Genesis has been helping ex-offenders to reintegrate into society
For all the positive noises from government, there is a distinct lack of ‘joined up thinking’ when it comes to making the connection between housing and re-offending rates. Paul Golden reports.
Genesis Housing Association
Genesis Housing Association’s Recovery Team helps persistent prolific offenders (PPOs) who are committed to personal recovery and reintegration into society.
The team works in partnership with local authorities and other agencies to provide sheltered housing and support to homeless and previously incarcerated drug users.
Gary Spiers, the Recovery Team leader, attributes the programme’s success to its innovative design that focuses exclusively on the client’s needs. “When our clients get out of jail, they are extremely vulnerable and don’t have anything. The accommodation that Genesis provides is fully furnished and self-contained; they can also choose to be completely detached from other clients that may adversely influence them.
“It is also a requirement that clients relocate to participate in the programme. While this may seem harsh, it actually enables them to break ties with their previous affiliations and haunts that could encourage past habits and relapses,” he said.
Other support provided on the programme includes regular visits and support from recovery workers, assistance with forms and documentation, personal financial advice, and potential involvement in local café and decorating schemes.
Back in October 2010, Housing Minister Grant Shapps and Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt said they would work with voluntary organisations on a new scheme that would help ex-offenders find and maintain a new home in the private rented sector.
Blunt also said his officials would work with councils to improve access to housing advice in prisons and both he and Shapps suggested prisoners could be helped to set aside a proportion of their earnings to use for a deposit on a property after their release. Since then, it appears, there has been little progress.
The cost to society of criminal behaviour is immense. Figures from the Penrose 2011 impact report indicate that the annual cost of recidivism or re-offending in the UK is £11 billion.
Part of the problem is housing. Mervyn Barrett, head of resettlement information at crime reduction charity Nacro, points out that around one in three prisoners does not have permanent accommodation before they reach prison and more than half have experienced housing issues prior to their incarceration.
These problems are often exacerbated upon release. Guidance notes for the system used to measure the risks and needs of the 44,000 people under the supervision of the London Probation Trust (LPT) refer to clear evidence that those of no fixed abode or living in hostels – especially hostels with other offenders – are more likely to offend again, as are those who have many changes of address. It also states that a sudden change of accommodation status can very quickly lead to a significant increase in the likelihood of reconviction.
“Most people working in probation would probably say the lack of stable accommodation is one of the biggest contributing factors when it comes to offending and reoffending,” says Heather Munro, chief executive of the LPT.
Ex-offenders are usually told to present to the local authority housing department on the day of release, but will usually be non-priority or deemed intentionally homeless due to their offending behaviour or failure to maintain a tenancy correctly. However, Paul Mellish, LPT’s housing development manager, says most London boroughs have maintained offender support services and recognise its importance in helping reintegration and community safety.
Vision Housing managing director Annys Darkwa is possibly the most passionate advocate of housing services for ex-offenders and her experiences support the view that access to suitable, sustainable accommodation is a vital step in reducing incidents of recidivism. The re-offending rate for the 600-plus former prisoners housed by her organisation since it was set up in January 2007 is several times lower than the national average.
In some boroughs there is only one hostel that clients without serious support can refer directly to, explains Anthony York, offender services manager Depaul UK. “In these instances they are often refused on the grounds of their risks around other young vulnerable people, but offered no alternatives. It is also increasingly difficult the older they get.”
Another common problem is gang members who want to leave their areas to make a fresh start. “Due to ‘local connection’ conditions for accessing local authority support with housing this can be almost impossible and means we allow vulnerable young people to return to areas which are clearly posing a risk to them,” he continues. “This is being addressed by projects like Safe and Secure and we hope to see an increase in the number of boroughs in London who are engaged with this.”
According to York, cuts to Supporting People – the main funding stream from local authorities for housing related support – has had a major impact on the amount of supported accommodation available, while the Single Room Rate is another concern.
He describes the National Reoffending Action Plan as evidence that the criminal justice system now recognises the link between homelessness and recidivism. “Unfortunately, offenders are going to be a low priority unless they also present with a significant support need, care history or high levels of risk to the community and even these are not always a priority. Funding is stretched to the limit.”
Entitlement to housing benefit stops for all sentenced prisoners expected to be in prison for more than 13 weeks, which means many have very little chance of keeping their tenancy open until the end of their sentence, explains Barrett, who says the Government needs to make access to suitable housing part of its rehabilitation agenda.
Nacro provides advice and information to prisoners before their release date but admits that resettlement teams in prisons are often overstretched and do not always have comprehensive knowledge of accommodation provision in the areas where prisoners are looking for housing. As a result it is not uncommon for a prisoner to be released without having been referred for accommodation by the probation service, Barrett adds.
“Prisoners are often moved or released at short notice, which makes housing support work difficult to plan and deliver,” he explains. “The discharge grant has remained the same since 1997 and according to Citizens Advice is not enough to last a week, yet it is supposed to be enough for 11-18 days (the period of time after which benefit payments will be received).”
The way housing providers and local authorities deal with applications from prisoners can also be inconsistent, he concludes. “Providers may have their own unique application process or refuse to accept applications from prisoners before release. Those that do accept pre-release applications often suspend the application and only action it just before their release, which prevents prisoners from accruing waiting time – and therefore increased priority – on rehousing lists.”
Research published by the Third Sector Research Centre based on a survey of 680 offenders states that local authorities often pose a barrier to prisoner resettlement, despite the intention of local homelessness strategies.
While many prisons now have links with third sector organisations and may even have a dedicated housing advisor, report co-author Dr Rosie Meek from the University of Southampton says stronger relationships with local authorities are vital.
“Housing services in prisons often lack connections with other local authorities and housing providers. While offenders can be moved to prison anywhere in the country, they are only eligible for housing in their home area. Ex-offenders also face problems being allocated housing.
Complex and multiple needs make it harder for support packages to be found. Offenders may be excluded for poor tenancy records, rent arrears or histories of anti-social behaviour and they may struggle to find sustainable private rented accommodation.”