Homeward bound

It
is never easy for ex-offenders to gain a foothold in society and become members
of the community, but one multi-agency scheme in Middlesbrough is trying to put
them on the right road by teaching them basic life skills. Natalie Valios looks
at the 12-week supported housing programme.

Offenders
on probation can sometimes end up back in prison not because they have
deliberately breached their probation conditions, but because they haven’t been
able to read the letter telling them what to do.

The
purpose of a multi-agency scheme in Middlesbrough is to teach ex-offenders all
the basic life skills – including reading and writing if required – that they
need to become socially included in the community.

The
Building a Better Future scheme is run by Project 404 for men over the age of
18 who have a history of offending, addictive behaviour and/or a housing need.

It
was devised several years ago to address the problem of ex-offenders accessing
mainstream housing in the area. The intention was to offer a service to people
who wanted to change and make a difference in their lives, but whose background
gave them little scope to do so, says Project 404 manager Jackie Stockley.

Ex-offenders
are never going to be top of a housing provider’s list of ideal tenants, and
with their background a mainstream tenancy would not normally be available. The
Building a Better Future scheme is about giving ex-offenders the chance to
prove they deserve the opportunity to be included in the community again.

The
16-bed supported housing scheme provides clients with a 12-week residential
programme to support them in changing their way of life and help them address
any financial or addiction problems.

Referrals
come mainly from the probation or prison service, although individuals can also
self-refer. An admissions panel studies each client’s details before any
decision is made to accept them. If they aren’t accepted there are other
supported housing projects and services in the locality that they can turn to.
If it is felt that the scheme is not working out for an individual once they
have started on it, staff support them to move onto the books of one of the
other housing providers in the area.

Schedule
1 offenders and anyone with a drug-dealing conviction are automatically excluded
from the programme.

It
is imperative that clients have made a positive decision to alter their
lifestyle, says Stockley. "They have to address issues surrounding any
addictive behaviour. If they are an offender they are required not to reoffend
while on the scheme. If they have any former arrears with previous tenancies we
expect them to sort that out as well. This is because the scheme is about the
future, so they have to lay their past to rest."

If
a resident does reoffend while undergoing the 12-week programme, they are asked
to leave. It may sound harsh, but there is good reason for this stringency:
once a client has successfully completed the programme they are offered a
mainstream tenancy. As one of the scheme’s aims is to promote community safety
it does not want to place within that community someone who has failed to
change their offending behaviour.

"We
are trying to create good citizens by helping them with their own personal
development and giving them basic key skills. Paramount to everything we do is
community safety," Stockley emphasises.

The
programme revolves around a structured environment, concentrating on the
individual. Most of the work is done with the support of a link worker on a
one-to-one basis, although group work also plays a fundamental part.

Treatment
programmes, particularly for drugs, are vital. Many of the residents have
offended only to fund their drug habit.

A
drugs worker from the Addictive Behaviour Service and two tenancy/ training
support workers support the scheme, and residents with a drug problem can also
register with a local GP whose practice provides services for drug users only.

A
relapse prevention group is also run, and random drug tests are carried out to
ensure residents are sticking to their agreement. Those with an alcohol or
gambling problem join suitable treatment programmes.

"The
regime is designed for those who will work with it. It is a supported housing
project and more, because they have to show commitment before they come in.
They have to show that they want to change," says Stockley.

Tenancy
support workers also run a group once a week. And there is a weekly residential
meeting to ensure that residents feel involved within the project during their
time there. Anyone on probation or community service orders has to fulfil the
conditions and attend relevant meetings.

The
Working Links organisation helps residents with education, training and
employment, advising them of ways to get back into work, accessing training
courses and preparing CVs. Basic skills including literacy and numeracy, and
social skills such as budgeting, cooking and cleaning, are also taught.

"It’s
about positive reinforcement of their lives, how they can get something good
from some of the bad experiences in their lives," says Stockley.

The
life and social skills education helps to give residents the know-how needed to
maintain a tenancy. But if a resident is unable to read or write, then teaching
him or her anything else can be fairly useless, says Stockley.

"We
don’t assume anything about their level of ability when they come to the
project," she adds.

The
average age of offenders accepted by the scheme is 29. Out of the 16
residential places available, there is generally a significant number who
cannot read or write. At the moment, this stands at one in three residents.

There
is an array of reasons for their lack of education, from abusive or difficult
backgrounds, lack of parental encouragement to go to school, to exclusion or
lack of concentration.

"Being
unable to read is not something that they shout from the rooftops. It’s kept a
secret because it doesn’t do their street cred any good," explains
Stockley.

Residents
can either attend a local college to learn how to read and write, or they can
ask for assistance from the scheme’s staff if they don’t want other residents
to know.

At
about eight weeks into the programme a review panel meets with the partner
agencies to discuss whether the scheme is working for an individual. Here
independent reports are presented from the addictions nurse, link worker,
tenancy support worker, Working Links, and the individual residents themselves.
If all areas are being met, the client is approved for a tenancy.

The
support doesn’t stop once the 12 weeks is over, though. Staff continue to visit
former clients for a further six months to help them settle into their own
homes.

"It’s
about setting them on the right track," says Stockley.

Project profile

Project:
Project 404.

History:
The project is part of Stonham Housing Association, a specialist provider of
care, support and enabling services in the Home Group, which is a provider of
housing and community services. Stonham works in partnership with 160 local
authorities, 50 probation services and many health authorities to provide
support to vulnerable and socially excluded people in the community, including
those with mental health problems and care leavers. Its support ranges from
registered care homes to floating support. Project 404 is managed by Stonham
Teesside and has been running for about 20 years. In 1999 it decided to set up
the Building a Better Future scheme within the project, targeted specifically
at promoting social inclusion in the local area. Working in partnership with
Teesside Probation Service, the Addictive Behaviour Service, Middlesbrough
Council and Stockton Council, the scheme’s aim is to address the back-to-basic
skills needed by ex-offenders, often with addictive behaviour and/or housing
needs, to help them become socially included.

Funding:
The single regeneration budget until October 2002 as well as part-funding from
Teesside Probation Service.

Staff:
Manager Jackie Stockley, four project workers, two tenancy training support
workers, and an addictions nurse.

Clients:
Men aged 18+ with a history of offending behaviour, substance misuse, and
housing needs. They must have a connection with the areas of Middlesbrough or
Stockton, and want to be housed in these localities.

Contact:
Jackie Stockley, manager, Project 404, 404 Marton Road, Middlesbrough TS4 2PB.
Tel: 01642 292004.

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