This post is written by my beautiful friend, @TooManyBlueys who writes her own blog, The MoD Stole my Boyfriend, Letters to Nowhere, about being the girlfriend of a serving soldier. Charlie is a law graduate and post graduate student, who has worked in various capacities in the Criminal Justice System. This post is about the offending cycle and homelessness.
If you or I became homeless through job loss and financial ruin, we would report to our local council office with our significant other and children, and they would find us a low rate bed and breakfast that has a room available. We would apply for housing benefit. Here we would live (not together, that would be a bit cosy) for a few weeks until they could find us a place suitable for the amount of people our family unit comprised. We would be “on the list” and right at the top of it, as a priority. If we stayed elsewhere for even one night, we would lose our place on the list.
For “street homeless” it is another world altogether. These are the invisible members of our society you walk past when you pop into town for a new pair of shoes or a suit, their dirty tired faces melting into one. Not all of them beg, a lot take a dim view on an act they consider a last resort, preferring instead to rely on their weekly benefit payments, and in turn borrow and steal from one another.
They socialise in the street homeless circle and make friends to achieve aims. Friendships are often false, for protection, or because one has access to something the other covets. With ragged tired clothes, they often own just the one outfit you see them wearing day in, day out. For them the criminal justice system and street homelessness is a never ending cycle of drug abuse, detox, petty crime, detention in custody, the courts and prison.
It does not matter where the cycle starts. Wherever you jump in to the story you can be sure what has just come to pass will reoccur.
Whatever the cause, and there are many of them, it usually ends up like this: On release from prison, our chap goes to his local council housing office. The appointment may or may not have been set up by the housing department within the prison during his pre-release care meeting, some five to six weeks before his release date. He is carrying with him everything he owns in the world in one bag, including his medication (for any ailments he may be suffering from, perhaps a methadone or subutex script for his heroin addiction, as he is not allowed to carry quantities of the same around with him).
He announces himself to the receptionist, and then he sits and waits. He has an interview. Questions about his past living arrangements prior to prison are asked of him. As the council has a duty of care to house all prison leavers – if they have a tie to the area – (successful applicants get put in the above bed and breakfast chain to housing) they need to find a reason (and yes, this is the way, due to a massive shortage of available housing, that a lot of councils will look at the situation) to discharge their duty of care. What reasons will they find to discharge it? Committing the offence for which they were imprisoned when living in a council property is a reason. Making yourself intentionally homeless in the past is a reason, and the one most frequently cited.
What does “intentionally homeless” mean? It means that they had housing (if not a bed and breakfast, then floor space or a room in a homeless shelter) and for some reason they were required to leave it. This could be because they were attacked, robbed, sexually assaulted, or they themselves initiated a fight. They may have been caught with drugs or alcohol when rules in that hostel/B&B stated these were prohibited. Some hostels are ‘wet’. This means that they allow alcohol and or drug use in specific areas, some are ‘dry’, which means there is a total ban on both. Then there are rehab centres and night shelters. Contravention of rules or arrest from the premises will render you classifiable as ‘intentionally homeless’ in the eyes of the council.
Our chap now finds himself faced with the fact that he will not be provided with housing by the council and leaves the office. If the advisor is feeling particularly generous they will find him ‘emergency housing’, but this is usually only if they consider him to be vulnerable by reason of mental illness, age or physical disability. The unlucky majority are left to their own devices. Cities have different systems, most set up by religious or secular charities. Some have buses on which the homeless can sleep or obtain bedding and tents. They pull up at night in a quiet corner of the city away from the neatly dressed townies and carry out their work near the inevitable Pret-A-Manger or other such food shop handing out unsold produce. Soup kitchens stir into life.
If our chap is lucky, he is in a city that has many hostels. One will usually serve as a ‘feeder’ hostel to the others, and be much larger. It is on this one they seek floor space for the first few nights and sleep down on the floor next to many other people, of mixed genders, sexualities, races and ages.
These places are a hive of crime and danger. “Worse than hell” is how I have heard them described, more than once. From here the staff may find him a room within the same, or in a different hostel, depending on his need. For the hardened, alcohol abusing heroin user though, the inevitable is that he would drift between the cold pavements and the hostel floor; the latter often proving a more risky choice.
Let us put ourselves then in the place of the person in the hostel, who has just woken up to find another street homeless person going through their pockets as they sleep on the cold open concrete. A swift clout to the face, blood spatters and the pair wrestle on the floor. The police are called, neither of them gives an coherent statement as the sleeping victim was partially inebriated due to the intoxicatingly painful cold life on the street before they went to sleep, and the pair are arrested and carted off down to the police station. It really is as simple as that.
