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Home truths

This is an article for Wales Eye

Homelessness is a much misunderstood concept, often associated with rough sleeping but in actual fact encompassing a wide range of socially-excluded individuals, many in that position because of additional support needs associated with mental health problems or substance misuse.

In addition to these individuals, local authorities will deal with many others who have lost their home because of financial issues, relationship breakdown, abuse, violence, or just bad luck.

In a lot of instances the council just needs to find appropriate accommodation but in many others additional support is needed over a period of time to ensure that the homeless person can maintain their tenancy and does not fall by the wayside.

In other cases the council, on which the statutory duty to help falls, can take action to keep the applicant in their home and thus avoid a homeless presentation. That is an approach taken in many parts of Wales and it is one that quite rightly forms a central part of the Welsh Government's new Housing Bill.

The way that a Council deals with somebody presenting as homeless is governed by legislation and by an essentiat est. That is whether the applicant has become homeless intentionally or not.

Once the Council has established that they have a duty to rehouse an applicant because that person is unintentionally homeless, they then have to apply a different test.

Because housing is a scarce resource its allocation is often subject to waiting lists and the application of priorities. Those accepted as unintentionally homeless are put to the top of the list but within that group, there are categories who get rehoused first, for some very good reasons.

Originally, these groups were named in legislation but the Conservative Government's Housing Act 1996 dispensed with them and just asked councils to assess vulnerability. This led to an inconsistent approach across Wales, with many of the most vulnerable falling through the gap.

As a result in 2001, the Welsh Assembly passed a priority needs order that re-established clear categories of people that should not just be rehoused first but would also require additional support to enable them to remain in their new home.

These categories were a care leaver or person at particular risk of sexual exploitation between the ages of 18 and 21; a 16 or 17 year old; a person fleeing domestic violence or threatened domestic violence; a person homeless after leaving the armed forces; and a former prisoner, homeless after leaving custody.

This does not mean that someone fitting one of these categories could just turn up in an area of their choosing and demand rehousing. Councils are able to apply a local connection test to ensure that those they rehouse have a genuine need to be rehoused in their area.

The new Welsh Housing Bill is a substantial document that contains many welcome provisions. However, its treatment of these homeless priority categories needs further thought.

The proposal to allow local councils to discharge their homelessness duty into private accommodation is a welcome flexibility, but the removal of the statutory duty to rehouse ex-prisoners is a serious misstep in my view.

That proposal is being made for purely popularist reasons and belies the evidence in the government's own research, published in 2008, that concluded that 75% of those offenders most likely to reoffend have a housing need compared to 30% of the general offender population. That report suggested that more joined up thinking is needed to prevent re-offending. It said:

'Securing appropriate accommodation has long been one of the main problems associated with leaving prison as well as a central focus of resettlement work. Research published by the Home Office in 2001, and cited in the Social Exclusion Unit report, noted that around one-third of prisoners do not have a settled home prior to going into prison and around one-third will lose their home during their sentence, making the resettlement role a significant and challenging one. If an offender/ex-offender lacks a suitable place to live, it is more difficult for them to get and keep a job or to engage effectively with any other interventions in relation to their needs. Accommodation is therefore identified as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the reduction of re-offending.'

As Shelter Cymru points out, if this is the case then surely the solution is not to destabilise the 'necessary' condition but rather to ensure that the supporting conditions are more effectively met.

They argue that the new duty would be more effective if it were underpinned by priority status to guarantee a right to temporary accommodation while prevention work is being carried out. They say that without a right to temporary accommodation, it will be virtually impossible for local authorities to work with homeless prison leavers effectively.

Gofal Cymru is also scathing about the proposal to drop this particular priority group. In their submission to the government they say: 'It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of prisoners have a mental health problem of some kind and that more than 70 per cent of both male and female prisoners have at least two mental disorders. Many are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have substance misuse issues and poor literacy rates. It is clear that a significant proportion of the prison population is vulnerable and we therefore question the benefits of amending the priority need definition. We fear that an unintended consequence of this proposal will lead to many vulnerable former prisoners being denied access to accommodation.'

Shelter Cymru say that if these individuals end up street homeless on release, it is highly likely that they will fall out of touch with prevention services and back into a cycle of reoffending. This has consequences for community safety, healthcare, social services and, eventually, for homelessness as well.

Cymorth Cymru, an umbrella group for supported housing providers concur. They say'It is clear from the conversations that we've had with our members that simply putting a roof over someone's head is not enough. This is as true for those leaving prison as it is for many others. As such, we strongly feel that removing the housing element is the wrong response and that instead we should be focussing on the factors such as support that complement the provision of accommodation.'

My concern is similar, that without a statutory duty to rehouse prisoners underpinning rehabilitation, councils will just not bother to do the work and reoffending rates, which are already higher than those in England will rise even further.

The Welsh Government argue that Councils will still have a duty to re-house the most vulnerable ex-prisoners, but that is very much a subjective measure that will be applied differently in different council areas. That is evidenced from the time between 1996 and 2001, when homeless priority depended on vulnerability assessments alone. It is why the The Homeless Persons (Priority Need) (Wales) Order 2001 was introduced in the first place.

Nobody likes having to rehouse former offenders ahead of those perceived to be more worthy, but if we are genuinely interested in rehabilitation, in removing the circumstances under which an ex-prisoner might re-offend so as to get him or her on the straight and narrow, and in providing the support to overcome other issues so s/he can reintegrate back into society, then it is necessary.

That is why I urge the Government to take notice of the evidence in their own studies and think again about this backwards step.

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