Housing and Reoffending: Supporting people who serve short-term sentences to secure and sustain stable accommodation on liberation

The research focused on the problems that people who serve short sentences in Scotland have finding and keeping stable housing and the services that can help improve housing outcomes. The findings describe a complex cycle of housing problems faced by people serving short sentences, their interlinked causes and impacts and the difficulties these problems pose in desistance from offending.


1. This report presents the findings of research to provide evidence and understanding to inform the development of policy and practice for preventing homelessness, securing stable accommodation and improving housing outcomes for those who serve short-term sentences in Scotland. The research was carried out between February and June 2015.

Background and context

2. A Ministerial Group on Offender Reintegration was established in October 2013 to improve integration between the justice system and wider universal services. The Group recognised that many professionals believed there to be links between finding and / or keeping stable accommodation and reducing reoffending among this group. One of its recommendations was to commission research into the housing experiences of people who served short-term prison sentences in Scotland.

3. Previous research in Scotland has demonstrated significant costs to the public purse from homelessness and reoffending (Scottish Government and CoSLA, 2009; Audit Scotland, 2012), and studies have shown the importance of community support structures, and accommodation in helping promote desistance (e.g. Social Exclusion Unit, 2002; Reid Howie Associates, 2004; McNeill et al, 2012; Loucks, 2007).

4. Research has highlighted that people who serve short sentences can have a range of housing problems and can find it difficult to obtain and keep accommodation when released (summarised in Shelter, 2015a). A few studies have suggested that housing-related services can help improve housing outcomes for those who serve short sentences (e.g. Reid Howie Associates, 2004; 2013), but research has also highlighted difficulties in accessing these services (summarised in Shelter, 2015a).

Research questions and methods

5. This research set out to examine the views of individuals who serve short sentences and staff of services working with them, to discover:

  • The types of housing issues faced by people who serve short sentences, and their impact at three key points: on imprisonment; during a sentence and approaching release; and on release.
  • Housing-related services available to address these issues, and indications of improved outcomes.
  • Gaps in the availability and consistency of services, and barriers to their effective delivery or receipt.
  • Suggestions to improve housing-related services and outcomes.

6. The research involved the following strands:

  • A Scotland-wide service and practice mapping survey.
  • Interviews with 45 people serving, and 29 who had served short sentences.
  • Interviews with 146 key professionals (from: prisons; Housing Options Hubs; third sector organisations and partnerships; housing associations; social work services; Community Planning Partnerships and Community Justice Authorities).
  • A review of relevant literature and evidence.
  • Reporting and the development of suggestions for next steps.

Housing issues and their impact

7. Housing issues for those who serve short sentences were found to be common at all stages. Most of those in the study had, at some time, lost their accommodation while in prison, and almost all had lost their possessions, in some cases more than once. Some had experienced vandalism where accommodation had not been made secure, or incurred costs where services had not been cancelled. Some had not made necessary accommodation-related arrangements for dependent relatives or pets prior to being imprisoned.

8. Examples were found where individuals’ housing circumstances had changed during a sentence, or where financial problems had negatively affected the chance of obtaining accommodation on release. Some individuals had never had their own home, nor gained independent living skills, and consequently many individuals had left prison with no accommodation arrangements having been made.

9. The transition back to the community was described by individuals in the study as difficult and stressful. Most had been homeless on release at least once, and many had slept rough, or on sofas and floors. Some had left prison expecting to return to the family home, but had been denied entry. Many examples were found of individuals who had left prison without support or possessions, and who had found it hard to live independently.

Impact of housing issues

10. Many participants stated that, where housing issues were not resolved, this could make it difficult to find or keep accommodation. Most said that housing issues could have a negative impact on health (physical and mental health; drug or alcohol use; and overall well-being). They could also create barriers to employment (e.g. difficulties finding and keeping work without a permanent address; problems looking “presentable” with limited facilities).

11. There was a common view among both individuals and staff that housing issues made desistance from offending less likely. Most individuals said they had committed offences directly or indirectly as a result of their housing circumstances, and many had done so to be returned to custody (e.g. for shelter, warmth, food and safety). Housing issues could also make it difficult to access other services tackling issues that may contribute to reoffending.

