September 30, 2022

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For many years Marie slept in tents in Dublin city centre. At night she lit a small candle inside to keep warm and during the day she shoplifted alcohol or took drugs to feed her dependency.

When she was sentenced to three months in prison for petty theft, it was a relief from her life on the streets, she said.

“Basically, I was in an abusive relationship that didn’t work out. My mother got a barring order against me at the time because I had a bad drinking problem. I had a drug problem too. I kind of chose the drink over everything and that’s how I ended up on the streets,” said Marie (not her real name).

“It was really, really hard. The worst thing about it is the cold; I’ll never forget the cold. I remember waking up every half an hour because it was so cold that I couldn’t sleep.”

Marie has been in prison four times, primarily for petty theft and one incident of criminal damage, offences she attributes to her substance use. Her sentences have ranged from three to six months.

“It was a relief. It was definitely better to be in prison than on the streets. I had hot showers, three meals a day, a bed. It was a break from me drinking. I have a drug problem as well, and it was a relief to be clean,” she said.

She is now staying in Tus Nua, a specialised service run by Depaul homeless charity that supports women who are homeless upon their release from prison. It accommodates 15 women in single rooms, each for about six months, to assist their return to independent living.

It is the second time she has been in the service, but she feels differently this time, having secured her first job in a decade and with plans in place to get her own home in three months.

“In two years’ time I’d like to see myself in my own place, working full-time, clean, sober and back with my family and socialising some more.”

The Irish Prison Service’s 2020 annual report said 7.1 per cent of people committed to prison that year declared they had no fixed abode. However, it is believed the true number is higher due to some people being “hidden homeless”, and not being counted in statistics.

Research from the University of Limerick, and published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2018, found 17.4 per cent of people were homeless on committal to prison in Ireland, higher than some international estimates.

Homelessness upon release from prison is another issue. In the first five months of this year 113 former convicts presented to emergency homeless accommodation on the day of their release, figures from the Department of Justice show.

David Carroll, chief executive of Depaul, said its Tus Nua service is constantly at capacity, adding that accommodation and rehabilitation is a “particular challenge” for those who leave prison.

“The demand is always high for services for women, specifically, in the criminal justice system. We firmly believe if we can keep women out of prison, it’s better in terms of their long-term future and stability.”

Carroll said many of the women who use the service have experienced “significant trauma” in their lives, including poverty, domestic abuse, addiction, bereavement or family breakdown.

Mental health and addiction issues are common among those in homelessness and in prison, said Vivian Geiran, a former director of the Probation Service.

“Now this is a slight exaggeration — but not much of one — is that people say prisons are the biggest mental hospitals and the biggest homeless shelters in the country,” he said.

“For people coming out of prison in particular, there are expectations on them in relation to post-release supervision; staying out of trouble. Very many of them will have addiction or other type problems.

“In order to access any or all of those and to ensure you keep everything in your life on track, the fundamental piece is that you need to have stable, safe and secure accommodation. It’s really critical in the whole offender rehabilitation issue.”

Homelessness is part of a “circular relationship”, Geiran said, that sees some people moving from prison to the streets, and back.

“Sometimes people ask the question: does the offending lead to homelessness or does the homelessness lead to offending? To be honest, it’s a bit of both. You’re at risk of one if you’re already involved with the other,” he said.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO), published in January, found 60 per cent of individuals reoffended after being released following public order offences in 2019, with the number being 57 per cent for those released following property damage offences that year.

Of those who were released from prison in 2016, 70 per cent of women reoffended within three years, as did 62 per cent of males.

Saoirse Brady, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), said people who are homeless are statistically more likely to reoffend, as are people imprisoned for low-level crimes.

“We see this particularly for women who end up in prison. It’s very short sentences, which means they can’t really engage with the programmes they need to help them on their recovery journey,” she said.

The issue of homelessness also plays a role before sentencing, according to the IPRT, as it affects the chances of being granted bail.

“Or people who may have committed an offence, and maybe in other circumstances, the court would look at community-based sanction. But without an address it’s very difficult to actually access those alternatives,” Brady added.

Neil McFadden, senior probation officer at the Probation Service, and who leads a dedicated team working with homeless people engaged in the criminal justice system in Dublin, said about three-quarters of the approximately 400 active cases looked after by the team are people who committed minor offences, largely consisting of public order, petty theft and possession charges.

There are some people who I would have known when they were teenagers in the ‘90s, who are still homeless on our books now

—  Neil McFadden, senior probation officer

About 95 per cent of active cases on the team are people who have active addiction issues, he said, adding that dealing with trauma is another prevalent challenge.

“A lot of the people who are active at the moment have been homeless for a long time. There are some people who I would have known when they were teenagers in the ‘90s, who are still homeless on our books now,” he said.

“These are people who have grown up in homelessness, who have left difficult family backgrounds. The environment in which these children were brought up in was not a good one, and that has an ongoing impact throughout life and how you’re able to manage your emotional reaction to certain situations.”

One example, he said, is when gardaí ask homeless people to move from where they are sleeping and they react in an inappropriate way, which can sometimes constitute a public order offence.

The State has made efforts to address the issue of homelessness among those engaged with the criminal justice system.

In June 2021 Ireland signed the Lisbon declaration on combating homelessness, under which — by 2030 — no person should be discharged from an institution, such as a prison, without an offer of appropriate housing.

A pilot project under the justice strand of Housing First, the national housing programme, seeks to identify long-term, secure accommodation for those engaged with the criminal justice system. The Irish Prison Service has a resettlement service, under which prisoners notify the prison’s resettlement co-ordinator that they will be homeless or at risk of homelessness upon release.

Barry Owens, operations manager at the Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities, which operates the resettlement service, said the co-ordinators are the “designated single point of contact” between the Irish Prison Service and the local authority.

“We would make an application to the local authority for housing support. From there, the local authority decides on the best response given their resources,” he said, adding that it could mean people being accommodated in hostels.

“Our Government has signed the Lisbon declaration and it means right now, we have a brilliant context to look at homelessness, and prison and the institutional referral arrangements. We need to look at the resources in place, and what can we do to realise the commitments made under the declaration.”

Homeless prisoners-Shauna Bowers

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