Thursday, 24 July 2014

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

Readers' comments (3)

  • Jono

    I'm trying to think of reasons why the case study is a good news story.

    John is fortunate enough to be housed by the Council. John then commits a crime, is convicted and goes to prison. Therefore I know that John has done something serious enough to go to prison, which indicates he is undeserving of sympathy. Nothing in the article suggests otherwise.

    Instead of the Council being able to make the flat available to someone more virtuous than John, John gets to stay there for free. That seems grossly unjust to me.

    Let's see some meaningful statistics. The hypothesis is that re-offending rate of ex-offenders will be lower when they are housed upon release compared to when they are not housed upon release. A further hypothesis is that ex-offenders living in the same place for two or more years, will have a lower rate of re-offending, than if they move from place to place.

    The statistics given do not allow us to arrive at any firm conclusions. Therefore it is hard to conclude whether this scheme will actually make a difference in economic terms, as was claimed. This is important as the case has to be made to justify the fact that Local Authorities are putting money into the scheme.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Yet another example of why social housing is populated in large by those who dont warrant or deserve it....cheers lefties!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Rosa Hooses

    If John has committed an offence when he was not in his home, and which didn't constitute a breach of his tenancy, then presumably the number of weeks he was sentenced to was seen as an appropriate sentence for his crime. It seems unfair to make his sentence more severe by evicting him as well.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

sign in register

Related

Articles

Resources

  • Changing lives

    18/10/2013

    The Andy Ludlow Awards celebrate the very best homelessness services in London. Simon Brandon reveals this year’s winners

  • Unanswered questions

    26/07/2013

    Private tenants cannot be certain whether article 8 applies in possession cases, says Justin Bates, barrister at Arden Chambers

  • Acting out to tackle domestic abuse

    28/03/2014

    An interactive training course is helping housing professionals in the south west identify and tackle domestic abuse. Lydia Stockdale finds out how

  • Reaching crisis point

    02/05/2014

    Tenants on the verge of eviction are being helped to remain in their homes by a recently formed social enterprise that is saving their landlords significant sums in the process. Daniel Douglas finds out how

  • Home sweet home

    06/06/2014

    Viridian Housing is training its staff to recognise signs of domestic abuse and to support affected tenants. Kate Youde finds out how

IH Subscription