Campaigners, including women with personal experiences of the issue, have met with MPs and Peers to call for action to stop women from suffering the injustice of homelessness once they have served their sentence.

The Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative estimates that 65% of prison leavers released from prison have no fixed abode; many of these women have experienced domestic abuse and trauma and are at risk of insecure employment and reoffending.

In January, the Government announced a £70m initiative to keep prison-leavers off the street and cut resultant crime. Still, the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative has said that this will not be enough to keep these women safe. The initiative is calling for targeted measures to address the particular and complex needs of these vulnerable women.

And on Tuesday, in an online event hosted by Revd Rachel Treweek, lord bishop of Gloucester and Anglican bishop of prisons in England and Wales, MPs and Peers showed their support for a change in the system.

Why are so many women released homeless?

The Government’s 2018 Female Offender Strategy recognises that women in contact with the criminal justice system often have complex needs, such as mental health problems, addiction, poverty, and self-harm. Many have come into contact with the criminal justice system due to their experiences of abuse and trauma, with almost 60% having had experienced domestic abuse.

John Plummer, coordinator of London Prisons Mission and Representative of the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative, said during the Tuesday online event that one of the reasons why women are often absent from homeless statistics is that, after leaving prison, they seldom try to survive as rough sleepers, but are more likely to return to previously violent or criminal partners, sofa surf, or exchange sex for a bed for the night.

He added that they could not obtain regular employment in these circumstances, resume care of dependent children, or continue medical treatment, let alone complete rehabilitation and become independent, tax-paying citizens. For this, they need safe homes and support.

The 2020 Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison report highlighted the current duty of care prisons have. Under the 2017 Homeless Reduction Act, prisons have ‘a duty to refer’ anyone at risk of homelessness on release to their local authority.

However, the report, commissioned by the London Prisons Mission and the Prison Reform Trust, suggested that the Act is currently failing women due to:

  • Short prison sentences result in women losing their accommodation.
  • The need to be rehoused with their children.
  • The need to relocate because of domestic abuse.
  • A chronic lack of suitable housing, including for women with complex needs.
  • A loss of local connections.

Women typically serve shorter sentences than men, according to a 2020 Ministry of Justice report. These shorter sentences pose unique challenges for rehabilitation and resettlement, as the most recent Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) report commented: “Prisons and their partners have little time to address offending related needs and struggle to provide more than the most basic assistance.”

Additionally, the IMB report found that only 41% of women had housing to go to on release, with 45% reporting that they had no address to go to. Additionally, a quarter of prisoners interviewed lost their home upon entry to prison, and 12% stated that they were already homeless before they came into custody.

St Giles Trust, a charity working with vulnerable young people, has suggested that one of the reasons why homelessness is so prevalent post-release is that 'the duty to refer' is poorly understood by prison staff. Therefore there is a disjointed communication with council housing teams.

The failure to provide these women with safe housing has been suggested as one reason why an HMI Probation report found that, between 2019 and 2020, 65% of men and women released from prisons without accommodation reoffend.

Also, the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison report emphasised that homelessness makes securing employment, maintaining positive mental health, and a return to harmful behaviours such as substance misuse even more difficult.

What is the solution?

To address these problems, the report proposed that there should be an extensive cross-party consultation to examine why so many women are let down by a system that is meant to support them post-prison; key recommendations included:

  • A review of the ‘duty to refer’ measure.
  • An agreed target for women to be settled post-release.
  • Designated responsibility for arranging a woman’s accommodation on release.
  • An increase on the £46 discharge grant to £80.

Dame Anne Owers, chair of the Independent Monitoring Board, summaries the problem: “Finding secure accommodation for those leaving prison is vital, not just for prisoners themselves, but for the protection of the public. Without proper housing, other aspects of successful rehabilitation – employment, mental health and substance use support – become difficult or impossible, and reoffending becomes much more likely.”