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.


2.1. This chapter describes the issues people who serve short sentences may face in finding and keeping accommodation (questions 1 and 2), and the impact of these (question 5). Annexe 5 provides evidence of these issues as they affect specific groups.

Housing issues facing people who serve short sentences

2.2. The research found that people who serve short sentences can face housing issues at three key stages: on imprisonment; during a sentence and approaching release; and on, and following release. The issues at each stage are described below. Several have been highlighted in previous research (see pghs 1.10-11, and pghs A2:11-41).

Issues on imprisonment

2.3. Housing issues on imprisonment were found to relate to:

  • 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.

Keeping existing accommodation, or giving it up by the appropriate legal process

2.4. A key issue highlighted on imprisonment was a need to take steps to enable individuals in custody to keep existing accommodation, or give it up by the appropriate legal process. Staff and individuals reported a risk that people may lose their accommodation as a result of inaction, or inappropriate action, at this stage.

2.5. Staff (particularly prison and housing staff) stated that individuals may need services to help:

  • Identify and address any existing housing problems, or impending legal action.
  • Inform a landlord of their change of circumstances and give a new contact address (e.g. to avoid the risk of abandonment proceedings).
  • Inform the Housing Benefit (or Universal Credit) provider of their change of circumstances and their intention to return to their accommodation (to prevent their claim ending).
  • Make a new Housing Benefit (Universal Credit) claim, where necessary.
  • Inform their mortgage provider (where relevant) of their change of circumstances, and make any payment arrangements.
  • Identify alternative ways of meeting rent or mortgage payments and / or make any transfer arrangements needed (e.g. co-tenancy; tenancy transfer etc.).
  • Identify and address other debts (e.g. utilities).

2.6. Prison and housing staff stressed that, if it was impossible to keep existing accommodation, individuals may need services to help them give it up quickly, using the appropriate legal process (whether tenants or owner-occupiers). This would help avoid arrears, and improve their chances of getting accommodation in the future.

2.7. Staff noted that the level of input required would vary depending on the issue and the capacity of each individual, but, even in the case of apparently straightforward actions (e.g. informing a landlord or Housing Benefit service of a change of circumstances), many people would need a service provider to: identify the need for the action; explain procedures; overcome any practical barriers; and, in some cases, make contact for them.

2.8. Most individuals in this study had, at some time, lost their accommodation while in prison, and almost all of the housing, prison and reintegration staff had worked with people in this position. Many gave examples of housing problems people had experienced on release because they had taken inappropriate, or no action at the start of their sentence.

Securing existing accommodation

2.9. A further issue on imprisonment, mentioned by several prison and housing staff, and individuals, was a need to secure existing accommodation (i.e. to ensure it was locked, appliances were switched off, and services cancelled). This would prevent accidental damage, vandalism, unauthorised entry and additional costs (to individuals and landlords) which could make it less likely that accommodation would be fit to go back to, or give up.

2.10. Staff (particularly prison and housing staff) stated that individuals may need services to:

  • Arrange for someone to secure the property and switch off appliances.
  • Cancel or change utilities and other services.
  • Inform anyone involved in securing the accommodation of hazards (e.g. needles).

2.11. A few individuals and staff gave examples of problems where accommodation was not secured. These included one individual who could not return to their flat due to vandalism, and others who faced costs because appliances were not switched off, or services cancelled.

Retrieving and storing possessions

2.12. Virtually all of the individual participants in this research had, at some time, lost all of their possessions when imprisoned, sometimes more than once.

2.13. Staff and individuals described a need for services to retrieve and store essential personal possessions, as they may otherwise be disposed of by a landlord, or stolen. These included legal and financial documents (e.g. identification), irreplaceable personal items (e.g. photos and mementos), and essentials (e.g. clothes and household goods).

Making appropriate arrangements for dependents

2.14. Some participants (particularly prison, housing and social work staff) noted a need to make appropriate arrangements for dependents, to avoid housing or welfare problems for them. Dependents could include: a partner; and / or children and elderly or disabled relatives who may not be able to live independently. Prison staff and individuals also expressed concerns that pets could be left alone in accommodation.

2.15. Staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Pass on any relevant information relating to the property, if transferring a tenancy.
  • Enable access to keys, bank accounts or cash to maintain the property.
  • Arrange care (new or continuing) for dependent relatives (e.g. with social work).
  • Make arrangements to retrieve and re-home pets.

