On 3rd April 2018, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force across England.
The Homelessness Reduction Act brings significant changes to the assistance that homeless people will receive from their local council. Under the old homelessness law, single homeless people were often not given any help. This new law is supposed to change that.
However, under the old law we know that many families and individuals who were entitled to assistance were turned away without any help – a practice called gatekeeping.
Will this new law change the culture of gatekeeping that we’ve faced (and challenged!) in the housing office? Will the Homelessness Reduction Act really reduce homelessness?
We know what will reduce homelessness – secure, quality council homes in our communities for everyone, higher wages, higher benefits and an end to racist rules and immigration controls (including Right to Rent, No Recourse to Public Funds, restrictions on EEA benefits being some we’re familiar with).
Unfortunately, the Homelessness Reduction Act doesn’t include any of these. There are really basic homeless law changes that could actually help reduce homelessness such as abolishing priority need which Scotland have done and phasing out intentional homelessness as Wales are doing but it doesn’t even include these good steps.
So what does the Homelessness Reduction Act mean and how does it work?
We’re still trying to understand it fully. There’s a flowchart here which is a useful starting point.
We certainly had strong criticisms of the old homelessness law and process. Many of us in the group have had very bad experiences of it. But trying to understand the HRA makes us miss the fairy simple old homeless law and process.
Our experiences so far of the HRA has included Southwark council’s trial of it over the last year, a homelessness assessment at Lambeth’s housing office and a workshop we attended by Doughty Street Chambers. All of these experiences have given us some deep concerns about the HRA.
There are a number of changes that we believe make things much worse for homeless people under the Homelessness Reduction Act and we are very worried about their impact:
More stress for homeless people – Personalised Housing Plans are patronising
The Personalised Housing Plan that every homeless person must follow is deeply patronising. It brings in the harmful conditionality that has been running out of job centres where the blame and responsibility is placed on the claimant/homeless person. During this severe housing crisis, homelessness law is placing responsibility on homeless people to solve homelessness themselves. Homeless people often visit the housing office as a last resort after exhausting all their other options. As if being homeless wasn’t difficult enough, as if people haven’t done everything to prevent their homelessness already, they are being given extra tasks under threat of sanction.
Under the old law homeless families could get interim/ temporary housing from the council – alongside this, if they wished, they could look for alternative housing completely voluntarily, so the PHP simply acts as a coercive and patronising tool.
Worse rights for homeless people – 6 month private tenancies create a cycle of homelessness and poverty
The new law allows the council to discharge their duty to a homeless household with a section 193A offer. This is a 6 month private tenancy. This offer is far worse than the previous private sector discharge offer that a council could force on a homeless household under the old law. Under the old law, a council could discharge their homeless duty by offering a 12 month private sector tenancy with 2 years protection if they became homeless again. This private sector tenancy had to meet a list of criteria to make sure it was decent quality. If the household became homeless within 2 years of the start of the tenancy, then they would have an automatic homeless duty with the council.
6 month private sector tenancies for homeless households is the exact opposite of what homeless households need – after enduring homelessness, you need security that you will not face this again. Secure council tenancies provide this. A 6 month private tenancy means that homeless households will face a cycle of homelessness, insecurity and poverty.
The new law is even more complicated than the old law
The new homelessness process and law is not easy to understand. Flow charts appear to be the favored way to explain it, it is much more complicated than the previous law. These flow charts show many routes and options – but getting to secure, quality council housing looks further away than ever before. Before, we were able to use our clear and simple leaflet with the 5 tests that a council would do to investigate for your case. Whilst the old law was still difficult to understand, it was simple enough that we could know and share our basic rights. We have certainly struggled to get our heads around the new law.
Slowing down and drawing out an already difficult process
Under the old law, the council had 33 working days to investigate a case and make a decision on whether the applicant was owed a full homeless duty. Now, if you are homeless, the council have 56 days under the relief duty to investigate your case and come to a decision. This increased wait will simply mean more stress and delays for the homeless household awaiting their decision.
Some positive developments?
