Imagine if the state government announced funding to pay the rent of more than 36,000 three bedroom homes for families and individuals who were at risk of homelessness. That would mean housing for every person experiencing homelessness in Victoria. And with their housing secure, people could start addressing the issues that lead to their precarious housing situation in the first place.
This financial year, the state government plans to spend a total of $942 million dollars on maintaining and expanding the prison system. That figure is $626 million more than what was spent in 2005, which is the amount it would cost to rent the 36,000 homes above. Whilst spending on prisons has increased by $626 million over the last decade, programs that aim to prevent crime have not received funding at anywhere near this rate.
Homelessness has a two-fold relationship with imprisonment – people experiencing homelessness are have high rates of incarceration, and people leaving prison have a high chance of becoming homeless. Recently the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program examined the relationship between housing and a sample of police detainees from around the country. The study confirmed the strong and complex connection between homelessness and imprisonment – 22% of respondents were homeless or in unstable housing in the month prior to their incarceration. The reasons given for this were varied, with the biggest reported factor being family/relationship breakdown followed by financial/job crisis, drug problems, property evictions, justice orders and alcohol issues. At the other end, 12% of detainees were uncertain about their housing post release. Other studies found that 35% of prison entrants were homeless the month before entering prison, and 43 per cent expected to be homeless on release. This is worrying, since there is growing evidence, particularly from Canada, to show that stable housing can significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending post-release.
Not only could the extra money spent on prisons pay for housing, it could pay the annual salaries of more than 8,000 community mental health workers, or over 6,500 nurses. And although this extra money is being spent on the corrections system, the number of people imprisoned keeps going up, raising questions about the effectiveness of punitive approaches to changing criminal behaviour. Perhaps it’s time for us to start investing in programs that address factors that influence crime, such as homelessness, rather than spending more and more on locking people away. Information on the infographics below can be found on the Jesuit Social Services website.