2.16. A few examples were given where problems arose because such arrangements had not been made, as individuals had not expected to be remanded in custody, or to get a custodial sentence.

Issues during a sentence and approaching release

2.17. Housing issues during a sentence and approaching release were found to relate to:

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

Changing housing circumstances

2.18. Prison, housing and some other staff described a need to address any changes to an individual’s housing circumstances during a sentence (e.g. due to relationship changes, financial problems or legal action) that may mean the accommodation they planned to return to was no longer available.

2.19. Staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Monitor and respond to any changes in their housing circumstances.
  • Contact their landlord or mortgage lender.
  • Contact a solicitor or seek financial advice.
  • Arrange appropriate alternative accommodation for release (see paragraph 2.26).

2.20. Several individuals and staff gave examples of people’s housing circumstances changing during a sentence on relationship breakdown, or death of a partner or parent.

Developing independent living skills

2.21. A further issue was a need to ensure that those approaching release had the skills to manage their accommodation and live independently. Staff of all types suggested that people may need support to develop skills in, for example: managing a tenancy; healthy eating, basic cookery and domestic skills; budgeting and banking.

2.22. Several individuals in this study had never had their own home or bank account. A few had spent most of their lives in institutions. A few had never planned or cooked a meal from scratch, nor used a domestic washing machine or vacuum cleaner.

Making financial arrangements for release

2.23. Many staff (particularly prison, housing and reintegration staff) stressed the need to make financial arrangements for release, both to meet accommodation and other costs, and to avoid debts and arrears which could make it difficult to obtain accommodation.

2.24. These staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Deal with any debts or arrears arising during a sentence.
  • Make an appointment with Jobcentre Plus staff.
  • Apply to the SWF for clothing just prior to release, or for household goods once settled accommodation has been identified.
  • Arrange access to a bank account and identification (ID).

2.25. Most individuals in this research stated that they relied on benefits for their income in the community. Several reported having had financial problems during a sentence which had affected their ability to obtain accommodation on release. Most, however, had started a benefits claim from custody in the past, and many had applied to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for crisis funding (although only a few had applied to the SWF).

Identifying accommodation for release

2.26. Many participants of all types stated that a key issue approaching release was the need to identify accommodation for people to go out to, to avoid the risk of homelessness.

2.27. A further issue mentioned by many staff (particularly prison, reintegration and other specialist staff) and several individuals, was the need to avoid people being released to accommodation that could expose them to: safety risks (e.g. abuse or violence); drugs and / or alcohol; peers who may exert a negative influence; and difficulties accessing services.

2.28. Many participants stated that, ideally, accommodation should be identified pre-release. Some local authority housing staff said that there could be practical problems with this, but that individuals should be given clear information about the processes to follow.

2.29. It was also noted that, if people who might benefit from supported accommodation were assessed early, necessary arrangements could be made. A small number of prison staff stated that early action was also important where an individual may need accommodation to qualify for Home Detention Curfew (HDC).[5]

2.30. Staff of all types stated that individuals may need services approaching release to help them to:

  • Consider accommodation options and, if possible, identify an address on release.
  • Enable assessments and start applications.
  • Identify the correct procedure to present as homeless (if not already completed) including emergency or out-of-hours procedures.
  • Identify how to obtain keys for pre-allocated accommodation.
  • Ensure co-ordination of appointments (e.g. housing, G.P., Jobcentre Plus).
  • Arrange for possessions in storage to be retrieved.
  • Identify how to get items to enable independent living (e.g. clothes; furniture; food).

2.31. Most individuals in this study had experience of needing accommodation on release. People had been released to a range of accommodation in the past (including, in many cases, hostels and bed and breakfast [B&B] accommodation). Many had been homeless on release, and many had left prison with no accommodation arrangements in place.

Issues on, and following release

2.32. Housing issues on, and following release were found to relate to:

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

Obtaining accommodation

2.33. A key issue, raised by participants of all types, was a need to obtain accommodation on the day of release (for those who did not have this), to prevent people sleeping rough, or on sofas or floors. Prison, housing and reintegration staff noted that, for people returning from some prisons to some local authority areas, this would require them to complete a homelessness application on the day of release.

