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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
homeless ireland

Homeless offenders: 'Yes, there are bad choices - but a lot have been victimised'

David Williamson is a probation officer in Dublin. He told us about his work with homeless offenders.

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“There are people whose lives are chaotic and who survive within the homeless system and they may float along within that. There are people who really struggle with it and for whom it has a massive impact in relation to their likelihood for re-offending. Like a lot of things in homelessness, it’s not a simple picture.” – David Williamson, Senior Probation Officer

PEOPLE BECOME HOMELESS for many reasons. With some, it’s because they have just come out of prison, which brings with it a range of challenges for the offender and the people helping them.

David Williamson, a Senior Probation Officer in Dublin North City, is a member of the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW).

“In every part of the country we would have issues with the homeless. There isn’t a part of country that wouldn’t have issues with offenders who are homeless,” he says.

In Dublin, there is a specific homeless offenders team. And of the 270 clients that Williamson’s staff deal with, he estimates that at least 10% have housing issues.

“A lot of people we deal with would have had difficulties in terms of housing – family breakdown situations, or they couldn’t remain with the family,” Williamson adds.

Some people get out of prison and say they’re staying with family – only to discover their family have no intention of taking them in.

We get people who are turning up in Focus or turning up in Simon – and it’s usually not just homelessness, there’s always other bits going alongside it. Involvement in mental health issues and addiction are often top of the list. It’s not really surprising if you are homeless or have mental health or addiction difficulties [that] you are likely to find yourself in conflict with the law.

Probation officers work with homeless men and women who might have issues with addiction and mental health, but also more serious offenders who come out of custody homeless.

A lot of people we deal with, yes there are bad choices they make. They have done appalling things. But a massive number of them have been hugely victimised.

A number of their clients have gone through the care system, and some have had redress settlements after suffering institutional abuse.

How they help

File Photo: Prison Officer's Association seeks independent watchdog

The probation service is a criminal justice social work agency and probation officers work in liaison with the prison service and the guards with the goal of reducing re-offending, and preventing re-offending.

Probation officers work with other agencies within the prison system to help find people homes, such as through homeless services, supported accommodation, or private rented accommodation.

Difficulties with finding homes

One huge difficulty at the moment is the price of rent, especially within the Dublin area.

This affects those on rent allowance.

This is problematic given the dearth of reasonable accommodation that there is for people, and the pressure there is for getting accommodation, says Williamson.

“There is a lot of sofa-hopping, trying to get a few nights in with family here, or friends there. It’s quite chronic,” he says. “I think anyone would say not a day goes by where you’re not having an issue with housing.”

Challenging attitudes

Probation officers can come up against challenging attitudes from offenders.

“The challenge is how can you sit down and work with someone about the way they see the world – that ‘you do what you do to have to survive’,” is how Williamson puts it.

He explains some offenders’ way of thinking:

Shops are always insured so no one loses out if I dip. No one loses out if I shoplift. I only deal drugs because that’s how I survive.

The officers need to work to find out how to help people address the kind of thinking that allows them to commit offences.

People can also have poor expectations of themselves, says Williamson. This can feed into difficulties in finding a permanent home. It’s hard, too, to escape the elements that contributed to your difficulties in the first place.

A lot of people we deal with, they are struggling anyway. They are going to know where to hang out. If I moved someone from north inner city Dublin to Tuam or to Navan, in a wet week they’d know where to go.

“It’s really hard when you’re faced with those things. I think it’s very hard for some of the agencies,” says Williamson.

“You read the books of evidence and you think from a victim’s perspective, but you’re also having to read the life experience of many of your clients, which is hugely painful for them.”

“There is no silver bullet”.

What would help with the issues Williamson comes up against?

Firstly, he says, a greater variety of stable accommodation to meet the needs of people leaving prison.

This would include longer-term supported housing for people, as finding accommodation can be hugely problematic once people are out of prison.

Alongside this, he would like programmes that address the need for people to develop life skills. Not everyone who comes out of prison has lived on their own before, or is equipped with the skills to live alone.

We don’t have those things – we just don’t have it. In reality there are some people that, just the idea you’d have an apartment or flat where people have never lived in those things… they have to learn how to do incredibly basic things.

“It makes no sense for someone to live in a B&B. It isn’t stable accommodation,” says Williamson.

Could you bring homelessness to an end?

“You might as well say you are going to bring poverty to an end,” is Williamson’s answer to this question.

“The reality is there are people who really struggle in order to manage within the range of housing situations that we have. I’ve worked in other jurisdictions where resources and efforts to deal with homelessness are far more obvious and greater than we have and they have not eliminated homelessness.”

As for the future?

“It’s not about money. It’s about using what you got. Sometimes when you don’t have money you have to be cleverer about what you do with it.”

Pic: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Read all of our homeless coverage here>

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