In the midst of a third national lockdown, prison leavers are left homeless

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We can’t stand idly by as prison leavers are left homeless. In the midst of a third national lockdown, with COVID cases skyrocketing and temperatures plummeting, the issue of rough sleeping has shot to the top of the news agenda. The Government’s ‘Everyone In’ Scheme – implemented in response to the first wave of the pandemic – was a real success story, housing over 5,000 rough sleepers as the virus ripped through the UK.

Given the situation we now find ourselves in, enveloped as we are by a highly transmissible new strain of COVID-19, the re-implementation of the scheme is paramount for protecting those sleeping rough. It is to the Government’s credit that it has recognised this and, once again, asked councils in England to ensure all rough sleepers have somewhere to stay. Prison leavers are particularly vulnerable to being plunged into homelessness and make up a large proportion of the UK’s rough sleeping population. 53% of rough sleepers have been in prison or had some form of contact with the criminal justice system, a figure that the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has referenced publicly. Compounding this figure is the fact that two-thirds of homeless prison leavers end up re-offending within a year. This clearly has significant knock-on effects. Whether through the communities that are damaged by crime, the cost to every prison leaver unable to put in place the foundations needed to move on with their lives or, financially, the £18 billion hit to the Exchequer every, single year – which is the cost of re-offending to the Government, according to its own statistics. The estimated, average fiscal cost of an individual that sleeps rough is £12,260.

Experience counts

At Nacro, with over 50 years’ experience of delivering criminal justice services, both in prison and in the community, we are all too aware of the significant barriers facing prison leavers as they attempt to secure accommodation upon release. Between May and August of last year, the Ministry of Justice’s spent £8.5 million on the Conditional Release Date Accommodation Scheme (couple with the setting up of 7 Homelessness Prevention Taskforces), which promised a room in a hotel or B&B for prison leavers who weren’t able to find any means of accommodation. It was a welcome, and well-targeted funding scheme, that was restarted in October to cater for the impact of the pandemic’s second wave. That is why we are now calling on the Government to restart the scheme for a third time, recognising the extra difficulties faced by prison leavers in obtaining suitable accommodation.

The Government is right to be thinking about longer-term solutions to the issue of homelessness more broadly but, given the desperate circumstances, short-term funding schemes are necessary to ensure no one goes without accommodation during these harsh winter months. Projecting ahead, more permanent solutions will have to be found to ensure that all prison leavers have somewhere to go upon release. Permanent provision of accommodation is imperative, and there remains genuine concern among probation providers that, whenever society does return to normal, emergency housing provision for prison leavers will disappear.

Housing sector pressure

The Chancellor did commit to funding housing for prison leavers back in November’s Spending Review, with further details on the size and nature of the pot, expected imminently. It remains to be seen what impact the state of the public finances, and general political priorities, will have on this commitment as we look ahead to March’s Budget. Worryingly, pressure on the housing sector, and the private rental sector more specifically, is immense and growing. According to research by Citizens Advice, half a million tenants in the UK are behind with their rent. The Government’s eviction ban is set to end this Monday, pending review, which means that eviction notices can be sent out from this date. This has the potential to push many out of their homes and onto the street. Without an extension to the ban, we could see a substantial rise in the amount of people forced to sleep rough.

All vulnerable cohorts need to be housed, but it is our hope that prison leavers – in the face of this unprecedented strain – aren’t left behind and left on the streets.

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