8. Research Findings – Causes and exacerbating factors
The research identified factors that can both cause housing problems and exacerbate them. As explained above the problems themselves, and the impacts of the problems are factors that can lead to more problems and further impacts. The research also identified a number of difficulties with service delivery that had potential to resolve housing problems (see Section 6). This section sets out other factors the research identified.
Eligibility for housing benefit (HB) or the housing element of universal credit (UC) for those in custody has an impact on whether someone can keep a tenancy (or service a mortgage) whilst serving a sentence. In essence people serving a short sentence in Scotland are entitled to between 13 and 26 weeks HB or the housing element of UC from date of imprisonment (see Shelter, 2013d Universal Credit Regulations 2013, Regs 19  and  in the Full Report). Clearly, this means that people on benefits serving sentences over 13 (or 26) weeks that have no other means are unlikely to be able to pay their rent or mortgage and can lose their tenancy or mortgaged housing.
Identification of problems
Despite the action being taken in Scottish prisons to identify housing problems (see Section 4) the research found that not all of them are identified. Further, where they are identified it can be too late to take effective action to avoid negative consequences, for example a build-up of arrears or eviction.
Recognition of problems
A related issue is that people who serve short sentences may not recognise that they have a housing problem, may not wish to engage or may be unable to engage. The SPS has identified this and is drafting fact sheets to help individuals recognise when they have a housing problem.
A similar issue is that people entering prison or during a short sentence can find it difficult to focus their attention on housing problems, as coping with life in prison on a day to day basis can be found stressful.
Gaps in service providers’ awareness
The research reported that not all people delivering services to people serving short sentences understood their specific needs and participants had experienced discrimination and prejudice. This suggests a need for greater awareness of the issues and problems people in prison face. In addition understanding of the benefits of stable housing and the impact it can have on desistance is needed.
A difficulty was found in the limited ability of services to share information which could mean that people fell through the gaps as one service might assume another service was delivering what was needed to a particular person.
A further problem for individuals, where they were receiving services, was that they had to repeat their circumstances to a range of different service providers, which could discourage engagement.
The research identified gaps in the data (both that collected and in use of data that is collected). In particular it found a lack of a systematic approach to monitoring housing issues and housing-related service provision in prison and a lack of data on housing outcomes for this group. Clearly, this makes it difficult to quantify the scale of housing problems for people serving short sentences, and to use this as the basis for specific service planning.
Lack of organisational skills
The issues above were found to be compounded by other difficulties that can be faced by members of this group. These included a lack of organisational skills, chaotic lives and health issues including drug and alcohol addiction. The research found difficulties in this group in either knowing how to, or being unable to, inform their landlord or mortgage provider about their change of circumstances. Such a lack of skills can stem from a life spent in institutions or neglect, and include a lack of knowledge about benefits and a lack of skills to organise finances and consequently maintain a tenancy.
Lack of independent living skills
Furthermore, the research found people serving short sentences who reported that they did not have the skills to budget, to keep accommodation clean and tidy and to shop and cook meals.
Being released to inappropriate accommodation
Certain types or locations of accommodation were found by the research to be problematic for people leaving prison, these included, places where they might be influenced by former criminal associates from their time previous to custody, and bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation in which they would find it hard to avoid the risks of exposure to drugs or there was extensive alcohol abuse.
Other policy areas
The final difficulty is the impact that other policies, that are not within the scope of the Scottish Government or the SPS or local government. The obvious example is welfare policy and the impact this has on people’s ability to maintain a tenancy whilst they are in custody. Further there is potential for sentencing practice to take account of benefit eligibility.
Email: Julie Guy