2.34. There was a widespread recognition that most people leaving prison would be housed in temporary accommodation in the first instance. In the longer term, a key issue was the need to obtain permanent accommodation which meets their needs.

2.35. Housing, reintegration and some other specialist staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Understand the process for registering as homeless.
  • Ensure they had necessary documentation for identification.
  • Get from the prison to a homelessness interview.
  • Complete the interview process.
  • Get to their accommodation, and move in (see paragraph 2.37 below).
  • Apply for permanent accommodation.

2.36. The period of transition back to the community was mentioned by many participants as being difficult and stressful. Many individuals had previous experience of being homeless on release, and seeking accommodation from the local authority on the day of release. Many had slept rough, or on sofas and floors, or had been in accommodation which they considered inappropriate. Many had left prison with no support from services.

Moving in to accommodation

2.37. Several staff (particularly reintegration staff) said that there could be difficulties for people moving in to accommodation following release. These could arise on the day of release or later (e.g. if a tenancy was allocated after a period in other accommodation).

2.38. Housing, reintegration and other specialist staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Travel to their accommodation.
  • Complete practical arrangements (e.g. collect a key; complete paperwork).
  • Get utilities connected (and manage any contracts).
  • Secure furniture and other essentials (if required).
  • Inform family and service providers of their new address.

2.39. A few individuals indicated that everything they owned on their release from a previous sentence had fitted into a carrier bag, and they lacked the essentials to support living independently. A few staff gave examples of people having lived in accommodation without heating, lighting, furniture and household goods.

Responding to changing housing circumstances

2.40. Housing and reintegration staff highlighted a need to respond to changes to housing circumstances on, or following release (e.g. following relationship breakdown), which may increase the risk of homelessness, rough sleeping, and sleeping on floors and sofas. Staff stated that people may then need urgent support to find alternative accommodation.

2.41. A number of examples were given by individuals and staff of people who had left prison expecting to return to the family home and were denied entry. Staff doing family support work gave examples where an individual’s partner would not let them in, or had moved out, sometimes with their children. Staff working with young people noted that being denied entry could be a particular problem for them.

Managing and sustaining accommodation

2.42. Housing, reintegration and other specialist staff described issues for some people with managing and sustaining accommodation which could lead to loss of accommodation and homelessness. These staff stated that individuals may need services to help them to:

  • Make financial arrangements (e.g. establish a bank account, get insurance).
  • Ensure the payment of rent and other bills on time.
  • Meet tenancy conditions.
  • Cope with day to day living (e.g. finance; health; hygiene; nutrition).

2.43. Many individuals said they had found it hard to cope with independent living in the past.

Accessing other services and support

2.44. Reintegration and other specialist staff noted that individuals may also require access to other services (e.g. addictions, benefits, health, employment and financial). They stated that, without addressing problems of these types, it could be difficult for them to keep their accommodation, and avoid reoffending.

2.45. Staff stated that individuals may need services to help them contact:

  • Reintegration services (third sector or social work).
  • JobCentre Plus and local authorities (to apply for benefits and to the SWF).
  • Health services (e.g. GPs; mental health services; drug and alcohol services; learning disability teams).
  • Learning or employment support.
  • Citizens’ Advice Bureaux (CABx), money advice projects or Credit Unions.
  • Other relevant organisations (e.g. volunteering opportunities; befriending projects).

The impact of housing issues

2.46. The findings presented above show the range of housing issues people may face at different stages. There was a common view that, at all stages, the nature of the issues could also vary by factors such as: gender; age; physical and mental health and disability; offence and sentence; geographical area and ethnicity. This has been noted in other research (pghs A2:11-17). Annexe 5 details the findings from this study on these issues.

2.47. Many participants stated that, where housing issues were not resolved, this could make it difficult to find or keep accommodation, and that housing problems could have a negative impact on health; employment; and desistance, discussed below.

Impact on health

2.48. Most participants said that housing issues could have a negative impact on health, including: physical and mental health; drug or alcohol use; and overall well-being. It could be difficult, for example, for people to get access to healthcare (e.g. to register with a GP) without a settled address, or get medication and treatment.

