More than 80 per cent of participants in VACRO’s ReConnect program face primary or secondary homelessness on their release from prison, according to testimony given to the Parliament of Victoria’s Homelessness Inquiry this week.

During their verbal evidence to the Legal and Social Issues Committee, VACRO’s CEO Marius Smith and ReConnect Program Manager Sarah Hughes spoke about their ideas for improving housing outcomes for people leaving prison.

Marius and Sarah covered four key areas relevant to VACRO’s work: public housing stock, access to the private rental market, post-release support, and employment options.

They also spoke about the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has made things worse for people experiencing homelessness. Marius raised the example of two ReConnect participants who had no accommodation options after being released from prison. The housing providers they sought help from are so over-stretched that they could only offer tents rather than funds to pay for temporary housing.

Transcripts of their evidence is available on the Parliament of Victoria’s website and VACRO’s written submission can be read on our website. Read on for a summary of our recommendations.

1. More public housing will ease pressure

Marius and Sarah outlined to the committee the most common pathway for people leaving prison into homelessness: first, a temporary stay in a local motel to ‘buy some time’, funded jointly by ReConnect and a person’s local housing entry point; then to crisis accommodation, followed by transitional accommodation for up to 12 months, before securing public housing.

“The lack of public housing means that no one is moving from transitional housing, so no one is moving from crisis housing,” he said. “The entire system is blocked up.”  

This problem exacerbates the challenges people face coming out of prison and leaves them at a higher risk of returning to custody. More public housing would ‘unclog’ this problem and offer prison leavers the stability they need to rebuild their lives.

2. Unlocking the potential of the private rental market

Sarah told the inquiry many ReConnect participants have both the independent living skills and the financial means to rent privately, and recent changes to the eviction requirements of the Residential Tenancies Act have made it easier for participants to maintain their housing.

But the stigma attached to prison leavers and parole assessment requirements of private rentals makes it difficult for our participants to secure private homes. ReConnect case managers are building strong relationships with local real estate agents and Community Correctional Services to navigate these circumstances and support their participants, but the caseload demands on ReConnect limit this work. Stronger connections to the private rental market for prison leavers could ease pressure on public services and truly see participants living their lives independently.  

3. Support for all aspects of reintegration

ReConnect supports prison leavers in seven key domains, including mental health, employment and family relationships—but without stable housing, participants can’t address all the areas we know are critical to their successful reintegration from prison. Marius and Sarah pointed to the many ReConnect participants who build successful lives and made it clear that too many participants lost this opportunity because they spent so much time focusing on housing.

“Giving someone a base means that it’s one less thing to worry about,” she said. “It becomes a very practical way of being able to support someone and open up the opportunity for services like us to not spend 3-4 months to get a roof over someone’s head.”

Funding a longer, more robust model of support for ReLink and ReConnect would address this.

4. Post-prison employment for a better life

We know our participants face two housing challenges after prison: finding housing, and keeping housing. Secure work and high-waged work options ease this pressure and open more housing opportunities. We told the inquiry about our employment programs for people in contact with the criminal justice system, and said evidence suggests the stability employment provides can help reduce people’s risk of reoffending.

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