Of course, ensuring that everyone who approaches the council as homeless or facing homelessness gets help is a welcome development. Although under the old law, the council did have a duty to provide ‘advice and assistance’ to anyone who approached as homeless. Most councils just regularly chose to gatekeep single homeless applicants instead from this duty.
The new law also possibly provides better support for those households who are in priority need and deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ as a duty under section 190(2) arise. Although again under the old law councils were supposed to give households a reasonable amount of time to find other accommodation. Nearly Legal confirms that the new law ‘potentially’ gives households more time than under the old law.
What’s been happening in Southwark who piloted the Homelessness Reduction Act?
Southwark council explain their pilot of the Homelessness Reduction Act
- Numbers of households being put up in temporary homes have halved in a year, and the use of unsuitable and expensive bed and breakfast accommodation has been eliminated.
The dramatic halving of households provided with temporary accommodation cannot be denied, but how exactly was this achieved? What has happened to those families now? (By the looks of it they have been housed out of borough in private rented housing – see next bullet point.)
Before the HRA the council had been able to avoid the use of B&B accommodation to house homeless families. It was only in June 2016 when the council first started using B&Bs. Before this they had not used B&B accommodation at all for homeless families. It is already unlawful to house families in B&B accommodation for over 6 weeks (and the law says that councils should do everything they can to avoid housing families in B&Bs at all) so homeless households already had protection against this and Southwark should not have been housing families in B&B accommodation.
- People threatened with homelessness were helped to find homes in the private rental sector – though this was often many miles away in outer London boroughs.
Housing people outside of their communities in private rented accommodation cannot be seen as a positive effect. This is social cleansing. Being re-housed in outer boroughs also means that they will no longer be entitled to be on Southwark’s housing waiting list so that they will not stand a chance of moving back to their home borough in council housing. Southwark council says that 358 households were placed in private rented accommodation (although it does not say whether this was in or outside of the borough). These families will have missed out on the protections afforded to them that you do have in temporary accommodation with a homeless duty (for example, the ability to review suitability of temporary accommodation, immediate rehousing if the temporary accommodation private landlord wants you out, ‘reasonable preference’ on the housing register and certain standards in the quality of the private rented accommodation with private sector discharge).
- The borough provided mediation to rehouse young people at home after they had been thrown out by their family following a row.
What was the quality of this mediation? Was it really effective or did young people just give up on pursuing a homeless duty? Young people cannot remain in their family home forever and often family tensions and rows arise from being forced to live together, something mediation cannot resolve.
- In some cases it paid off tenants’ rent areas.
This is of course a positive thing.
- In the first year Southwark topped up the £1m government grant it received to test the new system with £750,000 of its own cash.
Depending on the true outcomes for homeless households and those threatened with homelessness that will determine whether this was money spent in support for vulnerable families or gatekeeping and socially cleansing them.
Our experiences of the Homelessness Reduction Act in Southwark
Same old gatekeeping – reducing homelessness by pretending it doesn’t exist?
Our member M approached the council as homeless. M and her family were living in M’s mother’s flat. The two families were very overcrowded living together in the small flat and M’s mother asked her to leave. M approached the council to make a homeless application, but they told her that they could not open a homeless application until after 56 days had passed.
J and his family faced a similar situation living at J’s mother in law flat which was two small to house both families. J, his wife and his two children all share a single room. The stress of the situation lead J’s mother in law to ask his family to leave. They made a homeless appointment with the council but again it seemed the housing officer was reluctant to open a homeless application. They were told that they could remain in their current housing situation while they looked for other places to live. The housing officer suggested that they have mediation between J and his mother in law so that J’s family could remain in the home. Since the first homelessness appointment, J heard nothing from the housing officer (despite making a complaint about this) and 3 months have passed.
Our member F made her homeless application in October last year when the council were trialling the Homelessness Reduction Act, yet she heard nothing from the council about her application for months. When she faced eviction from her hostel this April, it took a twitter storm before the council would confirm temporary accommodation for her.
We have been supporting all of these members with their cases.
Another HASL member met a young street homeless man on the street. He was a care leaver. He told her he had been to the housing office for help but was turned away.
