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In the midst of a third national lockdown, with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and temperatures plummeting, the issue of rough sleeping has shot to the top of the news agenda.

The Government’s ‘Everyone In’ Scheme – implemented in response to the first wave of the pandemic – was a real success story, supporting approximately 33,000 people, broken down as 10,000 housed in emergency accommodation and 23,000 ‘moved on into longer-term accommodation (as per Kelly Tolhurst, who is responsible within Government for the rough sleeping portfolio), as the virus ripped through the UK.

Given the situation we now find ourselves in, enveloped as we are by a highly transmissible new strain of COVID-19, the re-implementation of the scheme is paramount for protecting those sleeping rough. It is to the Government’s credit that it has recognised this and, once again, asked councils in England to ‘redouble their efforts’ to help ensure everyone sleeping rough has somewhere to stay and also make sure that they are registered with a GP.

Prison leavers are particularly vulnerable to being plunged into homelessness and make up a large proportion of the UK’s rough sleeping population. 53% of rough sleepers have been in prison or had some form of contact with the criminal justice system, a figure that the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has referenced publicly. Compounding this figure is the fact that two-thirds of homeless prison leavers end up reoffending within a year. This clearly has significant knock-on effects. Whether through the communities that are damaged by crime, the cost to every prison leaver unable to put in place the foundations needed to move on with their lives or, financially, the £18 billion hit to the Exchequer every, single year – which is the cost of reoffending to the Government, according to its own statistics. The estimated, average fiscal cost of an individual that sleeps rough is £12,260.

At Nacro, with over 50 years’ experience of delivering criminal justice and housing services, both in prison and in the community, we are all too aware of the significant barriers facing prison leavers as they attempt to secure accommodation upon release. Between May and August of last year, the Ministry of Justice committed £8.5 million to support people at risk of homeless during the pandemic (coupled with the setting up of 7 Homelessness Prevention Taskforces), which helped secure accommodation for up to 56 nights for prison leavers who weren’t able to find any other means of accommodation. It was a welcome, and well-targeted funding scheme, that was restarted in October with additional funding to cater for the impact of the pandemic’s second wave. That is why we are now calling on the Government to extend the scheme for a third time, recognising the extra difficulties faced by prison leavers in obtaining suitable accommodation.

The scar of homelessness is not a new one and requires longer-term commitments but, given the current, desperate circumstances, immediate funding schemes are necessary to ensure no one goes without accommodation during these harsh winter months. Projecting ahead, more permanent solutions will have to be found to ensure that all prison leavers have somewhere to go upon release. Before the pandemic, around 1,000 people were released from prison every month without somewhere to live. This pandemic has shone a spotlight on the unacceptably high number of people released from prison with nowhere to live, and we will continue to fight for solutions, not only for now, but which go beyond the pandemic’s lifetime. The Chancellor did commit to funding housing for prison leavers back in November’s Spending Review, with further details on the size and nature of the pot, expected imminently.

Worryingly, pressure on the housing sector, and on private renters more specifically, is immense and growing. According to research by Citizens Advice, half a million tenants in the UK are behind with their rent. The Government has now extended its eviction ban for a further six weeks, but the onus is on them to come up with a longer-term solutions to avoid a situation in February whereby the homelessness rate increase substantially.

The Government’s renewed schemes need to be driven hard at all levels so they have the impact we desperately need. And we call, once again, for Government to make sure that people leaving prison – in the face of this unprecedented strain – aren’t left behind and left on the street now, or in the future.

Sam Julius, Nacro’s Public Affairs & Campaigns Officer

Read our piece in Inside Time (the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees) here.