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.


4.1. This chapter describes gaps in the availability and consistency of housing-related services, and barriers to their effective delivery or receipt (questions 1 and 2). Annexes 3-5 provide further evidence of these. This chapter also summarises participants’ suggestions to improve housing-related services (detailed in Annexe 6).

Gaps and barriers in housing-related service provision

4.2. Although, as set out in Chapter 3 (pghs 3.3-10 and 3.38-40), many services are involved in addressing housing issues, there was a common view amongst almost all participants that many people who serve short sentences in Scotland do not currently receive the housing-related services they need.

4.3. A key finding of this research was that there was no consistent pattern or level of housing-related service provision across Scotland, with gaps in availability and consistency of services: on imprisonment; during a sentence and approaching release; and on, and following release.

4.4. Cross-cutting gaps and barriers were also found to affect services at all stages, relating to: a lack of overall strategic approach; limited monitoring; a lack of overall structure and joined-up approach; resource limitations; gaps in knowledge and awareness; attitudes and behaviour; and the impact of (non-housing) policy and practice.

4.5. All of these gaps and barriers are described below.

Gaps and barriers on imprisonment

4.6. Participants of all types stated that one of the main gaps in provision on imprisonment was a lack of consistent availability of housing-related services to people in custody, by prison or home local authority area.

4.7. There were variations in the availability of housing services in prisons, and the survey found that many individuals could not access these. Even if a housing service was available in a prison, most housing staff could only work with residents of designated local authority areas, so limiting the individuals who could receive this.

4.8. Further, as all of Scotland’s prisons hold people from wide areas (in some cases more than 20 local authority areas), and most young people and women are held in national prisons (pghs A3:5-11), prison and housing staff reported that not all housing services could, in practice, send staff to visit individuals in all prisons (pghs A3:15-29).

4.9. Many individuals would be from home local authority areas where, for the reasons noted above, a housing service would not be available to them in their prison. Staff stated that these factors made it very difficult to provide comprehensive housing services to people in custody, or the same level of service to all individuals.

4.10. Prison, housing and other staff stated that, even where a housing service was available to an individual, variations in practice could lead to gaps in services. For example:

  • Housing staff would not always work with people early in a sentence, and most local authorities focused largely on working with people closer to release.
  • Homelessness prevention work was carried out in some, but not all prisons. Within prisons, this may vary by the home local authority area of the individual concerned.
  • There was variation in whether options such as sub-letting or joint tenancy would be explored, and whether support could be given to address other issues (e.g. securing a property, or making arrangements for relatives and / or pets).

4.11. Identification of housing problems is the essential first stage in addressing the issue and many participants suggested that the Core Screen or induction processes did not always uncover housing issues (although, at the time of writing, the SPS was working to address this by revising the Core Screen form and guidance). Once problems were identified, gaps in services then came into play.

4.12. Housing staff identified a specific gap in services providing support to explore alternative ways of paying rent, or transferring a tenancy. Individuals, prison and housing staff felt that there was a specific gap in services to recover or store people’s possessions on imprisonment and that, even when a need was identified, it was often difficult to find someone prepared to do this.

4.13. Barriers for non-prison services working in a prison setting identified by staff and individuals included:

  • Delays in getting keys released from individuals’ personal property in the prison, to allow relatives or nominees to gain access to accommodation.
  • Difficulties for individuals in contacting landlords or banks from prison (e.g. cost of phone calls, and difficulties making calls at appointed times or during office hours).
  • Technical issues with financial systems making it difficult for staff to set up payment plans for arrears (being addressed by the SPS at the time of writing).
  • Limited time available for external services to work with individuals in prison.

Gaps and barriers during a sentence and approaching release

4.14. The main gap during a sentence and approaching release was (as on imprisonment), a lack of consistent provision of housing services.

4.15. This included the finding that many people had no access to specialist housing services (pgh 4.6) and, even where these were available, variation in actions could lead to gaps in support. For example:

  • Not all housing staff would carry out assessments of housing needs before release, nor enable a homelessness application to be made from custody.
  • Not all local authorities would allow an individual to make a prior appointment with their homelessness team for the day of release.

4.16. Where people approaching release did not have access to housing services, prison, reintegration and other specialist services could provide only limited support. At the time of writing, the SPS was working to increase staff knowledge of housing options, to enable them to provide more effective support. Some housing staff stated that housing issues were often brought to their attention too late for them to take effective action pre-release.

4.17. Prison and reintegration staff suggested that the complex pattern of eligibility for, and availability of reintegration services, combined with the fact that people from a particular area could be held in a range of prisons (noted at pgh 4.8), made it difficult for these services to deliver comprehensive pre-release support.