The need for services

12. Given these issues, the study found that individuals may need support from housing-related services, at all stages, to prevent homelessness and other problems.

13. On imprisonment, services are needed to provide support with:

  • Keeping existing accommodation, or giving it up by the appropriate legal process.
  • Securing existing accommodation.
  • Retrieving and storing possessions.
  • Making appropriate accommodation-related arrangements for any dependents.

14. During a sentence and approaching release, services are needed to provide support with:

  • Changing housing circumstances.
  • Developing independent living skills.
  • Making financial arrangements for release.
  • Identifying accommodation for release.

15. On, and following release, services are needed to provide support with:

  • Obtaining accommodation.
  • Moving in to accommodation.
  • Responding to changing housing circumstances.
  • Managing and sustaining accommodation.
  • Accessing other services and support (e.g. health; money; employment).

Housing-related services and improved outcomes

16. The housing-related services providing support at different stages were: prison services (particularly on imprisonment; during a sentence and approaching release); housing services (all stages); reintegration services (particularly during a sentence and approaching release; on and following release); and other specialist services with expertise in working with particular groups, such as women or disabled people, or in tackling specific issues such as financial problems, homelessness or addictions (particularly during a sentence and approaching release; on and following release).

Availability of services

17. There were prison staff in all establishments who could help identify housing issues, provide basic support and make referrals.

18. Housing services were available in some form, in all prisons, through a range of different arrangements. Seven prisons had a housing service based in prison and seven had housing services visiting to a regular programme (with one having both). One did not have a housing service except by request from an individual or staff member. Housing services (local authority, housing association and third sector) were available in all local authority areas for people on, and following release.

19. Reintegration services were available, in some form, in all prisons, with Throughcare Support Officers (TSOs) deployed by the SPS in all but one establishment; four Public Social Partnerships (PSPs) and some smaller reintegration services available to particular groups in particular prisons. All of these reintegration services would work with people on, and following release, as would criminal justice social work services in all local authority areas.

20. Eleven other specialist services were noted that would work with some people in custody (e.g. from particular areas, or in specific groups). Additionally, Jobcentre Plus and the NHS provided support with benefits and health, which could impact on housing outcomes. These specialist services could also work with people in the community, as could a range of other community-based services (e.g. food or furniture projects, money advice services etc.).

The nature of services

21. The actions taken at all stages were found to vary within and between services, but examples were found of services providing support to address all of the types of housing issues faced at the three stages by people who served short sentences. There were also many examples of services working together at a local and regional level.

22. On imprisonment, prison and housing staff would help with Housing Benefit claims, contact a landlord and consider other possible arrangements they could make (e.g. to recover possessions; secure a property etc.). Some housing staff would explore options such as sub-letting or joint tenancy, and around half of the local authorities said they would provide support to give up or transfer a tenancy.

23. During a sentence and approaching release, around two thirds of local authorities would carry out an assessment of housing need; some would continue, or make “live” a housing application; and around a quarter would consider pre-allocating accommodation for release. A small number of third sector specialist services would identify accommodation and a support package. Some housing staff would enable homelessness applications to be made, or appointments for the day of release.

24. All prisons could, in principle, enable people to tackle rent or mortgage arrears, and some provided short courses on tenancy or independent living skills. There were examples of work being done to enable individuals to obtain identification; begin benefit claims and applications to the Scottish Welfare Fund; and make other arrangements for release.

25. On, and following release, housing, reintegration and some other specialist services would support individuals to obtain and move into accommodation. Most reintegration and a few other specialist services would pick people up from prison, go with them to a housing appointment, and help them move in to accommodation.

26. All social housing providers could provide accommodation, if available, and tenancy sustainment support. Reintegration services would generally provide on-going support for a period in the community after release, and other specialist services could address any issues requiring their own particular areas of expertise.

Evidence of improved outcomes

27. There was a common overall view that there were early indications that addressing housing issues could lead to improved outcomes relating to:

  • Housing (e.g. keeping accommodation or making alternative arrangements; and securing and sustaining accommodation on release).
  • Health (e.g. improved access to healthcare; improved mental health; improved safety; less risk of drug or alcohol misuse; better relationships with family);
  • Employment (e.g. improved chance of getting, or sustaining education, work or volunteering).
  • Reoffending (e.g. addressing the range of problems that may contribute to reoffending; and staying out of prison for longer periods).