What can we do?
We’ll be organising leafleting sessions to speak with people about their experiences of getting housing help from the council and we’re also organising a Homelessness Reduction Act workshop with Southwark Law Centre to learn our rights together.
Join your local housing action group to support each other with housing problems and fight together for the good quality, secure homes in our communities that we all need and deserve! The Homelessness Reduction Act won’t reduce homelessness, it’s up to us!
No more overcrowded housing – we need family council homes now!
Our member Ruben and his family have been living in overcrowded private rented housing for 5 years. Today marks the 5th anniversary of when he first joined the housing register hoping to access secure and spacious council housing in their local community. But 5 years on and they are still waiting for the council home they need and deserve while Lambeth ignore vital medical evidence about his son’s health.
Ruben has submitted medical evidence to the council about his son’s health condition. This evidence shows that the overcrowded living conditions are making his son’s health worse. But Lambeth are ignoring this important evidence. They have also failed to respond to his complaint at the handling of his case.
This morning we visited Lambeth’s new Civic Centre to show our support for Ruben and his family and to demand that the council recognise the medical evidence they have submitted. Many of the families who joined us are also suffering from poor housing conditions and our protest highlighted the need for secure council housing for everyone.
The presence of our large group, big banners and chanting meant that a senior housing officer came to speak with us about Ruben’s case. Ruben spoke very powerfully about the impact of the overcrowding on his son. The housing officer has promised to review their case so we are waiting on their response. We made our message clear:
Lambeth council must accept this vital medical evidence which should see the family placed in band B.
We shared cake marking the 5th anniversary of Ruben’s time on the housing register – as well as HASL’s 5th birthday! We also spoke with lots of interested and supportive passersby.
We know many other families are facing long and unacceptable waits for the council homes they need. We know that overcrowded and poor quality housing has huge and damaging affects on our lives, our health and our communities.
Shamefully, Lambeth council have only built 17 new council homes in the last 4 years and at the same time they have been trying to knock down a number of council estates. This is a disastrous housing policy in the middle of a severe housing crisis.
Get involved in Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth to take action together for the good quality, secure, spacious council homes we all need.
UPDATA 30th ARPIL 2018: Our member F was housed in temporary accommodation by Southwark council. She is very happy in her temporary accommodation because the location is close to her community and she has use of her own bathroom for the first time in almost 2 years. But the council have still not confirmed a full homeless duty for her. They must give F the peace of mind and security of a full homeless duty where she can then bid for secure council housing. Southwark council must support survivors.
Our member F was made homeless by domestic violence. When she visited Southwark housing office for help she was gatekept on two occasions – turned away without any housing assistance. With our help, she was finally able to open a homeless application, but 6 months later the council have failed to give a decision letter or temporary accommodation, leaving her threatened with street homelessness this month.
Southwark council’s treatment of our member, a vulnerable survivor of domestic violence, is unacceptable. F does not have English as a first language, a factor that is often used by housing officers when refusing help and which makes her more vulnerable in general as it harder for her to access basic support services. She suffers from a number of health issues and is experiencing severe stress and anxiety caused by homelessness. The council’s unlawful gatekeeping and delays has meant that she has been forced to live in unsuitable hostel accommodation for the last year and a half. During this time, one hostel she was staying in evicted everyone with days notice and she was forced to move to another.
If the council had acted when she first approached for help in October 2016, she might have been in secure council housing by now, instead, she is fearing street homelessness yet again.
The council must accept a full homeless duty and provide her with suitable temporary accommodation.
The council must also seriously reflect and investigate how F came to be so seriously mistreated in this way over this last year and a half. This gatekeeping and mistreatment has had a devastating impact on F’s life for the last year and a half.
We know that F is not the only person to face gatekeeping and poor treatment at the housing office. Southwark council must take urgent action to end unlawful gatekeeping of vulnerable homeless people and ensure they are treated respectfully so that a situation like this does not occur again.
