“I’ve got five pairs of shoes now,” says Fuzzy*. He admits this might seem like a strange thing to be proud of, “but I’ve never been able to have that before. I’ve lived out of a suitcase for the last – oh, probably since 2014.”
Fuzzy has been in prison nine times, although he says he might have lost count. But after the last stint – an aggravated burglary driven by addiction, as much of his behaviour that put him behind bars has been – he was released into secure housing for the first time, to the Maribyrnong Community Residential Facility in Melbourne.
For the first time in a long time, Fuzzy says, his prospects are very different.
He has a job. He’s seeing counsellors every week. He’s been clean and sober for months. He hopes he’ll be able to eventually rebuild his relationship with estranged members of his family.
“I’ve got a good phone. I buy clothes every week because I take pride in myself now, because I can. And it’s all come from being here,” he says.
It’s an opportunity that may soon be available to more men and women leaving the justice system. On Monday, the Victorian government is set to announce it will contribute $33m to a new program named Arc to help people leaving prison who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness to access secure, stable housing.
Upon their release, ex-prisoners will be provided with accommodation for up to two years while they are supported to secure long-term housing. The program’s effectiveness will be measured in recidivism levels, sustained housing success and reduced calls on acute services related to antisocial behaviour and offending.
Keith*, who left prison nearly two years ago, says it’s the kind of program that’s desperately needed.
After spending the better part of two decades inside, he moved into a unit that DHHS helped him find in a complex for over-55s. He’s nearly 70, very fit, and since he got out he’s been volunteering at local church groups and charities in the Victorian coastal town in which he lives.
Keith credits his unusually smooth reintegration back into society to his immediate transition into stable housing. But the process of finding it was far from straightforward.
“Before I got out, it was extremely difficult trying to get accommodation,” he says. “We can’t make phone calls from within the prison. We can’t just ring anyone. You’re only allowed 10 phone numbers on your phone list, and they have to be approved, so you can’t pick up the phone and ring the real estate and say ‘oh, have you got accommodation for me’. So that was frustrating.”
Difficulty finding housing delayed his parole: a really common situation, Keith says, as the parole board won’t approve a prisoner’s release unless they have a fixed address to go to. This leaves many prisoners to “do their top” – that is, to serve out their entire sentence without parole – and be released into homelessness.
“I’ve had four people who have got out on their top come and stay with me because they had nowhere to go. And I’ll put them up short-term. I’ve got two people staying with me right now in my one bedroom flat because they can’t find anywhere, they can’t afford anywhere [because] the rent’s so expensive.”
Keith estimates he’s probably helped another half a dozen people by telephone, explaining the various options available to them and suggesting where they could find accommodation.
“If you’re moving around from place to place, couch surfing or sleeping on the street, you can’t get stable. You can’t make friends, you can’t do things which normal people do every day that they take for granted. And it just adds to the recidivism,” Keith says.
As part of the new program, case workers from the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Vacro) will begin work with a prisoner and corrections staff up to three months before a prisoner’s release date to help them develop an exit strategy, including safe and suitable housing options.
Victoria’s treasurer, Tim Pallas, says Vacro’s capacity will also be boosted to provide practical and emotional support to ease the transition of men and women re-entering the community.
“Rebuilding a life after being in prison is tough and having stable housing is so important,” Pallas says. “We need to embrace doing things differently so we get different results, for individuals and the community.”
The program is the government’s fifth wave of its Partnership Addressing Disadvantages program. Since 2018, money has been set aside in the state budget to create new ways to reduce deep-seated disadvantage and provide better outcomes for vulnerable Victorians.
Previous partnerships have included Anglicare Victoria and VincentCare delivering Compass – a program to improve outcomes for young people leaving out-of-home care – while Melbourne City Mission are partnering with the Hester Hornbrook Academy to help young people living with a mental health condition, who are disengaged from traditional schooling.
Vacro will partner with Social Ventures Australia to raise investor capital to partly fund the former-prisoner housing program.
Fuzzy and Keith are forthright about the need to fund housing support programs for prisoners on release.
“It needs to be done,” says Fuzzy. “If you put us on the streets, we’re gonna go back to what we know. It’s because we don’t know any different. We don’t believe we deserve any better.
“If I didn’t have housing, I’d be back on the streets. And I daresay I’d be back using again, stealing to fund my habits and stuff like that. But I look around all this stuff that I’ve created for myself. All from firstly doing the right thing – by sourcing out help by asking for help. And by also being proactive about what I want, like, I’ve got goals written down. And I’m on my way to getting there.”
* Names have been changed
In Australia, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is at 1800 250 015; families and friends can seek help at Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186. In the UK, Action on Addiction is available on 0300 330 0659. In the US, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is at 800-662-4357
In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and ChildLine on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255