4.18. Many participants stated there were gaps in the availability of tenancy preparation work approaching release (e.g. budgeting and independent living skills courses). It was also suggested that there were limited opportunities to obtain suitable forms of identification. The SPS noted having plans in place to address both of these gaps.

Gaps and barriers on, and following release

4.19. A key constraint to enabling people to secure stable accommodation on release (mentioned by participants of all types) was an overall shortage of accommodation in most areas in Scotland. Many mentioned a general shortage of social housing, and housing staff noted some variation by geographical area, demand, and type of tenure (pghs A2:39-41).

4.20. There was seen to be a particular shortage of accommodation appropriate for those leaving custody, particularly one-bedroomed flats in central locations and supported accommodation. Other studies have also noted these issues (pgh 1.13). Several individuals reported having been told when they made a homelessness application that no emergency accommodation was available, and to “come back tomorrow”. A small number of instances were reported where someone had slept on a sofa or floor in a hostel.

4.21. Housing staff noted additional constraints in accessing private lets, partly due to landlords’ restrictions, but also because many individuals leaving prison could not afford deposits or rent costs. Some housing staff stated that those leaving custody could find it very difficult to access rent deposit schemes, which exacerbated this.

4.22. Some housing staff stated that the application of the Local Housing Allowance rate (which puts a ceiling on the amount of Housing Benefit payable) and the under-occupancy penalty (the “Bedroom Tax”) could limit individuals’ options (as for other tenants, although the Scottish Government provides funds to fully mitigate the loss of income from this reform).

4.23. Most housing association staff noted a high level of demand for their accommodation. Some mentioned difficulties with making this available on a specific day to link in with liberation, while still meeting their obligations in relation to overall occupancy levels and minimising rent loss.

4.24. It was also noted, that if an individual had committed a specific offence (e.g. related to drugs or arson), they may be excluded from some social housing (see Annexe 5).

4.25. Reintegration staff and individuals described difficulties caused if local authorities exercised their power to insist on an individual being able to demonstrate a local connection before agreeing to provide accommodation. This was seen to work against an individual making a fresh start, if they needed to move away from negative influences.

4.26. Several reintegration and other specialist staff, and many individuals, described cases where people leaving prison had been given housing that was dirty, damaged, cold, damp, or lacking facilities. While it was not possible to asses these conditions against the Scottish Housing Quality Standard, these participants considered them unsuitable.

4.27. There were examples where people had been allocated accommodation in areas they felt created risks to them (e.g. to their personal safety, or of exposure to influences that might increase their risk of reoffending) and had been unable to move to a new area. Several participants stated that there were few alternatives for those who refused offers of accommodation because of concerns about such risks.

4.28. There were also some concerns (as at other stages) about the processes for identifying housing issues. A few community-based housing staff suggested that an assessment done in the community may be “less robust” than one done in prison, due to constraints on housing staff time. Some participants felt that there were few mechanisms through which to identify and review on-going housing issues following release.

4.29. There were also seen to be gaps in services to help sustain accommodation. Housing staff stated that their additional support could range from a concierge in a block of flats to intensive one to one work. This was intended to reflect differing levels of need, but staff suggested that pressure on capacity sometimes meant that tenants had to have a very high level of need to receive the most intensive support. It was also noted that one to one work may be time-limited or linked to a temporary tenancy.

4.30. Variation in availability of reintegration and other specialist services in the community (pgh 4.14) was seen to lead to further gaps in support. Differences were reported in eligibility and practice (e.g. whether staff would provide transportation, advocacy and / or other support, and in the length of time for which services could be provided after release). Several individuals and staff stated that there was limited out-of-hours support available. In the case of TSOs, it was noted at the time of writing that the SPS was appointing three Regional Throughcare Managers to ensure consistency in their work.

4.31. Reintegration staff stated that practical barriers on, and following release could include housing appointments being made for inappropriate times (e.g. too early in the day for someone to reach after being released, or too late to allow practical help to be delivered), or at times that conflicted with other appointments (e.g. with a G.P.). A few cases were noted where people who had travelled considerable distances had been unable to secure emergency accommodation because it was full, and had slept rough.

4.32. Many participants felt that, where individuals were released on Fridays and before public holidays, this made it more difficult to access services (e.g. housing, health, drugs, benefits etc.), as these services may be closed, or operating at a reduced level at such times. It was noted that the Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Act 2015 will give the SPS a discretionary power to vary the release date of those serving more than 15 days by one or two days if “it would be better for the prisoner’s re-integration”.

