All people returning from prison are at risk of homelessness, but women face specific complex issues. Ruth Legge from our Offender Services, explains how St Mungo’s works with women while they are in prison, and after release, to help them find long term accommodation.
You may have seen recent news that the Government has shelved plans for five new community prisons for women. These were to be residential centres where women are given access to training and therapy to help them break out of cycles of re-offending.
We were disappointed to see this, as we believe our work with women offenders, when they are in prison and after they are released, offers a strong model for support. St Mungo’s has been working in women’s prison for many years and we think we have a good understanding of, and insight, into their specific needs.
In our experience, women leaving prison face many complex issues around homelessness. Offending behaviour can be linked to poor mental health, drug and/or alcohol use, partner violence, other sexual violence, loss of child custody, childhood and adult trauma and gang affiliation, to name just a few. On top of that, there is a lack of suitable housing where women can feel safe, secure and start to rebuild their lives.
A Catch-22 situation
Women are often the primary care givers for their children prior to being jailed. Once a woman’s children have been removed from her care, she becomes at greater risk of homelessness. The family home might be taken away from her, as she is no longer seen as needing so many rooms. The council might also no longer consider her a ‘priority need’ to be rehoused if the children are not returned to her care upon release.
Many women in prison find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ scenario. They are only granted custody of their children if they have suitable accommodation in place after they are released. But more often than not the local authority won’t help to provide any accommodation until they already have custody. In these cases we work alongside social services, statutory authorities and Reunite programmes to support women in finding accommodation, with or without their children.
Domestic violence is also a big issue. Some women in custody have tenancies when they come to prison but can’t return because a violent partner is still residing in the property.
Many women flee their homes in order to escape from domestic violence. Often they are too scared to contact the police. The council may then deem them “intentionally homeless” and isn’t under any obligation to help them find accommodation.
We see a lot of women who were rough sleeping prior to custody, even though they still hold a tenancy. They often tell us they feel safer on the street than returning to live with a violent partner. Some women feel they have no choice but to return to violent partners. They tell us that, because they are coming from prison, they feel they won’t be believed or provided with appropriate safe accommodation.
We work with domestic violence teams and help refer women to refuges if they cannot return to their homes. We also support them to appeal claims that they are intentionally homeless.
Some women we work with are involved in prostitution. Because they are active at night, but sleep during the day, if they are staying in a hostel they are at risk of being evicted if the hostel says they aren’t spending enough nights there.
These rooms are sometimes the only place a woman has to call her own and feel safe in, so we try to liaise with hostels to keep bed spaces open. There is almost always a link between involvement in prostitution and substance use. Women who are still using drugs and alcohol are at particular risk of homelessness as they are usually not able to sustain independent accommodation, nor would the local authority deem them a priority need for accommodation.
The Government has several new and forthcoming strategies on issues such as female offending, rough sleeping and domestic abuse. St Mungo’s believes there must be clear and consistent links between them all in order to achieve a difference in the lives of the women we support.