Australia’s ‘revolving door’ of prison and homelessness

In the state of Victoria, a third of those leaving prison become homeless, while a quarter of them were homeless in the month before they entered prison.

Andrew slept on the streets for more than a decade, rotating in and out of prison. He says having a stable house helped him piece his life together and has kept him out of jail [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Melbourne, Australia – It was after he broke his neck in a car accident four years ago that Andrew, 50, decided “enough is enough”.

“That’s when I got off the drugs,” he says. “I changed my life.”

Andrew had been drinking to celebrate the grand final of the national game of Australian rules football and decided to drive home. After dropping his father off, he lost control of his car and ended up in hospital.

A tall man with greying hair, Andrew speaks slowly and methodically, as if observing his own life from a distance.

We have met in Melbourne on a rare break from the months-long COVID lockdown, and sit at one of the city’s many cafes drinking coffee.

These are streets Andrew knows well; he spent nearly a decade sleeping on them.

‘I lost my brother, my mum and my dad’

The events of 2017 marked a turning point in Andrew’s life.

In March of that year, his brother died by suicide and, while he was in hospital recovering from the car accident, his father passed away at home. Then, on the day of his father’s funeral, his mother died of cancer.

“That year I lost my brother and my mum and dad,” he says.

Andrew sought help from the not-for-profit organisation cohealth, a Melbourne-based community health service that assists people experiencing homelessness and other social disadvantages.

One of cohealth’s main goals, says CEO Nicole Bartholomeusz, is to “provide much-needed healthcare or link them into specialist health care”.

Nicole explains that the organisation takes a “social determinants approach” to healthcare delivery, recognising that if other factors that are underscoring the health issue – such as the lack of a home – are not addressed, the health will not improve.

“We really recognise that while the provision of that immediate healthcare response is really important, it essentially is just a band aid if we are not actually addressing the determinants of health,” she says, adding: “Homelessness is a significant driver of poor health outcomes.”

cohealth is an inner-city support service for people experiencing homelessness. It runs a range of health programmes as well as providing support for people like Andrew to find secure permanent housing [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

As well as providing healthcare, cohealth connects clients to other social care providers who can assist with housing, and its Central City clinic in the heart of the city, provides wraparound services, including showers, laundry facilities and food.

“[It] is a drop-in space, it’s a safe space for people to use,” says Nicole. “And then we can use that opportunity to engage with people about what their healthcare needs might be.”

It was after engaging with cohealth following his discharge from the hospital that Andrew was supported to quit drugs and find permanent housing. He says he is “never looking back”. But the road to a sober life and permanent housing was a long one for Andrew.

‘The first time you walk into jail is petrifying’

He grew up in a violent home, and says he was physically abused by both his biological father and his mother’s partners.

“Each one of them would punch me. I’d go to my old man’s and he’d bash me, so I’d run away. My old man was a chronic alcoholic.”

Andrew first tried heroin when he was 13 years old and it quickly led to a life of drug use and crime. That was also the age he first experienced homelessness.

His first stint in prison followed in 1988 when he was just 18 and living in northern Australia.

“I was 2,000km away from home and knew not one soul,” he recalls. “The first time you walk into jail is petrifying. It makes you really open your eyes.”

For the next few decades, he was in and out of prison. He got used to the experience of being locked up, he says, adding, if you commit a crime, “you got to expect to go to jail – everyone gets caught. Otherwise don’t do it.”

Despite being homeless off and on since he was 13, Andrew says the worst stint was after his marriage dissolved 10 years ago.

At that time he was housed in a council flat but after a physical altercation with a friend over money he ended up back in prison.

“I ended up going to jail and I lost my flat,” he says. “And when I went to jail then I didn’t bounce back.”

After leaving prison, Andrew says he was given two weeks’ accommodation in a hotel and then had nowhere to go. He ended up sleeping on Melbourne’s streets for nearly 10 years.

Homelessness and prison

Andrew’s experience of going from prison to homelessness is not unusual. In fact, the statistics demonstrate that prison and homelessness are inextricably linked.

Julie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services, an organisation that assists people exiting the prison system. She says that about a third of all prisoners in the state of Victoria leave prison and are almost immediately homeless.

Not only that, one in four inmates was homeless the month before entering prison, suggesting that homelessness and prison are often interwoven.

As well as being CEO, Julie also oversees the ReConnect programme, which is designed to assist prisoners in re-establishing their lives once they are out of prison. This includes reconciling with family, looking for work and receiving any mental health treatment they may need, as well as finding housing.

She says finding safe and secure housing is one of the most important aspects of assisting someone after they leave prison.

“If someone hasn’t got stable, safe housing, it’s really hard to do the other series of interventions you are trying to do,” she explains.

Ravenhall prison complex, the latest development by the Victorian government to house prisoners, is estimated to cost 2.5 billion Australian dollars ($1.8bn) over 25 years. Critics say the government spends too much on imprisonment – more than 300 Australian dollars ($220) per prisoner per day – money that could be better spent on housing services [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Julie says her programme is severely underfunded and only about 10 percent of exiting prisoners receive any support from programmes like ReConnect. She explains that given the small number of prisoners they can assist, they are able to help only those who are considered to be at high risk of reoffending – such as serious violent and sex offenders – or thought to be extremely vulnerable, such as women prisoners and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Inmates like Andrew, who have not committed a serious offence and whose needs – despite being complex – are not considered serious enough, simply do not get the support they require.

