From prison to pavement and beyond

With the announcement some hours before that the 2020 Homeless World Cup would take place in Tampere, Finland, it was appropriate that a major focus of the final day’s debate in the Bevan Tent centred on Finland’s Housing First programme as a tool to reduce long-term homelessness.

Introduced my Michael Sheen, and chaired by BBC Wales’ political editor Felicity Evans, the debate—From Prison to Pavement: Homelessness and Criminal Justice—involved Leanne Wood AM (Shadow Leader for Housing and former probation officer), Lindsay Cordery-Bruce (CEO of Wales’ leading homelessness charity The Wallich, who has herself experienced homelessness) and Bonnie Navarra (former Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales).

Stable accommodation is a critical factor in reducing re-offending, yet a quarter of prisoners serving short sentences in England and Wales are released into homelessness. How can the cycle between homelessness and re-offending be stopped? And why isn’t more being done to break it?

“One of the things that’s strikes us,” began Cordery-Bruce, “is how many people we see are victims before they become perpetrators. Then when people come out of prison, they’re punished again and again by homelessness and exclusion.

“In Finland, there’s been a realisation that you can’t address the other problems unless people have a safe place to sleep at night. Homelessness isn’t about houses, it’s about communities failing people. Housing First works because it’s about the level of intervention, it’s wraparound support.”

Since the mid 1980s, tackling homelessness has been a focus of government programmes in Finland. In recent years, Finland has been the only country in Europe where homelessness has decreased.

The Finnish Housing First approach was introduced in 2007 as a solution for the most vulnerable homeless people. Most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person has to sort other problems out first before they can get permanent accommodation. Finland does the opposite: it gives people a home first, building on the principle that having a permanent home can make solving health and social problems much easier.

At the same time as being given a home, people receive individually tailored support services, such as advice about paying the rent or applying for other government benefits, financial and debt counselling services. There are no more homeless shelters in Finland—they have all been turned into supported housing.

That the reverse has been happening in this year’s Homeless World Cup nation is underlined by Wood who, as a former probation officer, recalls that, “Back then, when I was in that role, we could provide a list of landlords for people. There was much more accommodation for individuals in the private sector and more social housing. New legislation in 2014 dropped the provision. And we now have some media campaigns victimising the homeless which, unfortunately, trickles down to government.”

All speakers voiced their concerns with the challenges of replicating such joined-up Finnish solutions.

“We’re trying to work in partnership, but welfare is not devolved,” said Navarra, identifying the breadth of separate agencies involved in one person’s situation and the rates of re-offending. “The number of people coming out of prison after short-term sentences has increased 25-fold [in recent years]. These people are given a £47 payment when they leave. If you’re given £47 in the middle of winter and have to make it last five to nine weeks until benefits kick in …”

Citing that the misuse of drugs is also an area where legislation is not devolved, Cordery-Bruce stated, “I want to call for the devolution of criminal justice. We need to act now because people are dying. I’m not talking about legalising drugs, I’m talking about decriminalising substances.”

With a recent report estimating deaths among the homeless population (in England and Wales) has increased 24% in the last five years, she added, “Drug-related deaths are the highest they’ve ever been in Wales, and we have to ask the question: Are we serious about ending homelessness or not?”

Delving further into existing legislation that she suggested could be repealed (the Vagrancy Act of 1824), Wood then shared the story of a meeting with a young girl who had recently been evicted from accommodation by a private landlord.

“She asked me how come it’s illegal for me to be homeless, but not illegal for my landlord to make me homeless?”

The current challenge of political stability in the country as a whole has, the speakers agreed, done little to help the overall issue, with a fragmentation now apparent in the homeless community exacerbated by challenges with data collection and sharing.

As the debate drew to a close, the panel was asked the one action they would focus on to end homelessness.

“Ask yourselves what can I do in my community, what contribution can I make,” suggested Wood, seconded by Navarra.

“The reality is that not everyone shares our vision,” Cordery-Bruce concluded. “But I say stop messing about and pull together, get people going in the same direction. It’s time to stop talking about this—it’s time to be pissed. We all have a role in this and we all have a responsibility to end homelessness.”

Words: Isobel Irvine
Image: Romain Kedochim / Soda-Visual