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A personal journey through the Criminal Justice System was the birth of the SHE (Support & Housing) Project in East Lancashire, writes Tracey McMahon.

 
It is two years to the date since I stood in a Crown Court dock with my liberty in a Judge’s hands. A suspended sentence was passed and I was free to return to my sofa surfing. The sentence was a stand-alone suspended sentence without a supervision order from Probation. A custodial sentence of 18 weeks was suspended for a year. It was June 2013 and I had no job or home. 

I was 42 –years old. I had my mother, my computer and a sofa. Prior to my sentence, I was a freelance copywriter and translator. First area of my life that needed addressing was a home. Housing needs at my local authority booked an appointment, but while I registered as homeless, a single woman aged 42-years old was not considered priority. It was at this point, I started digging around the dungeons of the pathways for women in the CJS released from custody. While continuing to work to save for a deposit for a private rented home, research led me to depths of understanding the barriers faced by women behind the gates. 

Homelessness affected me deeply. A status discards one from society. I had no access to a bank account, a GP and as everything in British society is associated with a person’s address, I felt there was a missing link in services.  This was July 2013 and I began to build an enterprise. I set a target of two years to build a project, find some premises and open imaginary doors. My time as an editor on a website writing articles on the missing link in the CJS opened up contact pathways for me and as a woman serving a sentence, I started to use my own story as a case study to form SHE

I contacted agencies, people and continued writing for publications due to the government reforms and particularly on the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda. I studied the political changes that were apparent in 2013 and became a voice for women in the CJS. A regular slot in the journal, Criminal Law & Justice Weekly helped me to voice my opinions on the laws and policies on female offenders. As my sentence ended in June 2014, I was ready to launch my project. I opened the doors of SHE on September 1st 2014. 

It’s certainly been an interesting project. Marketed as a peer-led project, the local Community Safety Partnership soon appeared on my radar and I was invited to present the project to their panel. We had one community unit with three bed spaces for women over the age of 25-years old. By the 19th September, this unit was full and I had to find more bed spaces. We continue to do so and have 39 bed spaces for women. 

Crucially, SHE is not a landlord. We offer shared accommodation for women coming from prison who have No Fixed Abode for a period of six months under an assured short hold tenancy agreement. 

Part of the accommodation award involves volunteering within the Project. This can be as little as an hour a week. It is very much a cooperative structure; every decision is made with each woman involved in her care under the Project. We connect women with a GP surgery, employment pathways, benefit applications, advocacy services and deal with all housing issues that all members of society face daily. My short time in a hostel was central in tidying up the model of emergency accommodation for women. We provide a welcome pack of toiletries with each award of a room, new bedding and, essentially, safe, stable accommodation. 

For the women that come through our doors, access to support networks has been achieved due to the provision of an address. 

SHE has steadily grown and the outcomes are positive for those who have benefited from the project.  We have also just been awarded funding from Lancashire County Council for equipment for an IT suite. This not only helps members of the project but also community members as it is fully equipped for people to build CVs, apply for jobs and manage their finances online. 

Fundamentally, stable accommodation is afforded to the women we see, but the project has a broader community-based benefit. We also accommodate the children of women returning from custody as well as those within local communities where they still have to report into either Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) or the National Probation Service (NPS). 

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