“Our big point is that if you are in custody we know that you have pretty much always got a series of multiple and complex interlocking problems,” Julie says.

“[Yet] there’s a whole lot of people who aren’t getting [any support].”

The government response

Julie says that of the 6,600 people who exited the Victoria prison system in the last year, only 700 received post-prison support from her organisation.

It is this lack of support that she says contributes greatly to the high recidivism rate of prisoners in Victoria. Recidivism is described in a recent Ombudsman report as anyone being sentenced to another jail term within two years of exiting prison. In Victoria, that rate is 44.1 percent, meaning that nearly half of all prisoners in Victoria return to jail within two years of being released.

Responding to inquiries about recidivism from Al Jazeera, Minister for Corrections and Youth Justice Natalie Hutchins stated that Victoria’s rate “is lower than the national rate and has reduced in each of the last three years”.

However, Julie Edwards maintains that this is still a gross failure of the system.

“Prisons are very expensive and they don’t work, as you can see by the 44.1 percent recidivism rate,” she says. “We are investing up the wrong end of the system.”

Australia spends more money on prisons and policing than comparable developed countries – in Victoria, this equates to more than 300 Australian dollars ($220) per prisoner per day, more than 100,000 Australian dollars ($73,000) per year.

And this number is steadily rising, with a nearly 60 percent increase in prisoners since 2010.

For Indigenous people, these statistics are even higher, with a recent report estimating that the cost of imprisoning Indigenous people – who are jailed at between 11 and 25 times the rate of non-Indigenous people – at about $9bn (US$6.6bn) per year.

It is this type of money that critics such as Julie Edwards say should be better invested in support programmes and, vitally, permanent housing.

Such reinvestment is an approach that the Victorian government seems to be slowly catching on to.

Minister Hutchins told Al Jazeera that her government “will continue to fund programmes to ensure individuals who are at risk of homelessness, and at increased risk of reoffending upon release from prison, receive support for including access to transitional housing placements and assistance”.

As such, a community residential facility was established in Melbourne in 2019 to provide short-term accommodation for men exiting the prison system who would otherwise be homeless. But the facility can only accommodate 44 residents at any time, falling well short of the estimated 2,000 people released from Victoria jails directly into homelessness each year.

‘Disrupting connections’

Julie says her organisation would also like to see changes in legislation that would see fewer people going to prison in the first place.

She believes people who have committed crimes that would receive a prison term of less than 12 months generally do not represent a threat to the community and that there should be more alternatives to prison for these, such as an increase in community service or electronic monitoring.

Such approaches are not only cheaper, but appear to be more effective.

The cost of keeping an offender on a community corrections order is less than 50 Australian dollars ($37) per day, with a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent.

Julie says it is predominantly people who receive sentences of less than two years who are most likely to rotate in and out of homelessness.

“We are very concerned about that group of people,” she says. “We disrupt those connections that people have – the house they’ve been renting, or their social housing. And often it sets someone really way back again.”

Services such as cohealth have been vital in assisting people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a mobile health van that provides health services and support to rough sleepers [Photo courtesy of cohealth]

Andrew, who rotated from prison into homelessness, agrees.

“The government can either play dumb and pretend this isn’t going on and in 10 years have another worse problem than what it’s got,” he says. “Or spend a few million and build some flats and get these poor people off the streets. You’ve got to stop that revolving door.”

‘I feel a better person inside’

Andrew now lives in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Docklands, something he describes as ironic. As a young drug dealer, he used to deal with people who lived in Docklands apartments.

He has now secured a subsidised community housing property in the suburb with the help of cohealth, but he has left his drug use and dealing far behind him.

“When I gave up dealing I finally got my house in Docklands,” he says with a laugh. “As far as I’ve come, I can’t go back. I’ve come too far.”

Andrew concludes that the experience of exiting prison into homelessness is too common and that more needs to be done to assist prisoners coming out of jail.

“[There needs to be] a good support network. An alcohol and drug counsellor. And you got to want to get off it and you need to want to better your life,” he says.

“But it’s so much easier when you are housed.”

He now works directly for a community organisation assisting people who may be homeless and struggling with addiction.

In his job, he delivers food packages and blankets, and during the pandemic has been distributing masks, hand sanitiser and health information to people experiencing homelessness, and helping guide people to testing and vaccination sites

He says his own experience of homelessness allows him to connect with clients based on their shared experiences.

“The job is a reality check of where I’ve been. It makes me remember when I was in that predicament,” he says.

“The other aspect is every time I go to work I feel a better person inside. I feel work has moulded me into an even better person. Working is like another beautiful part of life that I haven’t really embraced before. It’s fantastic.”

“The whole place [cohealth] has just changed my life. It’s like a fairy tale, I can’t believe it.”

This series was supported by the City of Yarra.

Source: Al Jazeera