Prisoners set up to fail on release: rehab worker

By Laurel Stowell

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"WE ARE setting them up to fail."

That's the verdict of Steve Treloar on society's treatment of former prisoners.

Mr Treloar, who has spent the past 26 years managing Whanganui's Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society (PARS), says it is so tough finding rental houses for released prisoners that he doesn't ask landlords and property managers these days.

"I've had too many knocks to even try."

Ideally, released prisoners return to live with their families and resume their jobs, but some are "cut loose" from family and on their own with no job or house.

He says neither Housing New Zealand nor Whanganui District Council social housing has been any help, and he and others have been working on alternatives.

Prisoners leave with a cheque for $350, less any money they may have saved up to that amount by working while in prison.

Most have no other money.

The Corrections Department could not say how many of the men released from Whanganui Prison come to live in the city, but it did say there were 124 men in Whanganui currently on parole or post-release conditions.

They need somewhere to live and Mr Treloar helps them look - it can be a desperate situation.

On the unemployment benefit, they can't afford to pay more than $140 a week in rent.

In last week's Chronicle there was only one private rental in that price range. Some owners and property managers will not deal with PARS. Higher insurance costs are one reason.

If a private rental is available it usually costs at least $1000 to get in the door.

First there are interviews, references and a credit check. Then there's a bond and four weeks' rent in advance. The money can be borrowed from Work and Income, and paid back at $5 or $10 a week.

Getting electricity and gas hooked up also requires bonds. After that, the tenant is in the door, but still without furniture or food.

"We are setting them up to fail," Mr Treloar said.

Public institutions could help - either Housing NZ or, for older released prisoners, the council's pensioner units.

Getting a Housing NZ house is great for people on benefits, because rents are income-related. But the process of getting one is difficult for people straight out of prison.

Eligibility is based on urgency of need, as assessed by the Ministry of Social Development, and there's a two-stage interview process and a waiting list. Single adults can only get one or two-bedroom houses - larger ones are reserved for families.

By the time a suitable house is available, the former inmate has usually found somewhere temporary so the need is not deemed urgent. "They're put on to a waiting list, and they always fall off," Mr Treloar said.

Housing NZ area manager Keith Hilson said there were six properties ready to rent in Whanganui, with nine being repaired and available after that.

He was confident that was enough to meet the "relatively low" demand.

Two houses that are hard to tenant are on the market, and funds from their sale will be used to build new houses in places with higher demand, mainly bigger cities.

Mr Treloar is angry that Housing NZ is selling the two homes because he knows there is need here in Whanganui.

"If they have to be sold, then that money should be re-invested into what is actually needed. We should be building these one-bedroom places with that money.

"I don't believe Whanganui has been well serviced by Housing NZ."

Council pensioner flats are available to anyone 55 or older with assets of less than $103,000. Mr Treloar has tried to get released prisoners into the pensioner flats. He's never been successful.

Faced with all this, PARS came up with its own solution. Mr Treloar approached an overseas investor who had bought state houses and couldn't find anyone to manage them.

PARS is now responsible for tenanting 12 houses, owned by two investors. Rents are $140 a week, there's good occupancy and the investors are making money.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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