A leading researcher from the City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW has called for a much greater provision of social housing to people exiting prison.
Speaking via a zoom event on August 24 that was at capacity with over 200 participants and 250 more who couldn’t fit in the session, Dr Chris Martin presented ‘Housing after prison for people with complex support needs’, a report which has attracted the attention of mainstream media.
Three days ago the ABC reported on the new research on both its website and the nightly 7.30 report, highlighting the fact that a third of offenders enter prison after being homeless and fewer than half of the 65,000 those discharged each year have a home to return to.
"It doesn't take too long before, you know, you're looking at prison as being a better option," said Tasmanian Tony Bull on the program.
"Just for the sake of having a roof over your head and being warm overnight."
The 56-year-old told 7.30 he had no choice but to rob houses, and continue a cycle of re-incarceration, with no public housing available to help cushion his release from prison.
"Many times I thought … bugger this, it's too hard. I'll just go back to prison," he said.
Published by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), Dr Martin noted that one of the classic metaphors for exiting prison was ‘going home’. But home didn’t exist for many, who were condemned to “A vicious cycle between prison and homelessness.”
He said unstable housing was a predictor of re-incarceration, and while the rate of imprisonment was increasing across Australia, spending on social housing was falling and early reforms and impetus to reform homelessness had been lost.
Dr Martin said there was a dearth of housing options for people coming out of prison and next to no pre-planning due to the heavy workload of corrective services as well as a lack of options. There is supposed to be pre-planning, but that doesn’t happen, said one participant. “All the pre-planning doesn’t really yield any value.”
“Without real options, there is nothing to plan with,” said Dr Martin.
Those options included motels, caravan parks, social housing facilities, private boarding houses and “lots of pitfalls along the way where a person finds themselves returning to prison.”
“Barriers to private rental are formidable and often impossible to overcome.”
“Social housing provides affordability and security, and space for personal fulfilment and engagement with support.”
There’s just not much of it and coming out of prison was not part of the criteria for prioritisation.
The research linked data with 2731 persons who had been in prison in NSW at some point, mostly with a mental health condition or cognitive disability. It split prisoners into two groups of approximately 600 each: those who got public housing after their release and those who got private rental assistance only.
For those who received public housing, there was a decrease in police incidences and offenses of 8.9 per cent a year equating to a drop in costs to the justice system, of $4996 per year initially, then a further $2,040 per year.
In dollar terms, housing an ex-prisoner in a public housing tenancy generates, after five years, a net benefit of between $5,200 and $35,000, relative to the cost of providing them with assistance in private rental and/or through homelessness services.
The other group were given a subsidy to find their own place. The costs to the justice system increased and the average number of police incidents also rose.
“The barriers to private rental are formidable, and often impossible to overcome,” Dr Martin said.
“Social housing provides affordability and security, and a space for personal fulfilment and engagement with support.”
“The evidence strongly supports the need for much greater provision of social housing to people exiting prison. It's relatively affordable, a hook for change to help people desist from offending.
“It is also a stable base from which to receive and engage with support services.”
According to a recent 2021 report from Corrective Services Australia, 42,633 prisoners were in custody from the March Quarter.
Of these 92% were male (39,342) and 8% female (3,291). There were 12,886 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, 90% of whom were male (11,652).