The revolving door of homelessness and prison spinning faster


On Wednesday 30 May we launched the Parity edition: ‘I Will Be Released: Post-Release and Homelessness’, with Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, ACSO, Jesuit Social Services, The Salvation Army and VACRO.

This edition highlights the ‘revolving door’ of people cycling from prison into homelessness, and too often back into prison. Despite that this cycle has long been identified as a problem, the lastest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals the problem deepening – with 3,950 Australians having exited prison and sought help from a homelessness service in 2015-16; an  increase of 54% in just three years.

In 2015, another AIHW report showed that one in four people entering prison reported they were homeless immediately prior to imprisonment, and one in three that they were being released into homelessness. These staggering statistics suggest that the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon shows no sign of slowing, with very vulnerable people stuck on a loop between homelessness and prison.

Homelessness services are struggling to help prisoners post-release because the private rental market has locked out vulnerable people on low incomes, and social housing waiting lists have skyrocketed to over 35,000 in Victoria, and 200,000 nationally.

In recognition of this challenge the Victorian Government increased the numbers of workers in prisons who assist people to plan housing post-prison from eight to 15 across the state. But there are few housing options where people can plan to go.

People leaving prison often find themselves in rooming houses and crisis accommodation where they have no hope of getting their life back on track, and they’re at a higher risk of re-offending.

We can reduce rates of re-offending and simultaneously drive down homelessness by focussing on providing affordable, permanent housing. It’s a no-brainer.

Prisoners have the best chance of successful re-integration and avoiding reincarceration if they have stable, affordable and appropriate housing upon release. This is the ideal, but unfortunately, the reality is far from ideal.

In her address, the Victorian Ombudsman recounted one young woman’s first night out of prison, sleeping rough in Flagstaff Gardens as follows:

… when they let me out … it was like five o’clock in the afternoon and I explained to them that I’ve got nothing, there’s no one here to support me…… so they said go and see the Salvo’s. By the time I had got there it was closed so I had no other option but to tough it out …

In Ms Glass’words,, “Without a roof over their heads, how will our ex-prisoners be able to do the programs, stay off the drugs or alcohol, or hold down a steady job?”

Ms Glass revisited the evidence presented in her 2015 investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria, which emphasised how a lack of support and housing contributes to poor re-integration by prisoners post-release. The report found that less than 2% of prisoners have access to transitional housing upon release, and just 1-in-5 have any form of post-release support.

The overwhelming majority of prisoners are left to find housing by their own means, meaning they are faced with the crushing reality of the current housing crisis; a market that offers just 4-in-1000 affordable properties for a single person on Newstart, and many years wait time for social housing.

The Ombudsman recommended in her report that the Department of Justice and Regulation investigate options to address post-release housing for former prisoners (recommendation 21), for example a service similar to th support packages for disability clients, and through the development of a single housing service point. The Department has accepted this recommendation and advised that it is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to review the current housing model.  

At the launch Julie Edwards, CEO of Jesuit Social Services, said that the fate of prisoners post-release was the ‘canary down the coalmine’ pointing to other system failures such as lack of access to employment, a shortage of mental health support and the manifestly inadequate Centrelink wages that entrench poverty in the already disadvantaged.

We’ll leave the last words to Bob Dylan, who’s song title was so aptly applied to this edition of Parity

Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

If you wish to order this edition of Parity, or previous editions, visit our website. To subscribe to Parity, please contact noel@chp.org.au.

Registrations are now open for the Victorian Homelessness Conference – 13 & 14 September 2017.