Freedom and a tent: the sorry cycle of prison and homelessness

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Freedom and a tent: the sorry cycle of prison and homelessness

‘This is the best I can do.’ These were the words of my probation officer as she produced a tent and a sleeping bag at the end of my fourth prison sentence. This article is by Shaun and first appeared on the Longford Trust blog (here). Shaun is a Longford scholar, an ex-prisoner who is studying for a university degree with  the trust’s support.

Another taste of freedom after prison. To say I was gobsmacked is no exaggeration. I’d already accepted the harsh reality that once I left Her Majesty’s Pleasure I had nowhere to call home. But for a brief moment, I’d entertained the hope of three nights in a B& B while I looked for accommodation.

Sadly, those hopes were dashed. Camping it was.  Suddenly I typified the media horror stories – the ones any reasonable person doesn’t want to believe.  My make-do home was a tent.

Let me take you back to how this whole sorry cycle of prison and homelessness began for me.

Losing my home
On my nineteenth birthday in October 2007 I found myself starting a two year prison sentence, the first of five visits to one of Her Majesty’s finest establishments.

Whilst on remand, waiting to be sentenced for that first time, I was told my rent would be paid but would continue only for a few months. After that point, I would lose my accommodation as the landlord sought possession of the property. Unless of course I had some money stashed away. I didn’t.

Realising I was due to become homeless, I sought help from the resettlement team to try and get re-housed on release. I was told to sit back and wait. There was nothing they could do for me until I reached the last three months of custody. Great, so now I was on edge worrying with no idea where I’d live after prison!

I held onto the hope that, at worst, I’d end up in a hostel. As a ‘high-risk offender’ (according to probation assessment) surely they’d prioritise me having somewhere to live – an address at least. If not somewhere to call ‘home’, somewhere the authorities could check up on me.

Sure enough, three months from my first release, the resettlement team helped me fill out multiple application forms for different hostels/housing providers. ‘What are the chances of me actually securing accommodation?’ I asked. Unlikely, came the answer, with so many applicants and limited spaces available. Almost impossible to get it in an area you are familiar with.

Alarmed, I mentioned I was classed as a high-risk offender. ‘Does that increase my chances of securing accommodation?’ I asked. ‘You shouldn’t be released homeless. However, I’ve seen it happen frequently over the past few years,’ she replied.

I’d better cross my fingers and hope for the best, I thought. Fast forward to my release date after that first sentence. You might expect, despite the worries about where I’d sleep, I’d be excited, eager to get going and get away from prison. I wasn’t, not at all. All I could think about was how I’d cope with life on the streets.

After one more fruitless attempt to get help on the same day I got out, my thoughts turned to crime. What kind of crime could I commit to land me a custodial sentence, something that wasn’t too heavy? That would get me a bed to sleep in, a roof over my head, just to get me through. May be next time inside I’d get lucky, get help with somewhere proper to live.

So, I’d be on the lookout for a ‘move’ (a burglary). I preferred a non-dwelling to a house. My reasoning was that no one needed to get hurt. I’d be in and out in the early hours and the business could claim the losses on insurance. Back then, that’s how I justified my behaviour. Of course, as I’ve come to realise, it didn’t matter if it was a business, who got hit or somebody’s home. There was always a victim.

With nowhere to live though, I didn’t really care about life. With a mere £46 discharge grant, my thoughts were, that if an opportunity arose to earn some money, illegally, I would almost certainly take it.

And so, the only other way I felt able to cope with being homeless, was alcohol. It enabled me to forget and escape reality. It gave me that ‘Dutch-courage’. Without it, I’d never have the nerve to put a shop window through and clear it out sober. Drugs and alcohol made crime possible for me. Sorry to say, drinking and drug-taking became the norm every time I was released with nowhere to go.

I was going around in circles.

Prison….

released to homelessness….

drinking for confidence to ‘do a move’…

back to prison

 My last sentence proved pivotal. February 2017, and the familiar three month mark before release had come round again. Walking around the yard speaking to fellow prisoners, all of us were experiencing the same thing time after time, being released homeless. Furious, they moaned about how the ‘crack heads’ get more help. ‘The only way you get support is if you’re a gear head or pretend you’re getting beat by your missus,’ one lad said to me.

I never really thought about this before. I always ticked the boxes indicating that I required no support with drug and alcohol abuse when I came into custody. Well, it seemed I needed to change tack. With nothing to lose, I reached out to the drug and alcohol team in the prison.

I never considered myself a serious drug or alcohol user. My reasoning was, I drank and took drugs dependent on my environmental factors, such as whether I had a place to live or not. Without a home I couldn’t find focus or motivation whatsoever. This time I told the relevant services I was concerned about going back to a full-on life of crack, heroin, prescription pills and alcohol, that I simply had to reach out for help. I pleaded with them to help give me the best chance of staying clean outside of prison.

Well, within a month I had secured accommodation in a hostel for ex-offenders with drug and alcohol addictions to live a sober and crime-free life in the community.

Looking back, it’s sad I had to resort to lies and deceit to secure accommodation, potentially taking away a space from another individual who may have needed it more than me.

I believe having a place to call home has played a fundamental part in my reintegration  back into society. I’m now approaching 12 months crime-free in the community. I have faith, confidence, hope and an eager desire to move forward and make something of my life. I’m a Longford scholar scoring top marks in my degree. No way could I have done that on the streets. I couldn’t see past more than a day. Now, I see the future. I can plan, set and achieve goals.

I’ve made a personal change, now the system must change. If re-offending rates are to be reduced, then increasing support and services for housing offenders on release from custody must be improved drastically. Lives are wasted because of a simple lack of basic needs. How can it be that in the 21st Century in a First world country, some of our most troubled in society, all with potential and something to give, have no shelter to rest their heads at night? It just didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t.