Cross-cutting gaps and barriers

4.33. A number of cross-cutting gaps and barriers were also identified. These related to:

  • Lack of an overall strategic approach.
  • Limited monitoring.
  • Lack of an overall structure and joined-up approach.
  • Resource limitations (including accommodation, funding and staffing).
  • Gaps in knowledge and awareness of housing issues and services.
  • Attitudes and behaviour.
  • The impact of other (non-housing) policy and practice on housing issues.

Lack of an overall strategic and proactive approach

4.34. Many participants of all types raised concerns that there was no consistent overall strategic approach to housing-related services across Scotland for people who serve short sentences.

4.35. Several local authority housing staff (and few other specialist staff) raised concerns that a Housing Options approach was not always taken in prison.

4.36. Some housing, prison and reintegration staff stated that there was not always a proactive approach to tackling housing issues either by prison or housing staff. Examples where there was a need for onward referral, and this was not followed up. Some individuals stated that, even where they had asked for input from a service, they had needed to “pester” staff to get it. There were examples of long waiting times, delays, and failure to complete promised actions (while noting a high general level of demand for these services in the community).

4.37. Some participants of all types felt that, in many cases, specific housing issues facing particular groups (e.g. women, disabled people, people from ethnic minority communities and others) were neither recognised nor addressed. Annexe 5 gives examples of these from the discussions (particularly with specialist staff working with these groups).

Limited monitoring

4.38. Gaps were noted in the statistical information available about housing issues and services for people who serve short sentences, and the use of this (A4:2-29). These included:

  • Lack of a systematic approach to monitoring housing issues and housing-related service provision in prison.
  • Limited collection of housing-related information in the community about individuals who serve short sentences.
  • Limited data on housing outcomes for this group.
  • Non-identification of this group within a range of published housing statistics (pghs A4:14-29).
  • Limited data that can be aggregated (as most of the data collected is qualitative).
  • Limited analysis and use of existing data.

4.39. These issues were seen by housing and prison staff to make it difficult to quantify the scale of housing issues for people serving short sentences, and to use this as the basis for specific service planning. This is consistent with findings set out in Annexe 4.

Lack of an overall structure and joined-up approach

4.40. Some staff expressed concern that there was no clear structure for tackling housing and reoffending. It was noted that there was no national body with overall responsibility for this, and not all areas had multi-agency groups to promote local joint working. CJAs and CPPs each stated that they had limited involvement in addressing the specific issue of housing and reoffending.

4.41. A number of prison and housing staff stated that links between prisons and Housing Options Hubs were not well-formed, but it was noted that, at the time of the research, the SPS Policy Manager had begun a programme of visits to the Hubs to promote joint working.

4.42. Many participants of all types had concerns about a lack of information-sharing. Several housing staff mentioned difficulties in getting particular information, such as:

  • Systematic and early notification of people admitted to custody from their area.
  • Confirmation from the SPS of whether or not someone was in prison (e.g. before starting abandonment procedures).
  • Referral information.
  • Release dates.

4.43. Some prison and reintegration staff said it could be difficult to find out about the work some housing staff had done with an individual (and vice versa for some housing staff).

4.44. It was noted that, even where joint protocols were in place, these were generally a number of years old, and had not been reviewed regularly. Some staff (from a range of services) suggested that concerns about the Data Protection Act appeared to constrain information-sharing, even where protocols were in place.

4.45. It was suggested that all of these factors could lead to:

  • Lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities.
  • Tensions between services.
  • Some non-housing staff dealing with work where they lacked relevant expertise.
  • A lack of onward referral to other appropriate services.
  • Duplication and / or gaps in support.
  • Competing demands on individuals (e.g. numerous applications to Registered Social Landlords [RSLs]; re-telling their "story" to different services; overlapping appointments etc.).

4.46. A few concerns were also raised about the information provided by some prisons and housing staff to individuals who served short sentences. Examples included:

  • An overall lack of information, out of date information or poor advice.
  • A reliance on noticeboards and written information rather than face to face contact.
  • Lack of feedback about actions taken on an individual’s behalf.

Resource limitations

4.47. Virtually all staff (of all types) perceived barriers due to resource limitations, including in the availability of accommodation (pgh 4.19), funding and staffing. There was a common view that there was an overall climate of funding constraint which affected all services (public and third sector) and had led to a reduction in some provision.

4.48. Some housing staff stated that it was difficult, with severe pressure on their capacity, to continue to put resources into prison, noting the difficulty of prioritising between the needs of different client groups. An example was given where an in-prison service had been funded for three years, then was not funded for the subsequent year. At the time of the research, month to month funding was being provided. One local authority stated that they had insufficient resources for an in-prison service.

