Why Scotland's housing crisis is helping to drive up crime rates – Karyn McCluskey

Releasing inmates from prison when they have nowhere to go makes it more likely they will re-offend. Some even ask sheriffs to be locked up

Last week, I spent time with colleagues who work in homelessness. Many of us will be aware of the housing crisis. Local authorities across Scotland are facing “unprecedented pressure on housing and homelessness services” and four have declared a local emergency.

At first glance, the framing is squarely as a crisis for local authorities and, of course, it is. The true emergency, however, is for those who are desperately trying to find a roof over their head and a place to call home (not always the same thing). While not a perfect solution, hotels and B&Bs are a better alternative to a sleeping bag in a cold, rainy Scottish town.

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My organisation launched a grant process for the third sector to provide support for those leaving prison, including resettlement and all the services needed when returning to the community. Our ultimate outcome in community justice is to reduce reoffending, much of which relies on connections in the community, stability, relationships, a job, medical and psychological care. When even the most essential needs can’t be met, anything beyond that becomes nigh on impossible.

Basic survival needs come first

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of innate human needs, presented as a pyramid. “Survival needs” form the base, which consist of breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing and sleep. It builds to “safety and security” – health, employment; “love and belonging” – family, intimacy, friendship; then “self-esteem” – confidence, achievement, respect; to the pyramid tip, self-actualisation – morality, creativity and inner potential. Maslow’s contention was that survival needs, the pyramid's foundation, must be satisfied before any of the other needs could be fulfilled. Nowhere is this more starkly demonstrated than when people are leaving prison.

When exiting the system, it’s almost a cliché to hear people say they’ll never be back – ask any prison officer. Sometimes, it’s true, but for some the journey back inside is a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. For those of us who work in justice, the housing crisis is about ensuring we can find someone a home that enables the support and connections needed to keep people away from offending, create paths into treatment or recovery from drugs and alcohol, and much more.

A former inmate leaves Perth Prison (Picture: Community Justice Scotland)A former inmate leaves Perth Prison (Picture: Community Justice Scotland)
A former inmate leaves Perth Prison (Picture: Community Justice Scotland)
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A chaotic void, a cliff edge

Even for those with a bed in a hotel or hostel, the temporary nature of that has a negative impact. Constantly moving, with no place to call home and no time to make connections, means a life held in abeyance. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that asking for a prison sentence when in front of a sheriff is a more regular occurrence than you might think.

Every year, 8,500 people leave prison after a short sentence, and around 7,500 after a period of remand waiting for their case to be heard. Some will have homes where they can return and a plan for their release that helps them re-enter life with possibility and hope. But many more will be released into a chaotic void, a cliff edge. Our third sector and housing colleagues who step in to fulfil those basic needs provide an essential and humane service – but they cannot give what they don’t have, and that represents a profound failure to meet society’s most basic survival needs.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland