Why Shelter's work with prisons is more important than ever

Why Shelter's work with prisons is more important than ever

Supporting people in contact with the criminal justice system (CJS) to find and retain settled accommodation after release is the key to successful rehabilitation and preventing re-offending.

However, as all service providers currently working within the CJS know, this has become even more challenging during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak – not least because access to crucial services needed to achieve positive outcomes has become increasingly difficult.

The provision of accommodation advice and support for people subject to probation supervision is fundamental to Shelter’s strategic aim of supporting those in housing crisis. We have been working with the justice sector since 2005, and our knowledge of housing legislation and practice allows us to provide guidance to service users and criminal justice professionals alike.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our teams have been working hard to support people released from custody, and those struggling in the community, during these unusual times. Many find themselves in more challenging positions than ever, with services relied upon to find accommodation, access benefits or even just to use a computer to get online due to offices and libraries being closed.

How we use Shelter’s Hardship Fund

Shelter operates a Hardship Fund, designed to provide relief when the people we work with are in difficult circumstances and unable to access funding from other sources. During the last few months, this has been an invaluable resource, as our service users struggle to access other services, funds and benefits.

Luis* is one of the people we have helped recently. He needed to make a claim for Universal Credit, complete online tenancy training and conduct private rented property searches. He was unable to do this, as he would normally access the internet from community services and his local library, but these were all closed due to COVID-19. Through our Hardship Fund, we helped Luis purchase a tablet device. This meant he could search for a flat, maximise his income and set up an email address so he was able to more easily communicate with the services he was in touch with.

Access to financial support is key

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 believes a further step needs to be taken so that Universal Credit is paid from the day of release for people leaving custody. The current advance payment that people can apply for can lead to a delay that affects individuals’ ability to set up a housing benefit claim. Access to financial support is key, not only to enable people to access accommodation, but also to ensure they have funds for food and other essentials, as well as the items that turn a house into a home.

We also worked with Jon* in July to help him successfully move into a new home. He was leaving Approved Premises and moving into a private rented tenancy, the up-front costs for which came from the COVID-19 Probation fund. However, the property was unfurnished, and having recently left custody and moved into a new area, Jon had no furniture of his own.

To help Jon, we applied to the Local Authority scheme for essential furniture. However, they were not able to deliver in the short timeframe. To fill the gap, we accessed the Shelter Hardship Fund for essentials that would make it possible for Jon to move into his new home. There were no other funds available for this emergency assistance and Jon had no money available from his basic rate of Universal Credit.

We secured next-day delivery of the emergency goods Jon needed to move into his flat so he would be comfortable. The Local Authority items were then delivered over subsequent weeks. By easing his transition to a new area, Jon felt more positive about his move, more able to engage with his Offender Manager’s rehabilitation efforts and has been able to move away from those he found to be bad influences.

Many face additional barriers

Whilst Jon was able to secure a private rented flat with our support, for many people the upfront cost of this are an insurmountable barrier. On top of the financial burden, the lack of any suitable housing for people subject to probation supervision is exacerbated by the lack of social housing. This is often even further out of reach for the people we work with, as they are frequently excluded from accessing social housing due, to previous convictions.

We believe housing providers should be required to ask only for information relating to unspent convictions. Housing providers should also be encouraged to explore through discussion with probation staff how an individual’s offence(s) might impact on the risk and their ability to manage a tenancy, rather than simply excluding people based on any offending history.

More housing knowledge is needed

HMIP’s recent thematic inspection on accommodation highlighted a lack of housing knowledge within the probation service, and no statutory responsibility to house those they supervise. There is currently only a duty to refer to local authorities who do hold responsibility for housing and homelessness. This makes it difficult for probation staff to know what is within their remit when helping the people they supervise.

There is a need to build understanding within Probation of the accommodation services available to them, appointing dedicated accommodation leads within Probation would support this. Shelter’s National Homelessness Advice Service also aims to help build awareness of processes and barriers within the system and works with both local authority and HMPPS staff to do this.

Given the extremely challenging environment that exists and the dire lack of suitable housing available, it is more important than ever to improve the housing options and life chances of everyone – including those with past convictions. And it will take cross-sector working, commitment and sharing best practice in order to achieve this.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

If you’d like to find out more about our work with the Criminal Justice System, please email ceri_desmond@shelter.org.uk.