Locked up then locked out

We rely on private landlords to house our clients. Our housing expert Geoff Torry explains the problems they face in a fiercely competitive private rental market.

Last February’s report from Shelter and YouGov uncovering the highly unsuitable conditions faced by people living in privately rented accommodation will come as no surprise to our staff. Little appears to have improved since then. Following a homelessness application, a recent client of St Giles Trust narrowly avoided death after being electrocuted in the shower of the privately rented bedsit he was housed in. The fire service and environmental health have since condemned the property – the latter have since contacted him to say rats have ‘eaten the building’. The client has now been rehoused.

St Giles Trust offers practical help with housing and other services to support ex-offenders to resettle in the community and prevent the likelihood of re-offending. Finding its clients somewhere to live is a crucial part of this to stem the cycle of prison, homelessness and re-offending that is currently responsible for a significant portion of our existing prison population.

Given the severely limited supply of social housing, and the steady loss of spaces in hostels and supported housing projects, the teams at St Giles Trust have been reliant on privately rented accommodation to provide much needed homes for people leaving prison both through local authorities and properties sourced directly by the teams. However, the increase in private renters over the past two years has meant St Giles Trust – along with most other agencies working with ex-offenders - has found it increasingly difficult to source decent privately rented accommodation for people leaving prison. Landlords – particularly within London - are far more likely to let their properties to students and young professionals than prison leavers on benefits trying to get their lives back on track.

It should be said that some private landlords understand the dilemma the Trust’s clients find themselves in, and are prepared to give them a chance – and find them to be good tenants. However, the amount of rent these clients are able to pay inevitably means they can secure only the least desirable flats and rooms, especially those whose income is entirely from welfare benefits while they seek work or recover from illness.

This is how some of society’s most disadvantaged people end up living in such terrible conditions as those described above. People who have been in prison – alongside people who have slept rough, are recovering from addictions and mental illness – are placed at the bottom of the pile when at the mercy of stark commercial interests.

Furthermore, this undermines the Government’s drive to tackle re-offending and its associated costs to the state, and the human misery it brings. Having somewhere to live is key to help people who have been in prison progress their lives in the community, find employment and desist from offending. Without a home it is difficult to find work and without an income it is impossible to pay for accommodation – and here is where the vicious cycle ensues.

A Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate of Resettlement Provision published in September found that one in five prison leavers in their sample reported that they did not know where they would live on release from prison.

Given such stark statistics it is little wonder that the client above supported by St Giles Trust was happy to accept such conditions to live in. The roof over his head must have offered stability and a base from which he could start to build the basics such as looking for work and getting his life sorted.

The housing situation for many in the UK is at breaking point at the moment. Failing to cater for the most disadvantaged and needy people in our society ultimately costs us more in the long term.

Geoff Torry
Housing Consultant and former Housing Solutions Manager at St Giles Trust