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Prisoners given sleeping bags and 'urban survival kits' to help them prepare for homelessness

PUBLISHED: 16:40 19 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:40 19 March 2019

A homeless person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A homeless person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Inmates released from Norwich prison are being handed sleeping bags and warm clothing to prepare them for life on the streets as the number of homeless ex-offenders soars.

One of backpacks provided to homeless offenders on their release from HMP Norwich. Photo: Loving by GivingOne of backpacks provided to homeless offenders on their release from HMP Norwich. Photo: Loving by Giving

More than 150 prisoners at HMP Norwich were recorded as homeless when freed in 2017.

That is more than double the number in 2016 and almost a quarter of all those released, according to the most recent and complete annual Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures.

It has led to one charity, Loving by Giving, to hand out backpacks containing essentials to help the homeless inmates survive on the streets.

Ex-prisoner Stuart McFarlane, who has been in and out of prison since he was 16, said: “It’s daunting when you first come out.

“You’re looking forward to the day and then as soon as you are out you realise you have nowhere to live.

“It’s like, oh, what do I do?”

The 46-year-old, who previously lived in Great Yarmouth, said it was difficult to rebuild your life while living rough.

“On the streets you can’t really do a lot because you don’t have any motivation, you’re depressed and embarrassed,” he said.

Ex-prisoner Stuart McFarlane who is turning his life around with the help of a local organisation. Photo: Brittany CEx-prisoner Stuart McFarlane who is turning his life around with the help of a local organisation. Photo: Brittany C

“There has been plenty of times where I have just gone and done something stupid to go back into prison for a couple of weeks.”

Mr McFarlane, who was released from HMP Norwich in October after a six month stint for ABH, is now turning his life around with help of two local organisations.

He said if it was not for The House of Genesis in Thorpe St Andrew and the Norfolk Community Chaplaincy Project, he would have been homeless once again.

Between October 2017 and March 2018, 469 inmates were released from the Knox Road prison.

Of those, the MoJ said 35 were recorded as sleeping rough, 58 were classed as ‘other homeless’ and 54 going into unsettled accommodation.

The accommodation status of 57 other prisoners on release was listed as “unknown”.

Jaco Beukes, chief operating officer of Loving by Giving, said the charity started a backpack scheme with HMP Norwich in October 2017.

He said demand for the backpacks, which are provided to inmates who are “really vulnerable”, was growing, with between five to 10 given out every month.

They contain everything from toothpaste to warm hats and gloves. A good quality sleeping bag is also offered as an optional extra.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC), which manages probation services for low to medium risk offenders, was contracted by the MoJ to help inmates find a place to live.

It sees every offender 12 weeks prior to their release to create a resettlement plan.

But Maria Pratt, head of homeless services at St Martin’s Housing Trust, said the system did not always work.

“There are services in place within the prison but they are reliant on a housing option being available for the day of release, which for many it is not. “This tends to be those with multiple and complex needs.

“There has also been an increase in the use of very short term custodial sentences which does limit the time the services within the prison have to engage with that individual.”

In May, the Norfolk Community Foundation, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Norfolk’s former High Sheriff Charles Watt will launch a pilot programme to help homeless ex-prisoners.

Claire Cullens, the community foundation’s chief executive, said: “The pilot has been put together to address some of the cracks that have emerged in recent times that prevent vulnerable people from being able to move forward to a positive future.

Norwich Prison on Knox Road. Photo :Steve AdamsNorwich Prison on Knox Road. Photo :Steve Adams

“Significantly this project addresses the systemic causes of homelessness for recently released offenders, rather than coping with the resulting crisis.

“More and more, with increasing cuts and less money available, we need to work in this way to give Norfolk the support it needs.”

She said it was “deeply worrying” some ex-offenders do not have the support to rebuild their lives.

“People have been falling through the cracks,” Ms Cullens said.

Val Dodsworth, 82, who founded The House of Genesis in Thorpe St Andrew, has helped dozens of ex-prisoners who would otherwise be homeless turn their lives around.

She said: “There are not enough services to meet the need and demand.

“There are far too many people coming out of prison with nowhere to go.

“They count towards the days they are coming out, they come out with nowhere to go and they naturally migrate to people they knew before and they are likely to be offenders and drug users and they won’t have a chance to straighten their lives out.”

Val Dodsworth, who founded The House of Genesis in Thorpe St Andrew, with ex-prisoner Stuart McFarlane. Photo Brittany CVal Dodsworth, who founded The House of Genesis in Thorpe St Andrew, with ex-prisoner Stuart McFarlane. Photo Brittany C

Speaking about the need for backpacks for homeless inmates, Mrs Dodsworth said it was a sign of a “dreadful society we live in”.

She said: “It is a bad situation. But those backpacks do help them along slightly.”

What the backpacks contain

Loving by Giving’s ‘urban survival kits’ contain 15 items to help ex-offenders for a life on the streets.

Each bag costs between £25 to £30 to put together and include: A toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving foam, safety razor, shower gel, hand towel, warm hat, gloves, socks, rain mac, cereal bar, refillable water bottle, pen, notepad and a £5 supermarket voucher.

A good quality warm sleeping bag is an optional extra.

Mr Beukes, the charity’s chief operating officer, said an information leaflet is also provided showing all of the services available to the homeless in Norwich.

He said: “The people who apply for these bags say they are at risk of becoming rough sleepers. It is given to people who are really vulnerable.”

The Brittania Cafe and HMP Norwich. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe Brittania Cafe and HMP Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Mr Beukes said the bags provide people with hope and show there are people “who do want to help them”.

The MoJ was asked if the prison helps fund the backpacks, but a spokesman said all of the items are donated by charities.

City council’s response

Norwich City Council says it works closely with the CRC to try and assist those leaving prison.

The council said its Pathways service, which was introduced last year, also provides specialist support and criminal justice liaison to rough sleepers.

A spokesman said: “Finding somewhere to live is an important part of the long term rehabilitation of someone that has recently left prison.

“Working closely with the Norfolk and Suffolk Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) and other partners, we try to assist anyone leaving prison find suitable accommodation as quickly as possible.

The council said before the Pathways service was introduced it worked with various organisations across to support rough sleepers, but with a more limited resource.

Brittania Cafe and HMP Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYBrittania Cafe and HMP Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Pathways was commissioned to create a team of representatives from key organisations. It ensures people have a single point of contact to access the support they need.

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