Friday, 27 March 2015

Sentenced to life without a home

Imprisonment and homelessness are among the more traumatic experiences that can befall an individual. All too often, the two are inextricably linked.

Chaotic lifestyles stemming from a lack of stable accommodation vastly increase the likelihood of offending behaviour. And, in many cases, when someone is sent to prison, their family’s housing is jeopardised too.

Shelter Scotland’s prison advice project is seeking to disrupt this grim cycle. The initiative, operating in Aberdeen, Inverness and Perth prisons, gives inmates access to impartial housing advice surgeries and trains prison staff to give basic advice. The next step is to extend the service to their families.

So how does the project work? Shelter Scotland first established a proposal to offer housing advice to prisoners in 2000. As project
manager Martin Wilkie-McFarlane explains, locations were agreed upon where the project could deliver maximum benefit. North and north east Scotland are notable for high imprisonment and reconviction rates and a relative lack of prisoner support.

‘There tends to be a range of agencies working across the central belt including Glasgow and Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘There are a couple of organisations providing advice around a range of issues including housing. But outside those areas there are sometimes gaps, so it’s important for Shelter, as a specialist housing charity, to be able to deliver a service.’

Crime prevention

Over the past 11 years, Shelter has invested around £110,000 per year in that service, with cash coming from the Scottish Government and local authorities, in conjunction with match funding from the charity’s own core resources. Mr Wilkie-McFarlane views this as money well spent.

‘Obviously, we’re aiming to prevent homelessness, but also recognise that housing helps prevent reoffending,’ he points out. ‘Keeping people out of prison and reducing that burden on the public purse [£44,447 per prison place annually] - we see economic arguments for projects such as our own that help people keep a settled lifestyle.’

With 44 per cent of prisoners in Scotland reconvicted within two years of release and the cost to the nation of reoffending estimated at £1 billion, the scope for improvement is obvious.

And for individuals emerging from a lengthy sentence - 5 per cent of applicants cite discharge from an institution as the reason they are homeless - the process of finding accommodation can be daunting.

The prison advice project also supports all prisoners (those serving long-term and short-term sentences, on remand and on home detention curfew) 40 per cent of whom already have either social or private tenancies. If simply left, these may accrue rent arrears or result in an individual’s possessions being disposed of via abandonment proceedings.

‘The circumstances dictate the kind of advice people need,’ says Mr Wilkie-McFarlane. ‘A prisoner on remand or a short-term sentence may have a home, so we’ll be working with them to ensure that either they maintain their tenancy, or responsibly terminate it.’

Home rescue

As well as dealing directly with inmates, the project trains Scottish Prison Service staff in housing issues and homelessness legislation so they can offer basic advice and know when to make referrals.

It also links with organisations like community safety charity Sacro and drug and alcohol support charity Phoenix Futures and with local authorities such as Perth and Kinross, the council’s homelessness services manager Claire Mailer explains.

‘We’ve worked closely with Shelter Scotland and partnered local authorities in implementing the protocol [which was introduced in 2009],’ she says. ‘It has led to a significant reduction in the number of emergency homeless presentations on the date of release, and enabled us to prepare and identify temporary accommodation in advance.’

In Perth and Kinross there were 75 homeless applications from prisoners leaving custody in 2008/09. In 2009/10 the number dropped to 63 applications and in 2010/11 there were 43 applications made by prisoners who had all received advice from Shelter Scotland while in prison.
‘In addition, the protocol has enabled tenancies to be held for the duration of short-term sentences, contributing to a recent reduction in repeat homelessness,’ Ms Mailer adds.

Shelter Scotland aims to build on these successes by establishing more formal arrangements for working with prisoners’ families, frequently left in the lurch when a tenant is sentenced. An open day held in Perth in February saw a dozen families attend for advice relating to housing benefit, rent arrears and transfer of tenancies and Mr Wilkie-McFarlane sees the service progressing from here.

‘We are planning another open day for Aberdeen prison in the autumn and are developing a plan for housing advice surgeries in the families’ centres attached to prisons,’ he reveals. ‘Families are already able to access other support within the centres - we want to provide a service too so they can call upon us for the expert housing advice they need.’

Case study: John’s story

John* was serving a short custodial sentence. While in prison his council flat was unoccupied, but he did not want to lose or terminate his tenancy.
After starting his sentence, John received expert advice from one of the prison advice project officers. He was helped through the process of applying for housing benefit, available for up to 13 weeks for convicted prisoners who are not expected to be in prison for longer than that period and plan on returning home after completing their sentence.

However, a few weeks later, while still in prison, John was advised by one of his relatives that eviction proceedings had begun because he had not paid his rent while in prison.

With the help of prison officers and the prison advice project - who had retained a copy of the original housing benefit form and a letter the local authority had sent in reply to it - John was able to prove his successful application for housing benefit and eviction proceedings were stopped. As a result, he was able to return to his flat after completing his sentence.

*Not his real name

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