Moving on: Homelessness and leaving prison

This month we’ve written a further article for Inside Time ‘Through the Gate’ section which provides information on homelessness and leaving prison.

People leaving prison are often at high risk of homelessness. You may have been homeless before entering prison but you could find that your criminal record will be a further barrier to finding the right sort of accommodation upon release. If you don’t qualify for housing from a local authority then the delay in receiving the housing element of Universal Credit often means that you’ll be unable to secure accommodation with a private landlord.

However, statistics show that nearly 2 out of every 5 people will need help in finding a place to live when leaving prison, and 3 in 5 say that having somewhere to live is important in stopping them reoffending. With a national shortage of housing stock, most councils have very strict criteria on who is eligible for housing and far too often people leave prison without having a permanent home to go to. Government figures show fewer than half of prisoners released between October 2016 and January 2018 went out to settled accommodation; and there was a 20-fold increase in people sleeping rough.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force in October 2018, has put an obligation on prisons to have a system in place to identify anybody who will be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless well in advance of their release date and to then refer them to their local authority. Many prisons will use the service of outside agencies to do this for them.

Initially, the prison/agency will need to determine which local authority you’ll come under. They’ll do this by establishing where you have a local connection; this could be somewhere that you’ve lived or worked previously or where you have a family association. Being in prison won’t establish you as being resident within the area that the prison is situated.

Once a referral has been made to a local authority, an assessment will be carried out. It’s important to know that not everybody who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless will be entitled to accommodation. However, everybody is entitled to advice from a housing service.

The assessment will take into account details of:

  1. The circumstances that led to you being homeless or threatened with homelessness;
  2. Your housing needs – what accommodation would be suitable for you and anybody that you reside with; and
  3. What support would be necessary for you to be able to retain suitable accommodation.

At the end of the assessment, a housing plan will be put together which sets out any steps you’re required to take for the purposes of securing and retaining suitable accommodation. This might include things like agreeing to get debt advice if, for example, you have rent arrears. The plan will also include details of the things that the council have to do to help you.

If you’re homeless this could include:

  • Helping you get emergency housing such as a hostel;
  • Giving you details of landlords who are willing to accept anybody on benefits;
  • Checking whether you can get help with rental costs;
  • Helping you to find a private rented home – for example by helping you with a deposit or rent in advance.

The council will expect you to follow the steps set out to find accommodation for yourself. The assumption is that you’ll accept accommodation offered to you, unless you have extremely good grounds for refusing. If the council believe that you’ve ‘deliberately and unreasonably refused’ to cooperate with your plan then you’ll be given a ‘warning’ setting out the reasons for the ‘failure to cooperate’ and providing you with details of what will happen if you continue to refuse to follow the steps set out. This could be removing you from the council’s housing list.

The government has said that it is addressing the issue of people being released from prison without accommodation in its rough sleeping strategy, which aims to eliminate all rough sleeping by 2027. However, this is still a long way off and for now, we’d recommend that if you are likely to be homeless upon your release, you make this known to the relevant department in the prison – and to your OM – as soon as possible.

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Debbie Sadler