2.49. Staff of all types and several individuals gave examples of how housing issues had led to, or worsened mental health problems, including where they had contributed to stress, anxiety and depression, or had led to anger, frustration and fear.

2.50. Many individuals stated that living in poor quality accommodation, or lacking secure accommodation had reduced their confidence or self-esteem. Several mentioned having felt hopeless, or that they had no chance of ever obtaining their own accommodation.

Drug or alcohol use

2.51. Participants believed that housing issues and an increased risk of drug or alcohol misuse were linked. Individuals said that, even though they had been drug-free and sober in custody, the nature of their accommodation on release had made them vulnerable to substance misuse. Many staff and individuals saw this as a particular issue in some hostels, where they felt there was often peer pressure and ready access to drugs.

2.52. Individuals (and some social workers) stated that the conditions imposed by some B&B operators could increase the risk of substance misuse among those staying in their accommodation by requiring them to be out of their room for up to six hours a day. Boredom (which many associated with hostels and other temporary accommodation) was thought to be an additional risk factor.

Overall well-being

2.53. Participants of all types stated that housing issues, and the related stress, could lead to relationship problems and breakdown, which could affect overall well-being.

2.54. A key concern for individuals (and some specialist staff) was that people’s accommodation was sometimes unsuitable for visitors. Several individuals mentioned restrictions on visitors in hostels or B&Bs, or said they did not want family members to see them in those surroundings. A few stated that they had been unable to have their children to stay because of their housing circumstances (e.g. women in hostels or temporary accommodation, or parents without a separate bedroom for a child of the opposite sex).

2.55. Staff and individuals raised concerns about personal safety in some circumstances. Women and young people were seen to be particularly vulnerable, and a few reported having felt unsafe in temporary accommodation. Examples were also given of women who had returned to violent partners because they felt they had no other option.

Impact on employment

2.56. Staff of all types (and a few individuals) described ways that housing issues could create barriers to employment. These included:

  • Individuals being preoccupied with housing issues and feeling unable to take part in education, training or employment until these were resolved.
  • Employers being unwilling to employ people without a permanent address.
  • Difficulties in seeking work from accommodation a long way from a Jobcentre.
  • Barriers to internet access to allow people to find and apply for work (e.g. lack of skills or confidence using the internet; distance from a library).
  • Difficulties in applying for work or getting a bank account without an address.
  • Difficulties looking clean and tidy (e.g. with limited storage, clothing or facilities).

2.57. One individual said they had lost their job for taking time off in two successive weeks to move between temporary addresses (with no choice and little notice of the moving date). Another missed an interview when a hostel did not forward mail to a new address.

Impact on desistance

2.58. Overall, as found in previous research (pgh 1.10), there was a common view that housing issues made it less likely that people would stop offending. Many participants described a “vicious circle” of housing and other problems, reoffending and return to prison. Most individuals said they had committed offences directly or indirectly as a result of their housing circumstances, and many said they had done so to be returned to custody.

2.59. Many staff and individuals believed that housing problems often meant that people found prison preferable to being in the community, having shelter, warmth, food, company, facilities, safety, and security they may not otherwise have. Many examples were given by prison staff and individuals of people who had had committed further offences because they could not cope with independent living (e.g. having had difficulties with household, financial or tenancy management).

2.60. Several individuals and staff stated that housing issues often led to loss of contact with other services, making it difficult to address other problems that might contribute to reoffending (e.g. addictions; mental health; lack of money). A few individuals said they had been so focused on housing issues that they had not engaged with other services in prison. Some described losing touch with services on, and following release (e.g. in temporary accommodation, or when living a long way from support). Staff gave examples of difficulties in contacting people who were sleeping rough, or in unstable accommodation.


2.61. This chapter has summarised participants’ views of the housing issues people who serve short sentences may face and the types of support they need to address these.

2.62. On imprisonment, this includes support to: keep or give up existing accommodation; secure property and possessions; and make arrangements for dependents. During a sentence and approaching release, this includes support to: respond to changing housing circumstances; develop independent living skills; make financial arrangements; and identify accommodation for release. On, and following release, this includes support to: obtain, move in to and sustain accommodation; respond to changing housing circumstances; and access other services and support.

2.63. Housing issues which were not resolved could have a negative impact on getting and keeping accommodation, and on health, employment and desistance.


Email: Julie Guy

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