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Homeless dilemmas: Where do women go after prison?

Read Annette’s story.

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TURNING TO CRIME is not an inevitable consequence of homelessness but the risk of offending – or, more troubling, reoffending – can increase when there is a lack of suitable accommodation.

The statistics are well borne out in research by Focus Ireland and other charity groups.

Ex-prisoners – both men and women – struggle to find either private rented accommodation or local housing.

Annette* is currently in that situation after being released from a prison abroad.

Currently housed in short-term accommodation by Depaul Ireland, she has to ensure she has a place to stay when her tenancy runs out in January.

The young woman was caught running drugs and served a sentence of under two years.

“So, I ran drugs, got caught, did my sentence, got deported and came here,” she tells as way of explanation of how she is in Tús Nua, Depaul’s service for female ex-prisoners.

She is finding it hard to adjust to life again, joking that she is “still amazed at being able to flush a toilet”.

However, her expression turns serious when asked about her future plans.

“I’m supposed to be leaving here in January – and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m stuck at the moment for moving on. [But] I’m not going back on the streets. I’m not going back to prison.”

Before her prison sentence, Annette had spent a number of years living on the streets and “in and out of hostels”. She was also a drug user but has been clean for more than 21 weeks.

She decided to quit taking drugs towards the end of her sentence – “If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere,” she thought.

Trying to establish and maintain a connection with her child is keeping her motivated this time.

“I take it day by day,” she says. “I get the help I need here – and if they can’t help, I go elsewhere.”

She has weekly appointments with solicitors and counsellors, and prepares for weekend visits with her child and her future college course.

photo One of Annette's sketches

“I make sure I’m out of [the hostel] as much as possible,” she adds. “I was locked up for long enough with nothing to do. I’ve also been out of my child’s life for long enough and if I end up back on the streets, I’ll have to leave him again.”

She calls Tús Nua her “lifeline”.

Let me put it this way, they put a roof over my head and a warm bed to sleep in, and that’s what I needed.

“Basically, I’m trying to better myself,” she continues.

“This is my last chance. If I mess up here, I don’t get anything else. It’s the same routine again. And I’m not allowing myself to go down there again.”

Annette is looking forward to starting a community college course in art, which will focus on confidence building and deadlines.

As part of her counselling, she also takes part in non-conventional dramas.

“If I’m not doing anything, I get depressed. If I get depressed, I take drugs and the cycle starts,” she explains.

However, the quality and location of accommodation is important to Annette.

“I have to have somewhere to move to – moving back to the family home is not an option. But it needs to be close to them and close to the services I need. There is no point in sticking me outside of those areas and I relapse again.

“I’ve done all the work. I’ve done the prison sentence, I’ve done my time, I’ve done my time here. I just want to get on with my life. I’m too old for this now.

“If you’ve messed up your teens and the only good thing to come out of your 20s is a child and then you’re hitting the last of your 20s, you’re going into your 30s. You reflect on life going, ‘What have a I really got?’ It’s not nice. So I’m trying to do the best I can.”

PastedImage-58748 One of Annette's sketches.

The service

Tús Nua was set up in 2003 with a specific remit to offer accommodation for women leaving prison.

Services were finding that emergency accommodation unsettled people because it was not adapted to their needs. Often, they ended up re-offending.

It is widely accepted that many prisoners are at risk of a cycle of homelessness, re-offending and imprisonment.

At Tús Nua, there is a focus on engaging with the residents – there are six at any given time.

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Manager Carmen Iordache, who also has experience working with male prisoners, believes the women need more attention.

“Every day, it’s good to ask what is the plan is before they leave the hostel. The majority will have clinics or day courses. But relapses will happen a lot. We work with the women towards more stability and, in some cases, they go towards detox and abstinence.”

Most of Tús Nua’s clients have chronic addictions and Iordache notes that domestic violence, for many of the clients, has been part of their lives from a very young age.

Often, there is a history of rough sleeping and homelessness.

Research from Focus Ireland’s Sinead McGinley shows that there are three reasons why some individuals experiencing homelessness commit offences:

  • The criminalisation of street live (for example, drinking in public, vagrancy)
  • Criminal behaviour to survive (for example, shoplifting)
  • Stigmatisation: Those sleeping rough are perceived as a threat to the community. They are more likely, then, to be formally processed for offences that may be otherwise ignored.

Offenders’ difficulties in securing accommodation are often intensified because of substance abuse or mental health problems, McGinley concludes.

There are also extra problems for ‘high risk’ individuals, particularly those with a history of sexual offences or arson.

And, despite the prison system’s commitment to try and ensure no prisoner is released unless they have a place to stay, many end up on the streets on their first free night.

This can often be because of non-disclosure from the prisoner.

In-reach programmes and post-release schemes have be found to be effective to prevent re-offending and homelessness.

Fergal Black, Director of Care and Rehabilitation in the Irish Prison Service, however, has warned that, ”A lot of good work [in prison] will come to nothing if there is no suitable accommodation on release.”

He also emphasised the importance of maintaining prisoners’ relationships with their families to ensure they have a place to stay on release.

He admitted, however, that the experience of visiting a prison for children is a “poor” one. He looks to Scotland and Wales for good examples, where children are allowed to visit inmates at all times and that there is ‘McDonald’s-style’, friendly seating arrangements.

In Ireland, visiting hours end for children at 4pm so they have to miss school to see parents. There are also ‘benches’ as areas for seating.

“Maintaining links between families has shown to pay great dividends,” he said.

Black also said that working with people while they are in prison, in areas of work, healthcare, education and recreation, provides “not a pastime, but a lifeline”.

*Not her real name
Top image: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Catch up with all the rest of our Homeless Ireland series here

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