For 5 months one of our members, undergoing a basic homelessness process, has faced terrible treatment from Lambeth council. Since our group started, we’ve supported many of our members in Lambeth with their housing problems. We’ve repeatedly faced Lambeth’s gatekeeping and denial of support to vulnerable people, its many dubious and questionable schemes designed to stop homeless people from securing the legal duties they are entitled to, and its general incompetence.
Many of our members have been wrongly turned away by the council when they present as homeless. Sometimes, through sheer persistence, sometimes with a buddy support them, they may manage to see an official from the Housing Advice and Options team. This official is likely to be from the ‘Preventions’ desk – second line defence staff, not someone who deals with the homeless assessments. Instead of opening a homeless application the council is effectively ”pre-screening” applicants through an unnecessary, intrusive and drawn out process. Many find themselves unable to properly begin the formal homeless application.
We’ve experienced this directly and very recently. Our member, M, went through Housing Advice and Options service last September, where she was inaccurately told that she’d likely be found ‘intentionally homeless’. Once the mountain of required evidence the official needed was submitted, she was then booked in for her homeless assessment interview and completed that on 11th October (after chasing the council to make sure the assessment was being booked). Having eventually secured this important homeless assessment appointment, the council then attempted to deny the application by being really difficult and terrible with corresponding and communicating on the case with the family.
Since the interview, the deadline for Lambeth to reach a final written decision has come and gone (it was due in late November). The family are still waiting to hear from the council, and all attempts to impress the urgency of the situation have been met with obfuscation. We submitted a stage one complaint, which resolved nothing, so have now escalated the matter to a stage two complaint, with further action underway because it is uncertain how successful the internal complaint process will be in this case with this council.
This situation is one experienced by countless people across Lambeth, many of whom we’ve met, many of whom we haven’t. Each of them has been repeatedly failed by a council which seems to show little regard for statutory, or it’s own, responsibilities, which misleads and harms its residents and continues to keep thousands of families trapped in unsuitable and unsafe housing conditions. We are stronger when we fight this together!
Lambeth: give M a full homeless duty and provide her and her family with suitable temporary accommodation in the borough until more long-term decent council housing can be found!
UPDATE ON THIS CASE:
Our member and her baby fear eviction this week by Southwark council. H and her baby have lived in a single room in a hostel provided by Southwark council for 18 months. For H’s baby, this room has been the only home she has ever known. Having seemingly been forgotten in this hostel, we contacted the council to request suitable housing for the family (this was even more urgent after there was an incident at the hostel where a male resident was threatening towards H and her baby). The council’s response was to say that they would be evicting the family and that they must go to Nottingham where they say she has a ‘local connection’, despite them having lived here for 18 months and having vital community and support networks here.
This treatment of H and her baby cannot go on. The council must contact H and HASL immediately to confirm that she has a homeless duty with Southwark and to provide her with safe and suitable temporary accommodation. H has faced enormous stress and anxiety over the last month on top of the mental and physical ill health her and her baby have suffered in this unsuitable housing. The family need security, peace of mind, and suitable housing immediately.
One of our members H, who is a refugee with a one year old daughter, was facing ‘immediate’ eviction by Southwark council from temporary housing. H and her baby have been in Southwark council’s hostel accommodation for 1 year and 5 months.
For now, after we emailed and tweeted the council over our concern about the imminent eviction, she has been given 4 more weeks in the temporary accommodation. But instead of forcing her out in 4 weeks time, the council must accept that she has a local connection to Southwark and they must give her suitable temporary accommodation, and allow her to bid for council housing. H and her daughter need peace of mind and security after the incredibly stressful eviction threat and the unacceptable time they have spent in hostel accommodation.
When we first met H, she explained to us the terrible effects for her and her baby of living in hostel accommodation for the last 17 months. Her baby didn’t have enough space to learn to walk and H herself struggled with being confined to a single room for eating, sleeping and living. We decided we would contact the council to request that they provide the family with suitable temporary accommodation in a flat.
The council replied to our request for an urgent move from the hostel and into suitable temporary accommodation by saying that H did have a homeless duty but that her ‘local connection’ was with Notthingham council.
