Rough sleepers tactically reoffending as jail feels 'safer' than streets

A police van in Prince of Wales Road in Norwich 

A police van in Prince of Wales Road in Norwich - Credit: David Cross

Homeless people have said they will tactically reoffend to get a roof over their heads because prison feels safer than the city’s streets. 

Although it is costly in terms of court costs and policing time, rough sleepers in Norwich say a cell is their desired destination.

Justin Barrett is an example of a prolific offender who became homeless in 2014 following the breakdown of an 18-year relationship with his partner.  

He left his family home and reverted back to offending behaviour which was instilled during his childhood. 

This resulted in numerous small offences - usually to fund his drug use. 

For years, the 37-year-old bounced between hostels and short prison stays with increasing paranoia and mental distress. 

The main gate to Norwich Prison from Knox Road

The main gate to HMP Norwich from Knox Road - Credit: Archant

He has now been able to break the cycle by moving into a one-bedroom flat through Norwich homeless charity St Martins Housing Trust.  

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But there are others who are tempted by the comparative comforts prison offers as an alternative to street life. 

Darren Milbank, 52, is on the brink of homelessness and is reliant on benefits and council tax rebates to keep him off the streets entirely. 

Darren Milbank on the steps of City Hall in Norwich 

Darren Milbank on the steps of City Hall in Norwich - Credit: Ben Hardy

The Bury St Edmunds-born man is friendly with many homeless people in Norwich and told the Evening News he was down to his last pack of cigarettes and can of beer as he sat on the steps of City Hall on Friday morning. 

He said: "Prison is probably seen as preferable as there are three cooked meals on offer a day and nowhere cooks porridge like that. 

"Some people will pester the law until they get put in. It can be deliberate. A lot of people seem to be doing it at the moment." 

It comes after nearly 1,000 arrests were made by Norfolk Police from January 2017 to December 2021 in the city centre and surrounding areas. 

These statistics are recorded when the detainee said they were of 'no fixed abode' when asked by police for their address. 

One project in the city which is seeking to bring this cycle to an end is Rebuild by St Martins.  

It was this project which helped Justin turn his fortunes around.

A spokeswoman for St Martins said: "Justin was so frightened by the thought of being unsafe on the streets that he had planned to commit another offence to get back to a place where he felt that he didn’t need to feel scared. 

"After working with Rebuild to address his situation, the client was offered accommodation within a setting where he would usually have been excluded. 

"He was only offered this placement because of the ground-breaking support that Rebuild had provided." 

The spokeswoman added another person the charity had worked with – who cannot be identified – had been in prison so long it became his “safe place”. 

The ex-offender has now been settled into accommodation and recently told his support worker that for the first time since being released, he "did not want to go back to prison". 

Cases like this have contributed to Rebuild having a 57pc reduction in reoffending. 

The scheme is being delivered by St Martins Housing Trust. Pictured is chief executive Dr Jan Sheldo

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive at St Martins - Credit: Archant

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martins, said: "When people receive the right accommodation and support on leaving prison they have an improved chance of turning their lives around. 

"Previously they may have been perceived as a burden to society in terms of court costs, policing and community safety. 

"However our focus is on helping people find their place in the community and live fulfilling and independent lives.” 

Rebuild works with people assessed as being at high-risk of reoffending and has two properties in Norwich for people with no other accommodation options upon release. 

It supports people that are excluded from other services due to their level of risk and works with them at this crucial time to support them to reintegrate into the community, address offending behaviours and to find suitable accommodation. 

St Martins director of homeless services Maria Pratt accepting the 'Prevention into Action’ award

St Martins director of homeless services Maria Pratt accepting the 'Prevention into Action’ award alongside Rebuild co-ordinator Hannah Molloy - Credit: St Martins

It recently won the ‘Prevention into Action’ category in Homeless Link’s annual Excellence Awards.