I thank the committee and the Chairman for inviting us here today. In particular I would like to thank Senator Frances Black for petitioning on our behalf. We are going to share the time with our opening statement. We promise to be brief. I will give a short introduction, my colleague, Mr. O'Connell, is going to speak about drug and alcohol policy in prison, Ms Reddy will then speak on female homelessness and prison, and finally Ms McSweeney will speak about how access to permanent housing with support is a prerequisite for recovery, both for people leaving prison and for those with drug and alcohol issues.
The Simon Communities is a network of communities providing local responses to local needs and issues throughout the country, based in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, the midlands, the mid-west, the north west and the south east. As the committee members will be aware, the complexity of the homelessness and housing issue touches every facet of Irish life, with the greatest impact being felt by those most vulnerable in society. We welcome the opportunity to speak here today to illustrate the further complexities that exist between homelessness and the State penal and prison systems.
As the committee members know, there are clear links between homelessness, problematic drug use and the penal system, with particularly vulnerable people cycling between rough sleeping, emergency homeless and drugs services and the prison system. Data on the number of people who have entered prison from homelessness or indeed exited into homelessness are not readily available. A 2005 survey of 241 prisoners found that 54% of participants had at least one previous experience of homelessness prior to imprisonment and 25% of all prisoners were homeless on committal to prison. Prisoners who were homeless on committal were more likely to be long-term homeless, with 88% having experienced homelessness for six months or more. Some 58% were homeless for more than three years. Many people who are in prison following a period of homelessness are there for crimes such as vagrancy, theft and drug offences. Some 35% of prisoners experiencing homelessness on committal were diagnosed as having a mental health disorder.
The chronic lack of housing at this time means that people are still being released from prison into emergency accommodation, with some ending up sleeping rough.
Having no permanent home makes reintegration into society very difficult. Having permanent and stable accommodation reduces the risk of reoffending by 20%. In Ireland, the rate of reoffending is 30% within one year and 49% within four years.
We welcome the commitment contained in Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness to ensure accommodation, welfare and health supports for prisoners are in place prior to their release. This will reduce the likelihood of released prisoners presenting as homeless. According to Rebuilding Ireland's second quarterly progress report, an inter-agency protocol developed by the Irish Prison Service, in consultation with the Health Service Executive, Department of Social Protection and County and City Management Association, is now in place. We urgently await feedback on how well the protocol is operating.
There is a lack of official data collected on the number of prisoners who are homeless, at risk of homelessness or becoming homeless on release. Often, the extent of homelessness within the prison population may be hidden as a result of the stigma attached to this status and the negative impact it may have on applications for early or temporary release. It is important to note that while homelessness is often viewed as rough sleeping or people being trapped in emergency accommodation, it also includes those who have no option but to stay with friends or relatives, often in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. This phenomenon is known as hidden homelessness. While we do not have figures on hidden homelessness, the pressures caused by the housing crisis mean the numbers involved are likely to be considerable.
We should collect disaggregated data and we suggest that an agreed dataset be collected by the Irish Prison Service in collaboration with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government's pathway accommodation and support system, PASS, which operates in homeless services. This disaggregated data should be produced to provide a fuller understanding of the linkages between homelessness and the Irish penal and prison system. Such an exercise would help us to gain an understanding of the number of people entering and exiting the prison system and to plan better for release in future.
Mr. O'Connell will speak briefly on problematic drug and alcohol use.