The inception of SHE (Support & Housing East Lancashire) began in August 2013 when I tried to access housing following a suspended sentence. As a single 44-year old woman, I did not fit the priority need for emergency accommodation or indeed any accommodation. My mother took me in and from her sofa I began to research the housing problem in East Lancashire.
I studied those coming from prison and the lack of affordable housing available to them. This sent my research further into the benefit system, the government’s austerity measures and the benefit cap. It was clear there was a problem.
Studying my local area, Burnley & Pendle, I began to form the outline of my project. SHE Project has worked with private property owners and works on the hostel model adapted for community living.
Following a short spell in a hostel, I identified the need for female accommodation to be improved. My experience showed me that hostels were unsuitable for mature homeless women. My short-lived time in the hostel was highly unpleasant, with no towels and unclean bedding.
By spending time researching other projects, it became clear that mature women in the Criminal Justice System with no fixed abode were one of the most marginalised groups when it came to housing requirements.
My research revealed that mature women who had served a suspended or custodial sentence struggled to find stable accommodation and were thus at risk of sofa-surfing and a high risk of reoffending.
SHE has worked with the local and county authority on abstinence-based shared housing within the community. This two-pronged approach has worked with one woman withdrawing from the project and three at halfway mark (three months) requesting further support. The first referrals for the project came via Lancashire Constabulary’s Revolution
unit. Although these women were not on any supervision order, both have engaged with
the project on addressing housing, health and financial budgeting.
By sustaining their tenancy agreements, many of their needs have resolved simply because stable accommodation has been in place. This was something I found to be the case following my sentence.
Without stable accommodation, it was impossible to be accepted by a GP, a bank or
to access benefits. I was able to return to work immediately as I was self-employed and some of my long-standing clients were willing to re-engage my services.
SHE offers stable, secure accommodation for an initial period of six months. Our women’s units range from two-bedroomed to three-bedroomed properties which are furnished through community donations. The project works with the tenants on reading utility meters so each forms good habits for running their own tenancies as part of the “moving on” process.
Being a good tenant means paying bills, being neighbourly and most importantly, being part of a thriving community. By offering a budgeting and housing service, SHE supports each woman as a bridge to normal living. SHE is a holistic support service based in the centre of town and has a hub where women can make telephone calls, log on to the internet and meet with peer mentors for support and guidance.
SHE has two of its team working towards becoming accredited life coaches. Many women benefit from peer mentoring. Peer mentor-led projects show inspiration, hope and transferable skills to women who are looking to get back to work supported into self-employment into organisations that are willing to employ those who have convictions.
Those coming from prison are just as employable as anybody else from the community.
As a peer-led project, SHE allows each member to find their feet and tap into the vast range of resources the project has on offer – from housing to employment with family engagement.
Women released from prison do want to return to their own community and it has been our greatest pleasure, in Burnley, to receive the support and develop strong partnerships with Burnley Borough Council, National Probation Service, Timpson, Lancashire Constabulary and Lancashire County Council and East Lancs/Cumbria CRC. The East Lancashire Council for Voluntary Services have also welcomed the project and without their support, it would have been impossible to come this far.
On the back of SHE, we are building a further social enterprise based on the members requesting further support. Now their housing is stable, the next natural step for these women is pathways into employment.
I changed my life and wanted a different life; my passion was to offer my childhood town a community project that offered a two-pronged and merged service. I hope we are able to achieve this for future generations.
Tracey McMahon has written widely on women in the Criminal Justice System. She has contributed to Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, UK Criminal Law Blog and is the editor of traceymcmahonblog.com