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Released Prisoners: A Forgotten Driver of Homelessness – Mike Trace

CEO of The Forward Trust, Mike Trace.
CEO of The Forward Trust, Mike Trace.

As a Sector Partner of Homewards, The Forward Trust is delighted to have joined the Homewards Partnership – an unprecedented network of individuals, organisations and businesses convened by Prince William and The Royal Foundation to work together towards the mission of finding a way to end homelessness.

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% 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 amongst 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.

Seen 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 before imprisonment, or newly homeless as a result of imprisonment, most released prisoners (52%) do not have settled accommodation to return to on the day of their release. Furthermore, there is 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 do not kick in for 5-9 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.

Currently 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 is 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 team work 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 them with 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 have achieved a 90% tenancy sustainment rate at 6 months, and 77% 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. Vision Housing offers a model that Homewards can apply as part of its mission in the 6 areas.

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

We are so excited to be part of Homewards, bringing our own work and insights to this cross-sector effort to demonstrate that together, it is possible to end homelessness – making it rare, brief and unrepeated.

Mike Trace is the CEO of The Forward Trust. The Forward Trust is one of Homewards’ 16 Sector Partners.