Housing support - or support for living? A reflection on needs and policy

Roger Grimshaw
Tuesday, 20 August 2013

It’s arguable that we know all we need to know about the housing needs of women leaving prison. Ever since the 2007 Corston report there has been a consensus that prison doesn’t work, it makes matters worse. Women continue to be cycled through prison into housing crisis. Another report setting out the needs adds to the case against imprisonment for women, but there is no jury ready to listen and resolve the issue; policy remains disturbingly stuck in a rut.

Perhaps there are two outstanding findings from this recent project which policy makers should heed. The first concerns the impact of recent cuts in accommodation provision; the second more profoundly concerns the personal support needs of women.

A bleak housing environment

Accommodation cuts have reduced the resources available, according to our research. Hostels have closed causing delays in access to accommodation which can be very damaging for vulnerable women. Statutory rules mean that women who have entered prison are regarded as ‘intentionally’ homeless and so are liable to exclusion from assistance. If hostel places are available there is a shortage of ‘move-on’ accommodation.

Multiple and underlying needs

The records of the project documented the multiple needs of women leaving prison. Faced by the crisis of accommodation scarcity we should not be confused or blinded by the urgency so as to neglect personal needs. The underlying needs of women experiencing the risk of homelessness often stem from childhood trauma; they have been eloquently stated by people interviewed for the St Mungo’s Oral History project.

Without the contribution of personal support it is unlikely that women can sustain a recovery which can enable them to move beyond the patterns of response which have served them in the past.

From ‘housing’ to ‘homes’

The importance of multiple needs and in particular of childhood trauma mean that policy discussion has to move away from the bland formula of ‘housing support’ and embrace a new vista of ‘support for living’ in which women can build new lives with strong personal and family connections. Women interviewed talked about family needs, such as being reunited with their children or finding accommodation where they could look after newborns Multi-agency partnerships should be far more than tokenistic nods to a ‘multiple needs’ agenda; they have to start from a recognition of the person as the key to engagement and progress, which means acknowledging the damage of poverty and its associated disruptions. Furthermore the bureaucratic rules and penalties which stand in their way have to be tirelessly challenged. Those qualities of respect and diligence were certainly valued by women service users interviewed for the report. Only by profound understanding, engagement and sustained championing can the offer of ‘housing’ be turned into the reality of ‘homes’.

Policymakers therefore should keep their eyes focused on resources and support for living – and make their interventions  much more effective by halting the waste of imprisonment for women.