ON THE GROUND: St Mungo's housing advice centre in HMP Pentonville

Scheme: To offer housing advice to short term and remand prisoners

Funding: Six months' funding from Homelessness Directorate (formerly the Rough Sleepers' Unit) and six months' funding from the Prison Service

Objectives: To prevent prisoners losing their home or to find them somewhere to live on release

An 8x6 metre prison cell is an unlikely venue for a housing service.

But with space at such a premium in HMP Pentonville, St Mungo's manager Dominic Raffo has learned to work within such tight confines.

St Mungo's, which is best known for providing hostels for rough sleepers in London, launched its prison project in recognition of the link between homelessness and lawlessness, something Raffo knows about from personal experience. "I did project work at a hostel in Clapham and at any one time a third to a half had been in prison," he says.

One in three offenders lose their home while in prison. In 2000, 1,400 people left Pentonville with nowhere to live. This predicament prompted the Homelessness Directorate to tender for schemes that tackle the issue.

St Mungo's won, and prison walls have been Raffo's working environment ever since.

Raffo and a colleague target short-term and remand prisoners, who are most at risk of losing their homes.

A prisoner on remand is entitled to receive housing benefit for up to 52 weeks while a sentenced prisoner can continue to claim providing he spends not more than 13 weeks in custody. That means anyone sentenced to six months or less is eligible for housing benefit as only half of a short sentence is served in custody.

In addition to explaining the legalities, St Mungo's deals with other issues. "People who serve less than a year don't get a probation officer so they don't get access to the strategic support that comes with that," explains Raffo. He works on the principle that if someone has accommodation when they arrive in prison, it's easier for them to keep it than it is to find somewhere new when they come out.

To complicate matters further, more than 40 per cent of prisoners have mental health issues, 35 per cent suffer literacy problems and 85 per cent have a drug problem.

Raffo is hopeful of continued funding for two reasons. First, it works for prisoners. "We've got more than 100 people into hostels and housing and we have saved more than 100 tenancies so far," he explains. "We now receive referrals from 34 different routes, including religious ministers, doctors, mental health agencies and governors."

Second, the service works for society. It costs £37,000 a year to house a prisoner. "Prisoners released without a home to go to are 2.5 times more likely to reoffend," says Raffo.

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