Coronavirus exacerbates offender housing problems

Steve Matthews of Shelter guest posts on housing problems for people on probation.

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Lack of housing can severely jeopardise rehabilitation

This is a guest post by Steve Matthews, Head of Professional Services at Shelter.

Practical responses in the time of Covid-19

Shelter have been delivering advice and support services for people subject to probation supervision since 2005. In this time, we have seen a consistent lack of housing options available for those with an offending background.

This problem has only increased in the last few years and is reaching a peak during the Covid-19 pandemic when so many people’s homes are at risk and the social housing so desperately needed is still missing. As the recent HMIP inspection into accommodation noted, a lack of housing can severely jeopardise an individual’s chance at rehabilitation, so this is a central concern for everyone working in the sector.

Shelter’s latest campaign for increased investment in good housing will help over a million people currently on social housing waiting lists in England if successful. However, this is not an overnight fix. For the people we work with, there’s no time to wait for things to change.

Immediate solutions

Our services have always needed to respond quickly and creatively to the challenges people at the sharp end of the housing crisis face. This has been pushed even further during the Covid-19 pandemic, when services have been required to close or scale back, and the usual resources available to people are either stripped bare or unavailable.

During this time, an invaluable resource has been Shelter’s Hardship Fund. This fund is possible because of donations and is available to anyone using our services who is in immediate hardship with no access to other funds to relieve this. There’s a wide range of things the Fund can be used for, Luis and Jon are two people we’ve accessed the Fund to help during the pandemic.

In June, Luis had just left custody and needed to make a claim for Universal Credit, complete online tenancy training and conduct private rented property services. He couldn’t do any of this because the library and other community venues he would normally access the internet from were closed due to Covid-19.

We accessed the Hardship Fund to help Luis purchase a tablet device so he could complete these tasks. He’s also set up an email address so he can keep in touch with services more easily too. This has meant Luis found a suitable property and increased his independence and digital skills.

Jon needed help moving into a new home after leaving Approved Premises. He had found a new private tenancy, with the upfront costs provided by the Covid-19 Probation Fund, but the property was unfurnished. Having recently left custody and moved areas, Jon had no furniture of his own and limited income to afford anything.

To help Jon we applied to the Local Authority scheme for essential furniture, but there was a delay due the pandemic in when this would arrive. As Jon needed to move into his new home immediately, we accessed the Hardship Fund to buy essentials to be delivered the next day so he would be comfortable until the Local Authority furniture arrived. By easing his transition into a new area and home, Jon felt more able to settle and engage with his Offender Manager’s rehabilitation plans.

More help is needed

We were able to help these people and strive to do the same for everyone we work with, but more support is needed across the sector. As the HMIP thematic inspection noted, 35% of individuals were released from prison with no settled accommodation to go to between April – September 2019. There is clear evidence which shows that obtaining and retaining settled accommodation is a key factor in successful rehabilitation, but the housing options for people subject to probation supervision are minimal.

To work towards improving this, we support the recommendations made in HMIP’s inspection, but would like to see this taken further through:

  • Strengthening and solidifying the government’s ambition to end rough sleeping through practical, tangible changes to policies. This includes changes to allocations policies of both councils and social housing providers which often exclude people with past convictions in a “one size fits all” policy.
  • Increasing scrutiny on Duty to Refer. We have seen plenty of evidence of good practice across local authorities, including Housing Officers visiting individuals in custody to develop Personal Housing Plans, but this needs to be replicated across all authorities.
  • An enhanced Relief Duty for people subject to probation supervision, as due to complexities often present in their situations, they frequently need longer than 56 days to find suitable accommodation.

 

In addition to this, for many people the upfront costs of securing housing are an insurmountable barrier. Whilst the recent increase in the Subsistence Grant available to those who have been released early under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme is welcome, Shelter believe a further step is required.

Universal Credit needs to be paid from the day of release for people leaving custody, as opposed to the current advance payment people can apply for which often leads to delays and knock-on impacts on individuals’ ability to set up housing benefit claims, secure housing and make that home comfortable. This is currently where Shelter’s Hardship Fund often fills a gap, but we would like to see the day where we are no longer needed in this way.

We believe after Covid-19 it is possible for us to improve the housing options and life chances of everyone, including those with past convictions, and it will take cross-sector working, commitment and imagination to achieve this.

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