Breaking the link between crime and homelessness
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Care and Support, Communities, Local Government
Breaking the link between crime and homelessness
By John Weetman, Community Reintegration Manager, Greater Manchester Probation Trust
The link between crime and homelessness has never been in doubt, but the question of how to break that chain remains.
Thankfully, recent research projects and pilot initiatives both at home and abroad can give us – if not the answers – then a new insight into different ways of breaking the cycle.
There is a great deal of evidence that illustrates offenders who are either in unstable accommodation or who are living on the streets are far more likely to re-offend. Not only does it stand to reason: engaging with probation, health services, benefits agencies and the multitude of organisations who provide interventions to help people rehabilitate is far harder if the person has not got a place to call their own. Statistics underline this. Ministry of Justice figures show that offenders who are homeless upon entering prison have a much higher reconviction rate within one year of release, with 79% being reconvicted, compared to 47% of those who had accommodation.
I began as a trainee probation officer in 1987, working across Greater Manchester with a range of offenders during many years. My own experience showed me the importance of good quality housing as a motivating factor and as a platform from which individual’s can rehabilitate and recover.
I took on my current role in 2009 and since then have been committed to looking for ways in which to provide suitable housing for offenders. I am passionate about this role because I can see the enormous benefits that offenders receive from having good quality housing, and see the dramatic impact that this has on their compliance and rehabilitation.
There are a number of worthy schemes operating across Greater Manchester which aim to plug the housing gap. Greater Manchester Probation Trust (GMPT), for example has a dedicated employee who supports high-risk offenders moving on from Approved Premises into the community. It also launched, with partners, the Greater Manchester Offender Project to meet this need. But we all know that the current climate is particularly vicious for the most vulnerable, and there is a shortfall in housing provision. The result of that shortfall is a threat to our community, because homeless offenders are more likely to commit crime and therefore create victims.
Steve Goslyn, Chief Executive of Threshold (an organisation that supports homeless and vulnerable people), and I received funding from the Rhodes Foundation to visit Canada so that we could learn more about a radical project called Housing First that tackles homelessness in a different way. The idea is simple and does exactly what it says: by housing the individual first before attempts are made to address wider issues.
Housing First offers independent housing to homeless people with complex needs. It was launched in the 1990s in New York by Sam Tsemberis. Sam’s firm belief is that “housing solves homelessness” and that even those most damaged from years on the streets and in shelters, with significant mental health and addiction needs, can thrive in a home of their own choice.
The essence of the model is that:
• clients choose where they live, including location and accommodation type
• clients do not have to prove they are ‘housing ready’ by taking part in treatment or being drug or alcohol free
• there is a ‘scattered site’ approach so people live in dispersed settings
• there is a belief in a person’s ability to change
• emphasis is on the client’s relationship with their case worker
• social and community integration is important – providing opportunities to engage in local communities through the provision of meaningful activities.
This runs contrary to the ‘treatment first’ model that exists in the UK, where we look on housing as a scarce resource that has to be earned and make offenders and others jump through several hoops before being deemed suitable for independent housing. Typically an offender released from a long term sentence stays at an Approved Premises before moving to a hostel, and gradually progresses through a system which involves several temporary addresses. Often people drop out and end up on the streets during that process.
Evidence shows that Housing First is not only the best solution, but that it’s also the most humane. A five year study of the Canadian At Home/Chez Soi initiative operating across five cities has recently published an interim report. The initiative was led at a federal level by the Canadian Mental Health Commission of Canada and acknowledges the importance of housing in addressing health needs.
Typically a Housing First service includes staff who source accommodation working alongside a support team who adopt a person-centred approach with their client. The At Home/Chez Soi projects had two models of support service. Intensive case management teams work with individuals with ‘moderate’ needs. Teams are available 12 hours per day with a staff to client ratio of 1:15. Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) provides multi-professional intensive service for people with serious mental health issues. ACT teams are available 24/7 with a staff to client ratio of 1:10. There are parallels with floating support although support was more long term.
The Interim Report findings are that Housing First “significantly improves the lives of people who are homeless and who have mental health needs”. The initiative has been found to be a cost effective solution especially for those who are high service users as it reduced demand and cost on other public sector budgets.
We met clients who were delighted with the changes that having a Housing First flat had made on their ability to recover and thrive in homes and communities of their choice. Many of their stories are told through an excellent collaborative project run by the Canadian Board of Film Making.
Housing First is beginning to take off in a number of European countries including some emerging services closer to home in parts of the UK. These include a pilot project run by Turning Point Scotland, Broadway’s Housing First service for rough sleepers in London, and a new service run by The Wallich in Anglesey.
I believe that Housing First is based not only on excellent principles but provides compelling evidence of positive outcomes. Services in the UK would do well to refresh their support philosophies through reflecting on the Canadian model; if not to adopting a fully-fledged Housing First approach.
At a time of increasing homelessness and cuts in health and social services in the UK, the big questions remain. Will we drift back towards the prevalent homeless shelter system in Canada and North America? Or can we protect existing services and move more towards the cost effective and humane Housing First approach taking root in some areas of Canada and other progressive economies?
These questions are vitally important for all those working with offenders and are why we are committed to raising awareness about Housing First and establishing a project in Greater Manchester.