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Housing

Released from prison to homelessness: A battle against the odds

Jason faced hurdles as a prison leaver during the pandemic, but thanks to some support and his own determination, he has restarted his life.

On the eve of his release from prison in May last year, Jason* was anxious and unsettled.

It was the start of his new life. But Jason, then 30, was about to leave prison life and move straight into homelessness, joining over 30,000 total prisoners released into unsettled accommodation – amounting to around 45 per cent of known outcomes – between April 2020 and March 2021, according to new Ministry of Justice data.

“It was a very scary feeling” to leave prison without housing sorted, he said. “It was going into the unknown.

“I was thinking to myself, I’m better off staying in here because at least I’ve got a roof over my head.”

Being reluctant to leave after serving a two-year sentence – for a drug offence and possession of a bladed article – “should tell you everything,” he added.

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The next day, Jason left prison. For prison leavers like him, rebuilding a stable life is a priority. But exiting prison means navigating a crowded terrain of snares and obstacles – securing housing, finding work, accessing benefits, getting online – which have been compounded by the pandemic.

Next, Jason went to the Greenhouse, a charity part-run by Hackney Council and Thames Reach. They temporarily housed him in a hotel near Finsbury Park while he sought a more permanent place to stay.

Restarting his life in the hotel was tough. Jason remembers people using drugs downstairs and feeling wary about his possessions. “It made me feel like I was still back in jail,” he said.

But Jason, who took courses in nutrition from the Open University in prison, was committed to making a lasting change. He got through it by mentally blocking out the distractions, imagining he was staying in a hotel as his successful future self. “In my head, I was thinking of it as a luxury,” he said.

Housing is a struggle to arrange in jail, where prisoners are without internet access. And ex-offenders face trouble putting down a deposit and first month’s rent on a property, with some landlords also shunning universal credit recipients.

Organisations like Greenhouse help soften the edges – but prison leavers say the problem is systemic.

“We know that prison leavers face barriers in rebuilding their lives and finding a home and work,” said Jennifer Wynter, head of benefits and housing needs at Hackney Council. “Which is why our Greenhouse service brings together a range of different agencies to provide tailored advice and support under one roof for people being released.”

Eventually, Jason moved into a shared house on July 31. He had to claim the universal credit advance payment, a loan that people must immediately start paying back.

The system is set up for me to failJason, prison leaver

Jason, prison leaver

Jason’s next challenge was finding stable work. A few months before his release, he was visited by Switchback, a London-based charity that helps young people build stable lives after incarceration.

Jason was sceptical at first. But when his future mentor Maddy expressed genuine interest in his one-year goals – including entering employment and training, regaining his driver’s licence and getting back into his daughter’s life – he thought, what’s the worst that could happen?

Switchback helps prison leavers with internet access, mock interviews and has a network of employers. “One of the main things that young people in prison want to achieve is to find stable, legitimate work,” Sam Boyd, Switchback’s director of impact and external affairs, told The Big Issue.

“The way that we do that is by supporting people to build the wider stability in their life that you need in order to not only get a job, but also stay there in the long term,” he added.

The charity connected Jason to Fresh Fitness Food where he conducted three separate interviews with the chief executive, chief operating officer and a mentor. They could see his determination, and offered him the apprenticeship on the spot. “I was doing backflips,” he said.

He worked hard to prove himself, waking up at 5am or earlier to travel the one-hour-and-20-minute journey into work.

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The apprenticeship started with Jason changing bins, then working in the kitchen, warehouse, administration, and now head office. He’s seen the whole business operation, valuable skills for his future plans to launch a nutrition company.

When Jason was sitting in his new house last year, it suddenly clicked that he had achieved all his one-year goals within just four months. He had done it. He was back on his feet.

Most importantly of all, he was back in his nine-year-old daughter’s life. “That meant everything to me, she’s one of my main motivations,” he said.

But Jason described his experience as thriving against the odds. Growing up underprivileged and with a lack of opportunity is the root of the problem, he said. “The system is set up for me to fail.”

It feels like you’re swimming against the currentJason, prison leaver

Jason, prison leaver

Many other prison leavers don’t get to where Jason is now – and may end up reoffending.

“It feels like you’re swimming against the current,” Jason said. “And there could be alligators in the water, piranhas, sharks, there could be anything along the way but we’re still swimming against the current.”

The government this week announced £13 million to be spread across 140 English councils to cut reoffending by helping prison leavers find long-term housing.

But David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary and a Big Issue ambassador, said the £13m pledge for housing would work out at just £244 each for the 53,253 prison leavers who were released from custody in 2020.

Just 55 per cent of ex-offenders’ known outcomes involve leaving prison into settled accommodation, down from 89 percent in 2011.

“A decade of Conservative cuts and privatisation in prisons and probation means former offenders are being abandoned without the chance to turn their lives around and our communities are left more vulnerable to crime,” said Lyn Brown, Labour’s shadow minister for prisons and probation.

Boyd, of Switchback, called for more support: “If the government really wants to beat crime, they should ensure that every prison leaver has the basic means to survive – that means housing, benefits and a smartphone – and invest in the kind of 1-to-1 support we know works to give people a real chance to build a stable life away from crime.”

Jason hopes by sharing his story he can inspire other prison leavers that change is possible.

“As long as I can change one person’s life who’s incarcerated now then I feel like I’ve done my job,” he said. “It’s a helping hand, a little push, and then you’re off into the sunset.”

*Jason’s name has been changed.

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes right now. One UK household is made homeless every three-and-a-half hours.

You can help stop a potential avalanche of homelessness by joining The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Here’s how:

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