As Commonweal brings its formal engagement with Re-Unite to a close, our CEO Ashley Horsey reflects on the impact the Re-Unite project has had on Commonweal

Here at Commonweal, as an action learning charity, we are extremely proud of the work we do to support the establishment and testing of new housing based initiatives as a means of tackling social injustice. At the heart of everything we do is the belief that the most important lessons are learnt from those enduring social injustices themselves. Therefore the importance of rigorous, ongoing and honest self assessment, based on feedback and evaluation lies at the heart of all our projects and our very core as a charity.

It hasn’t always been this way however and, certainly during my time at Commonweal, I have seen us develop and grow as we continue to learn from our projects and project partners. As I sit here musing over my time at Commonweal and how the past eight years have flown by, I find myself in a rather reflective mood, exploring not only past, present and future Commonweal projects, but what these project have taught us about ourselves. All our projects, help us to evolve, but for now I would like to focus on just one such project.

The Re-Unite project, which this month marked its 10th anniversary, has had a formative impact on the way we operate as a charity, helping to shape our approach, outlook and methodology.

The project tackled a catch 22 situation; having lost accommodation as a result of offending, many women are seen as intentionally homeless and are therefore not entitled to social housing. Additionally, if a mother leaving prison does not have custody of her children when she applies to her local authority as homeless or when seeking rent support through the local housing allowance system she is eligible for nothing larger than a room in a shared house or at best a one-bedroom property. However, when she has only a one-bedroom property, she often struggles to have care and  custody of her children.

Over the past ten years, Commonweal has provided the funding for project, including for the purchase of the properties. In keeping with the Commonweal model, the project has evolved and adapted in response to on-going evaluations in 2010, 2013 and 2016. Over the course of the project we have worked hard to record and reflect upon how Re-Unite has evolved, in tandem with our action learning partner IVAR. As our first major endeavor as a charity, through Re-Unite we have also learnt a lot about ourselves as an organisation along the way.

With the original housing stock now handed back to Commonweal from Housing for Women, Commonweal’s formal engagement with the Re-Unite project has now come to an end.

To mark the closing of our engagement, Commonweal has produced a ten year review of our work alongside 10 recommendations for government which seek to clarifying how the criminal justice system can develop in the future.  The report, Re-Unite: Ten Year Review collates the key findings and conclusions the project uncovered on the Criminal Justice system. Commonweal will be engaging in a series of events to promote the report and, in keeping with our aim of finding solutions to social injustices, we will continue to campaign for change in policy to support those Re-Unite aims to help.

As the first project to go through the full Commonweal strategic project cycle of testing an approach, refining it and then replicating it, Re-Unite perfectly demonstrates the unique Commonweal formula in action.  It shows that our work as an action learning charity committed to finding housing solutions to social injustice can and does work.

Having supported 100 mothers and approximately 200 children Commonweal are rightly proud of what Re-Unite achieved.

Sadly, the underlying issues behind Re-Unite still exist: too many mothers are being imprisoned with all the associated consequences that this incurs; the loss of tenancies and associated homelessness upon release continues; difficulties in regaining care of custody of children upon release; the pressures on social services, education and health departments.

Re-Unite highlighted an area of social injustice which simply shouldn’t exist. It is a model which picks up the pieces left by the failings in the criminal justice system. Commonweal knows that we don’t have all the answers and despite running for ten years, Re-Unite has by no means eradicated the nonsensical catch 22 many mothers find themselves in when leaving prison. However, Re-Unite has transformed the lives of dozens of women, their children and winder families.  We are already liaising with Ministers and officials at the Ministry of Justice and hope that many of our recommendations will be reflected in the forthcoming Female Offenders Strategy due out this year.

Over the last decade Re-Unite has helped to shape Commonweal Housing as a charity. It has helped us to refine our model and taught us a great deal about how to be an effective partner to front line organisations. It has taught us how to adapt processes, activities and funding on our journey to find housing solutions to social injustices.

If Re-Unite and the conclusions and recommendations outlined in the Ten Year Review continues to shape policy development and transform lives in a similar vein to its impact on Commonweal’s delivery of projects, I’d regard that as a success.

– Ashley Horsey, CEO 

Commonweal Housing will be hosting a breakfast reception on the 11th October in Westminster to continue the debate around the Re-Unite Ten Year Review. The event will hear from speakers including the Rt.Hon Baroness Jean Corston on how best to support mothers  in the Criminal Justice System and those exiting custody. For further details please contact Edward Lowe at EdwardL@commonweal.org.uk