Camping should be for holiday makers - not for vulnerable women leaving prison hoping to rebuild their lives with their families and communities. Yet earlier this year inspectors revealed that some women were being handed tents and sleeping bags at the prison gates as they had no safe place to go to on release.
This week the Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison published a new report. It found that a chronic shortage of safe and stable housing for women leaving prison is leading to more crime, more victims and greater use of unnecessary and expensive imprisonment.
Six in ten women leaving prison may not have a home to go to on release, and recent prison inspectorate reports suggest that the situation may be getting worse.
Vulnerable women, desperate to secure a safe place to stay, are being deemed intentionally homeless and not in priority need. For some, getting sent back to prison seems like the only solution.
Often women are released to hostels. But pressures around drugs and alcohol and the risk of sexual exploitation can be all too prevalent, making resettlement an even more uphill battle.
Without stable housing, it is harder for women to engage in employment and training, access support services, re-establish contact with children and families, and integrate successfully in the community. Inadequate provision of appropriate and safe accommodation increases the risk of reoffending - at the moment 58% of women released from a short prison sentence (under 12 months) are reconvicted within a year.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into support for ex-offenders. They heard about the complex challenges that women face on release, particularly those with children who are often caught in a catch-22. With only 5% of children whose mother is imprisoned able to stay in their own home, getting suitable accommodation is a priority on release. However, many women are unable to secure family housing until they are reunited with their children, yet they won't be reunited until this is secured.
With fewer women's prisons, women are usually imprisoned further from home than men. This can make it more difficult to maintain the local connection needed for public housing, and harder logistically to liaise with housing providers and support services. For London women the distance and complexity have increased significantly since the closure of HMP Holloway in June this year.
High levels of mental health problems, addictions, abusive and coercive relationships, and the absence of support from partners all exacerbate the challenges women face on release.
Jess, who was helped to find accommodation by Women in Prison's housing support worker, talked about her experience on Woman's Hour. It was a long hard slog and she said she couldn't have done it without a lot of help. Her dedicated support worker Fredi also talked about the battles she has to fight daily to get women into safe, secure housing.
Yet there are simple steps that can be taken to resolve this. People leaving prison should not automatically be regarded as being intentionally homeless--as is the case with some local authorities and housing providers currently.
With many losing their accommodation as a result of imprisonment, women should be provided with more support to sustain their existing tenancies. This should include the extension of housing benefit for up to six months for sentenced prisoners, rather than the current 13 weeks.
Finally, there is an urgent need for more supported accommodation for women leaving prison.
A tent and a sleeping bag isn't the solution to women's housing needs nor does it offer a pathway out of offending.
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