This is enough for the next time they come out of prison on remand or after recall on a licence for them to be considered ‘intentionally homeless’. The very irony of the phrase is lost on nearly all of them. They do not want to be homeless. It is not their intention to be homeless.
Reoffending gets them a warm, safe, comfortable prison. It gets them a bed and a roof over their heads, three meals a day and more often than not, to see their old buddies. The friendly faces of prison officers they have seen a hundred times before, the routine and the absolute surrender of their own fate for a few weeks or months at a time until they are reluctantly turfed back out onto the streets and into the cycle of drug abuse and fighting for somewhere to sleep and food to eat all over again. Do not get me wrong, prison is not easy, but in comparison with the alternative it is preferable to many.
At Christmas I was faced with a desperate sort who had walked into a clothes store, selected three ladies coats in various sizes and left with them. No one noticed him leave. He then walked back into the store to alert the security guard to his crime, shouting “Oi! I’ve nicked these!”. Sadly for him (one would have assumed he would be grateful) he lacked the necessary intention to be charged with the crime of theft and was promptly released from the police station looking rather confused and very annoyed. He turned around and looked at me and told me he was off to “do it properly next time.” He wanted a warm bed in the freezing snowy days to come and did not fancy spending Christmas on the streets. He was prepared to do anything to fulfil this ambition.
There are some who will rob, rape, solicit, abuse, prostitute, pimp or stab. Most on the whole however, resort to desperate petty crimes such as shoplifting to get by day to day, or commit low level drugs offences and criminal damage. They take up bed spaces in prison because of the underworld of crime in which they inhabit. Some relish it, some thrive there. Lots die. Lots leave and sort themselves out. Sometimes, individual workers in those charities that work the streets every night see a glimmer of hope in a person or desperation to get out, and work with them to get them into better rehabilitation facilities.
Sometimes it is people in prison, or mental health professionals who step in and help them find a way out. Sometimes it is the homeless person themself who finally works up the courage to ask for help themselves from a family member who genuinely did not realise what was going on. What remains a constant however is that you cannot force someone out of the cycle, they have to want to break it themselves. The heart-breaking thing for those who love them is that some never do.
There are success stories. Ben* was homeless for 7 years after a painful divorce. He had offended in the past and his wife had enough of the prison visits. She took everything. He ended up street homeless with a heroin habit and a large drinking problem which he attributes to the fact that without both of these habits he would have found coping impossible.
On the twelfth time in prison he reached out to the drug and alcohol team and asked them for help. One worker began visiting him regularly and helped him to go cold turkey. After his release they worked closely together and although he did, for a few days and whilst on floor space began using heroin again, he is now in a high quality rehab centre on a programme funded by his local council, and has been there for a few months. He has retrained as a carpenter and at the weekend works for a local firm. Luke* was in and out of prison for violent offences for some 20 years and street homeless in between periods of incarceration. He is now doing well, married with a young son and living in a council house. This is just a taste, and for every success story there are many more failures.
I entered the criminal justice system naïve. My preconception of the step down process from prison was that one went in at the level of crime they committed (A-category prison for murder, rape or terrorism, B-category prison for less severe offences or offenders who have done well enough to be moved down from B, C for lower again and offenders who have ‘stepped down’ again, and D for those ready to be released out into the community at the end of their sentences. A rehab type of prison).
What I found was not quite as logical. Offenders are taken to B category prisons for low level offences or re-offending on a licence because that is their local prison, and when they are released the door is simply opened and off they pop into the wide world. Yes, some prisons offer resettlement packages for long term prisoners, but these are costly, often ineffective and begrudgingly delivered. The short termers are left to find their own feet. Like new-born babies, ripped from the warmth and relative safety of a nine month stay, they are out in the freezing cold with only the belongings they went into prison with in the first place. If they are released from court after a successful bail application on remand and they forgot to bring their stuff with them from the cell, they have nothing at all.
Ben* lasted six hours the penultimate time he was released from prison. It was cold, he had no idea where to go and everything was closing up for Christmas, so he spent his leaving giro on some whisky, slugged half the bottle and put his foot through a shop window, rummaged around the display and then waited for the police to turn up. Back he went to his cosy cell.
How do we stop prison overcrowding for petty crimes? The average cost of maintaining one person in a B category prison exceeds £40,000 a year. Times are tight. How do we stop them reoffending? How do we stop The Invisibles from being invisible? We need prison step down programmes for homeless people, and step up programmes after those. We need better and more widely available release packages. We need designated statutory support. We need more intervention whilst they are in prison. We need specialist facilities for mentally ill homeless people. We need money for all of this.
*Names have been changed to protect identities