Prisoners are not routinely being released early, and the guidance suggests that other steps would be taken before this was even considered.

In the meantime, landlords could do worse than build those bridges and joint protocols talked about in the Shore Standards. Enhance existing relationships and seek out new collaboration, if not for this emergency, then for what will come after to disrupt the pattern of homelessness for people leaving prison.

Through effective joint working and information sharing, support for people making the transition from prison into proper housing could be – should be – straightforward. The community justice sector is based on strong partnerships. Associations can be confident that sector remains robust and prepared for any new developments if the services I spoke to this week are typical.

Article orginally published in Scottish Housing News on 16 April 2020.