4.49. One third sector organisation stated that funding constraints limited the nature and extent of their work to sustain tenancies. Others expressed concerns about the implications of short-term funding on the sustainability of their services.

4.50. Staff of all types stated that staffing constraints were affecting many services. Some prison and housing staff described overall staff shortages, and one example was given of a housing team within a local authority operating at 50% of its previous staffing level.

4.51. Prison staff had concerns about gaps in services due to non-replacement of staff, while staff of all types stated that staff turnover led to a loss of expertise and continuity. Further, an example was given where the loss of administrative support to an in-prison housing service had reduced the amount of staff time available for case work. Housing and reintegration staff mentioned a high level of demand for their services, high workloads and a need, at times, to focus only on the most urgent cases.

Gaps in knowledge and awareness of housing issues and services

4.52. Many participants stated that gaps in knowledge and awareness of issues among staff could be a barrier to effective service provision. Staff of all types said they were not always aware of the services available outside their own areas of expertise. Prison staff noted that non-prison services did not always understand the complexity of issues facing people who served short sentences. Staff of all types stated that non-housing services did not always understand housing issues, nor the actions that could be taken.

4.53. There was a common view that individuals facing housing issues (while in custody or the community) may not be aware of issues such as: the need to take early action to address these issues; their rights and responsibilities; and the services available.

4.54. It was suggested that all of these gaps could mean that housing issues were not identified, and / or that individuals did not get the right service to address their needs.

Attitudes and behaviour

4.55. Many participants expressed concerns that barriers could be created as a result of the attitudes or behaviour of staff, individuals or people in the wider community.

4.56. In relation to staff, a common concern among individuals (and reintegration and other specialist staff who attended appointments with them) was about what they felt were judgemental attitudes from some housing staff. Examples were given where they felt housing staff had shown a lack of empathy or willingness to listen, a lack of courtesy and respect, or had made unfounded assumptions about individuals (e.g. that past behaviour would be repeated, or that someone else would take responsibility for providing support).

4.57. A few housing and other staff suggested that housing staff were sometimes afraid of being criticised (e.g. by the press) for seeming to “favour” people leaving custody. A few felt there was a lack of local political will to tackle housing problems for this group.

4.58. In relation to individuals, participants of all types gave examples of what they considered to be inappropriate assumptions, attitudes and behaviour on the part of those who served short sentences. A number of prison staff (and individuals) stated that people may “switch off” from the outside world while in custody, assume they would lose their housing automatically, or that someone else would take any necessary action. Some individuals and reintegration staff suggested that people leaving prison may distrust housing staff because of previous experiences they felt had been negative.

4.59. Some housing staff suggested that individuals often had “unrealistic” expectations of housing, and / or negative views of particular kinds of accommodation (e.g. hostels). Reintegration and other specialist staff and individuals gave examples of people who had become frustrated and angry when dealing with housing staff, some of whom had been arrested in housing offices or hostels as a result of their behaviour.

4.60. Some prison and reintegration staff, as well as individuals, said that people leaving custody faced many pressures on the day of liberation (e.g. health, addictions and family problems) and so might not have a clear focus on housing.

4.61. In relation to the wider community, a few staff and individuals gave examples of assumptions, attitudes and behaviour by potential neighbours which may present barriers to reintegration for people released from prison. These included people: stigmatising individuals leaving prison; not wanting them to live in their area; or being worried about a “risk” to their family or property from such a situation.

The impact of other (non-housing) policy and practice

4.62. There was a common view among participants of all types that wider policy and practice issues could contribute to housing problems, and make it difficult to address them. The key areas were welfare and sentencing policy.

4.63. Concerns about welfare benefits included:

  • Housing Benefit rules (payment only up to 13 weeks following imprisonment and for the housing element of Universal Credit, 26 weeks).
  • Sanctions.
  • Unrealistic work-seeking requirements for employment-related benefit claimants.
  • Delays in benefit payments following liberation.
  • The implications of the introduction of Universal Credit.

4.64. Whilst it was acknowledged that some of these issues would affect other people claiming benefits, as well as those leaving prison, they were seen to compound other barriers to securing and sustaining stable accommodation for those released from custody.

4.65. Many comments were made about Universal Credit. Although staff were unclear about its specific implications at the time of writing, there was a widely shared fear (among housing and other staff) that this would lead to increased arrears, debt, loss of accommodation and reoffending among those released from custody, due to:

  • A longer wait for payment, and a period on release without money.
  • A single payment directly to claimants, with a risk that they: may not realise their responsibility to pay rent; may not prioritise rent (e.g. if they have addictions, or children); or may use the payment as a way to coerce and control family members.
  • Monthly payments, which could be difficult to manage with limited budgeting skills.