Gaps in, and barriers to delivery or receipt of housing-related services

28. Despite the extensive work detailed above, the research found that many people who serve short sentences do not currently receive the housing-related services they need, largely related to the fact that there was no consistent pattern nor level of provision across Scotland.

Pattern of housing-related services

29. Variations in availability of housing services in prisons meant many individuals could not access such a service. Even where available in a prison, most housing staff could only work with residents of designated local authority areas, and not all housing services could visit all prisons, making consistent provision difficult.

30. The complex pattern of eligibility for, and availability of reintegration and other specialist services, combined with the fact that people from a local authority area could be held in a range of prisons, also made it difficult for them to deliver comprehensive support in prison (where this was part of their service) and on, and following release.

The level of provision

31. Even where services were available, variations in practice could lead to gaps in services, with differences in the nature and level of support provided at all stages.

32. In prison, there were differences in whether housing services would: carry out homelessness prevention work; take a Housing Options approach; explore options to retain a tenancy; carry out housing needs assessments; enable homelessness applications; and allow individuals to make prior appointments for release.

33. On, and following release, there were some differences in whether reintegration and other specialist services would provide transportation, advocacy and / or other support, and in the length of time for which services could be provided.

34. For some issues, service provision at different stages was seen to be limited (e.g. recovery and storage of possessions; exploring alternative ways of paying rent, or tenancy transfer; pre-release tenancy preparation; obtaining ID; tenancy sustainment work in the community).

35. A shortage of social housing and a high demand in most areas was seen to make it difficult to secure stable accommodation on release. There was seen to be a particular shortage of accommodation appropriate for those leaving custody (e.g. centrally located one-bedroomed flats; supported accommodation; emergency accommodation; private lets; and housing association accommodation).

Cross-cutting gaps and barriers

36. There were seen to be cross-cutting gaps and barriers at all stages. These were:

  • A lack of overall strategic approach to housing-related services.
  • Limited monitoring, and gaps in the statistical information available and its use.
  • A lack of overall structure, and joined-up approach to housing and reoffending.
  • Resource limitations, including accommodation, funding and staffing.
  • Gaps in knowledge and awareness of housing issues and services available.
  • Barriers due to the attitudes or behaviour of staff, individuals and neighbours.
  • The impact of (non-housing) policy and practice (e.g. welfare and sentencing).

Suggestions and next steps

37. There was seen to be a need for a coherent overall approach, and for all people who serve short sentences to have access to the same level and quality of services and support.

38. There was also seen to be a need for: joint working and information-sharing; adequate resources; improved monitoring; increased knowledge and awareness of housing issues and options; and work to tackle inappropriate attitudes or behaviour by service providers or recipients.

39. The authors recommended the next steps as follows:

1: The Scottish Government, the SPS, social housing providers and community justice partners should give consideration to how best to ensure consistent services are provided in prison to give advice and support with housing issues to those who serve short sentences. Any resulting plans for action should be in keeping with other Government justice strategies.

2: The SPS and social housing providers should give consideration to setting out a consistent standard for providing services in all prisons to give advice and support with housing issues to those who serve short sentences, and on release into the community including adoption of a Housing Options approach.

3: Consideration should be given to Community Justice Scotland having national leadership of housing and reoffending overseeing the development of improved local support through monitoring of the new national strategy for community justice and the national performance framework with local partners.

4: The Scottish Government, the SPS and social housing providers should give consideration to facilitating information-sharing on housing problems (including for example arrears) between their services, at national and local levels. The aim of this would be more joined-up service delivery and a lack of duplication.

5: The Scottish Government, the SPS and social housing providers should give consideration to how outcomes for those who serve short sentences can be recorded, making best use of existing data sources. The aim of this would be to record the scale and nature of any issues and identify any improvements.

6: The SPS should give consideration to ensuring that relevant staff receive basic Housing Options and advice training to ensure that clear information on housing is given to individuals who serve short sentences.

7: The Scottish Government and the SPS should give consideration to providing information to policy makers and professionals in other areas (for example, sentencing, health, social security) about how they could contribute to achieving positive outcomes for people who serve short sentences through consideration of housing issues.


Email: Julie Guy

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