"In prison the housing options are very limited, we all know there’s a housing crisis and it is even more difficult to house ex-prisoners"
Release from prison is a very worrying time for people. So many times I’ve heard “If I don’t get housing I’m just going to go back to where I started, I’m not going to have any money for a while, I’m going to be on the streets, I’m going to be back with lots of drugs."
I joined Southdown 10 years ago working in the Signpost service in West Sussex, which subsequently became MyKey and when that contract came to an end I moved to Housing Brokerage.
I arrive at the prison at around 8.15am. I have two bags – one I leave in my car or in my locker as there are many things you can’t take into the prison, a mobile phone for example, laptops, chewing gum, etc. I keep my two bags really separate so I don’t make a mistake and risk prosecution – that was advice given to me really early on which has really stuck with me.
I show my key-fob to the prison staff and they let me through the locked doors to the lockers. I use my fingerprint to access my keys which are fitted with a tracker system so prison staff know where I am at all times.
The Resettlement Centre is quite big and it’s all open plan. Also housed there are the Job Centre, Community Careers and Probation and sometimes Sussex Pathways do some mentoring with prisoners.
I book people in for appointments in advance, I have to use the prison system to book them in, so people I am seeing that morning will be pre-booked during their ‘free flow’ time. ‘Free flow’ is from 8.30 and it means that prisoners that are on my list can move from their cells to the Resettlement Centre. So prisoners will start to arrive from 8.30 and that means that they will all arrive at the same time. They will sit in the middle of the centre and wait for their appointment. That causes difficulties because of the open plan, there isn’t a lot of privacy there and I try to be as discreet as I can.
When people arrive I will either do an assessment or I’ll be following up on their housing options. In prison the housing options are very limited, we all know there’s a housing crisis and it is even more difficult to house ex-prisoners. For example, the prisoners have very little communication with the outside world, any phone numbers they call have to be checked and approved – so if they suddenly get a letter from Housing they can’t immediately phone them, but I can facilitate that.
Ideally I would start working with a service user 12 weeks before their release date following probations basic custody screening. However due to various circumstances, such as the resettlement centre being closed due to prison officer staff shortages, this can delay referrals being made to us and there is often much less time than 12 weeks to resolve the situation – sometimes as little as 2-4 weeks. That really puts the pressure on.
If I’m dealing with a tenancy sustainment issue, I will see people who are on remand and talk about the accommodation they want to save. When people come into prison and they have been claiming benefits, their benefits stop automatically – they are eligible for continued payments and housing benefit for a year – but they have to notify the benefits agencies. So often I’m picking up things in a bit of a crisis situation for people. People come in and haven’t realised that actually their tenancy has been put at risk because they are in prison and they haven’t told anybody.
So those appointments are really quite vital – I can phone Housing Benefit and get the information they need so I can actually do something quite quickly for those people and the Housing Officer can say that the property is safe so they know where they are – they are the straightforward ones!
People looking for accommodation will work with me in the prison and then will work with my colleagues from Housing Brokerage in the community on release. The idea is that the support is seamless.
I work closely with the Probation Officers, it is mutually beneficial to do so. In the prison they are Resettlement Officers so they see clients 3 times during their last 12 weeks and if they’ve picked up quite early that there is a housing need, then they would refer into our service and then it would be allocated to me.
I do a lot of expectation management around housing with clients, I have to be honest and tell them how difficult the situation is but I will do what I can. In my experience they are all extremely grateful that somebody is seeing them, hearing their issues and being prepared to work with them.
A very important part of my work is building good relationships with clients, this helps because, housing aside, they will need to engage with professionals on the outside and if they have a good experience early on that is likely to happen, which is going to be critical to their future stability.
Release from prison is a very worrying time for people. So many times I’ve heard “If I don’t get housing I’m just going to go back to where I started, I’m not going to have any money for a while, I’m going to be on the streets, I’m going to be back with lots of drugs”. Some of the clients are very mentally unwell and I’ve had a few people that have been sectioned at the point of release.
What is great is when multi-agency work results in us managing to put together a package for somebody. Also working with the drug and alcohol team we have arranged for people to access rehab on release.
Being able to tell somebody they definitely have somewhere to go on release is so reassuring. People are frightened about release, especially this time of year, if they think they are going to end up on the streets, they say ‘I just can’t do it again’. We all work within the limitations of the system, it’s just it’s much harder if you have an offending background.
The thing I’m most proud of in my role is always working with respect for the individual, regardless of the reason for their incarceration. I always treat people in a friendly and normal, non-judgemental, way. There are a lot of crises in prison and if it’s a person’s first time it can be very frightening. A bit of humanity at that point goes a long way. People are very grateful for that, they are grateful for someone listening to them – and doing what they say they’re going to do. The need is huge and to make even a little bit of a difference is something that I, and Southdown, can be very proud of.
Working with the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company (KSS CRC), the Housing Brokerage Service supports people using probation services to secure and sustain suitable accommodation. The service is part of KSS CRC’s My Solution Rehabilitation Programme (MSRP) which provides a range of rehabilitation services to help support a crime free future.