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AT HOME WITH...Annys Darkwa

Upon her release from prison Annys Darkwa, managing director of Vision Housing, had one mission – to provide comfortable and safe homes for ex-offenders. She talks to Michelle Mckenna about setting up the organisation and the women who inspired her cause

When speaking to Annys Darkwa the first thing that you notice is her obvious passion for what she does. As an ex-offender who was released from prison after serving four years with just a bag of belongings and £80 in her pocket she has come a long way – often facing an uphill struggle to achieve her dream of getting Vision Housing off the ground.

The idea for Vision Housing came to Darkwa while she was in prison. She was dismayed at the number of women who left vowing to turn their lives around only to return within months of their
release.

“I was watching these women going out who had worked really hard to clean up and be positive – some of them didn’t give a damn don’t get me wrong – but many had worked really hard and really
wanted to change their lives around and within two or three months sometimes less they were back inside,” she says. “I remember sitting there thinking why and I used to say to them do you know what you must love prison. I only want one chance to get out and I know I am not coming back.

“Always there was the same answer – well Annys we went out, we went to a council, we were single
homeless – low priority so where do we go? If you have got nowhere to go then you go back to what
you know, you think I will go and stay with a friend for tonight but that friend would be a user because they were the only friends you had prior to going in so you would look for a bed and one night leads to a few weeks, you are on drugs, you are offending, you are back in prison.

“I just couldn’t understand why these women were being let down so badly. And I thought this
isn’t right, the system is built for people to reoffend so I knew then that I wanted to do.”

Darkwa’s own experiences upon leaving prison were far from positive. As a parolee she was given
an address approved by the Probation Service but in her own words: “[It] wasn’t fit for a dog to live in.The owner had actually stripped the whole property because he was renovating it so it was all bare walls.

I didn’t even have an electric socket in the kitchen and there was no sink in the kitchen. I thought Jesus Christ, this is my parole address.

“I was a parolee and I should have had an approved address which was suitable for me to live in and it wasn’t so if I came across that as a parolee my thoughts were what happens to the people who get thrown out after short sentences with no support.”

Darkwa started on her project to house people from the back of her car armed with a mobile phone
and £59 a week. “I parked my car on the road, got my mobile out, walked up and down so many streets in London taking numbers from shop windows, numbers on loo paper, asking people if I could have free papers off them and I scoured them, contacted landlords, found out if they accepted DHSS and if they did would they talk to me,” she says.

Darkwa knew that many ex-offenders presented themselves to councils only to be turned away and “dumped” in YMCAs so her first task was getting councils on board and asking them to refer any ex-offenders who came their way to Vision Housing.

Seven councils currently refer to Vision Housing including Merton Council – the first of the London
boroughs to get on board.

Darkwa says that people were often reluctant to house ex-offenders but the fact that she and all eight of her full-time staff have served prison sentences has helped to change opinions.

“Initially when people learnt that it was ex-offenders I was going to be dealing with they said will we have a problem here?” she says. “One landlord said to me on our meeting – I would never entertain an ex-offender in any one of my properties and I can spot a junkie from a mile away and I turned around and said would you give me your keys and he said yes and I said well listen darling I am an ex-offender and I am also an ex-substance mis-user and he changed from that.

“That’s why Vision right now is successful in what we do because it is ex-offenders who know what it is like to have been there and they are the best people to speak to landlords because they can portray how an ex-offender given the opportunity can change their life.

“Also we recognise the problems that ex-offenders face and the bullshit that ex-offenders come with and it is recognising that which makes us capable and able have real empathy for our clients and the reason why we step out of the box to do what we do.”

Darkwa’s sheer determination has driven Vision Housing forward and while it now has offices in
South and North London she would also like to make Vision Housing a social franchise but first and
foremost she wants the organisation to move away from its reliance on grants.

“We are a social enterprise and a not for profit organisation as well as being a charity and we want to become sustainable,” she says. “Sustainability is so important to us and we don’t want to be reliant upon grant. W hen we became a charity we managed to obtain three years core funding but that is to allow us time to build up contracts and to be paid for what we do.

“We are not looking to get rich, we are a charity and not for profit but what we want is to be paid and to scale up and to be recognised and there are ex-offenders who are working extremely hard within the criminal justice system and I think they deserve – my team deserve – the recognition for the
work that they do.”

Whatever the future holds for Vision Housing, one thing is clear. Darkwa will do her damndest to make sure it succeeds.

“I seemed to have bulldozed my way through because I have not recognised the amount of bureaucracy that there is in the system and because I am ignorant of that for want of a better word I have got through,” she says. “It has been hard work and sometime my head bangs on that door. How I am still standing I don’t know but I love what we do and I believe in what we do.”

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