4.66. Some aspects of sentencing practice were also identified as potentially adding to housing problems. These included:

  • Sentences of slightly more than six months which meant that an individual would serve more than 13 weeks in prison, leading to the loss of Housing Benefit and potentially accommodation (although it was noted that arrangements would be different with Universal Credit).
  • Disparity in sentencing for similar offences, leading to different housing outcomes (although it was suggested that this would be addressed by the new Scottish Sentencing Council[9]).
  • Limited use of alternatives to custody (although it was noted that Community Payback Orders and Fiscal Work Orders were being used more widely).

4.67. In addition to welfare and sentencing, other problems highlighted included:

  • Lack of transparency and “grey” areas in the Scottish Welfare Fund, as well as difficulties and delays in applying for, and in securing SWF grants (although it was noted that, at the time of writing, amendments had been made to the SWF).
  • Inability to make prior arrangements for GP care from custody.
  • Exclusion from access to bank accounts and insurance (although, as noted at paragraph 3.36, this was being addressed by the SPS and BBA).

Suggested developments to address the gaps and barriers

4.68. Many suggestions were made about actions that could be taken to improve the housing-related services and address these gaps and barriers. There was a high level of agreement among all types of participants about the areas in which developments were needed. These are summarised below and detailed in Annexe 6.

4.69. Staff of all types, and individuals who served short sentences, suggested a need for a coherent overall approach to tackling housing and reoffending in Scotland. A common suggestion was for all of those serving short sentences to have access to the same level and quality of services and support, at all stages, whatever their prison or home area.

4.70. Some housing staff suggested the adoption of a Housing Options approach in all prisons (as well as in the community). Others, while not necessarily using this term, suggested a similar type of approach.

4.71. Effective support was seen to involve early, co-ordinated action between prison, housing, reintegration and other specialist staff, tailored to individual needs and taking account of the service recipient’s views. It was seen to require not only providing accommodation, but input to address all of the housing issues identified in Chapter 2. A combination of: preventive work; individual planning; timely input; and referral to other support when needed (e.g. health, money advice etc.) was seen to be required, with services being flexible, and delivered by staff with knowledge, expertise and non-judgemental attitudes.

4.72. Many participants suggested a need for an appropriate national and local structure to support multi-agency working. A further common suggestion was a need for better joined-up working, information-sharing and communication. Participants of all types suggested that there should be a housing officer or adviser in every prison providing the same level of support to people from all areas and at all stages (although it was also noted that it may not be possible to deliver this level of service).

4.73. Participants of all types stated that services were under-resourced in terms of funding, staffing and accommodation, and that this should be addressed. Staff suggested a need for improved monitoring, or better use of the statistics available.

4.74. Many suggestions were also made about increasing knowledge of the nature and impact of housing issues faced by people who serve short sentences (among staff, individuals and the wider community). It was also seen to be important to tackle any attitudes, behaviour, or unfounded assumptions (by any of those delivering or receiving housing-related services) that could be a barrier to effective service provision or use.

4.75. Many detailed suggestions were made about particular aspects of policy and practice that could be developed further. These related particularly to housing services and the SPS, but also included suggestions for welfare and other policy areas (detailed, along with further information about all of these suggestions, in Annexe 6).


4.76. This chapter has described gaps in, and barriers to provision and receipt of housing-related services at each of the three key stages (on imprisonment; during a sentence and approaching release; and on, and following release), and some affecting all stages.

4.77. Gaps and barriers were found relating to: variations between and within services in their availability, accessibility and practice; problems with processes for identifying housing issues; lack of a strategic, joined-up approach; limited monitoring of housing issues and services; resource constraints; gaps in knowledge and understanding; and problems resulting from some attitudes and behaviour. Aspects of welfare and sentencing policy and practice were also found to have a negative impact on addressing housing issues.

4.78. Suggestions related to developing, promoting and implementing: a coherent overall approach; a structure for joint working and information-sharing; adequate resources; access to the same level and quality of services for all people serving short sentences; improved monitoring; increased knowledge and awareness of housing issues and options; and work to tackle inappropriate attitudes or behaviour by service providers or recipients.

4.79. All of the material in this chapter has been used, along with other research findings described in Chapter 1, to inform the next steps suggested in the final chapter. These have been kept at a strategic level. The more detailed suggestions set out in Annexe 6 can be used to inform more specific developments.


Email: Julie Guy

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