H made a homeless assessment with Southwark council because this is where her home is. Her baby has only ever lived in Southwark. The family have lived here for the last 1 year and 5 months in hostel accommodation. It is clear that their local connection is Southwark.
Instead of evicting the family and forcing them to Nottingham, Southwark council must accept that H has a full homeless duty with them and they must provide her with suitable temporary housing. This must be done as soon as possible so that the family are housed in safe and suitable accommodation and have some security over their future, instead of the fear that they currently feel.
The handling of this case by Southwark council has caused H enormous stress. She does not have English as her first language so communicating with her about it is very difficult. The council have not taken this into account, nor the family’s significant welfare needs and vulnerabilities, instead opting for a quick eviction of this vulnerable family. Southwark council must support their vulnerable residents, not shift responsibility by evicting them out of the borough.
It has been another busy and exciting year for our housing group. We’ve seen our group grow (both in numbers and in confidence!) and together we’ve achieved lots of important victories. The commitment and determination our members have shown to the group and to each other has helped the group grow and achieve more together, both on our individual cases and in building a strong network of practical solidarity and action across south London. We had to change our meeting venues as we were too overcrowded in our old meeting rooms. We’ve started an almost-regular kids club for HASL children. We’ve also seen lots of our long-term members move into council housing and we’ve seen how the security, adequate space, and cheaper rents have transformed the lives of these members. We’ve also helped members improve their housing situations by helping them with homeless applications, supporting them to challenge unsuitable temporary accommodation, challenging private landlords over deposits and disrepair and helping to stop a number of evictions.
Here are some of our highlights of the year – but these are just a selection of things that we have been up to. We’ve been organising on a pretty much daily basis, providing help and information, support, buddying, food and friendship for each other. We have our 2 meetings each month which have been really busy and where we provide most of our support for each other. We are learning and enforcing our rights together and helping each other. We campaign for more than the rights we currently have as these do not protect us enough – we want good quality, secure, truly affordable homes for everyone and our lives and communities free from poverty. As people dealing with serious housing and poverty problems, organising this practical solidarity is a massive achievement.
We know that the housing and poverty crisis we face in London and beyond is huge. But we’ve seen that acting together we can get important wins and fight for our needs and communities. In 2018 we’ll continue to fight for the good quality council homes in our communities that we all desperately need and deserve (and against the government’s plans to introduce fixed-term council tenancies), along with local campaigns such as challenging Southwark council’s use of hostel accommodation and Lambeth council’s confusing homeless ‘assistance’.
Thanks to all our members and supporters for all your help over the last year! A big thanks to all the other wonderful groups we’ve had such fun organising with including English for Action and North East London Migrant Action. We’re part of the London Coalition Against Poverty – you can sign up to our irregular email newsletter here for news, events and how to get involved.
A busy and productive meeting in January!
We also joined the first meeting of migrant and housing groups – organised by North East London Migrant Action – looking at ways to resist the government policy detaining and deporting EEA nationals who are rough sleeping. (more on this below including victory!!)
We visited Lambeth County Court 4 times in February and early March supporting our members facing eviction from private rented housing. Going to court is a really stressful experience – no one should do it alone! There was a big gang of us in Lambeth County Court and it really helped to have so much help and support – although it was still a stressful experience no one should have to go through!
We ran a housing rights workshop with Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union at Mayday rooms making links between our two groups and sharing basic housing rights and plans for action.
Screening of I, Daniel Blake organised by DIY Space for London followed by a Q&A with us afterwards.
HASL families living in overcrowded housing made a short video to highlight their situations and as part of their ongoing campaign for Southwark council to take urgent action on overcrowding.
We helped with Freedom of Information requests to learn more about how the Home Office, local councils and homeless charities were conducting raids on EEA national rough sleepers to detain and deport them. Corporate Watch turned this into a report here. North East London Migrant action have been organising campaigning and resistance to challenge this racist and hateful policy, including the court case in November. This policy was found to be unlawful by the court in December! A brilliant example of grassroots solidarity and campaigning combined with legal action.
The Brixton Blog covered some of our Lambeth council gatekeeping stories.
We hosted the London Coalition Against Poverty general meeting and wrote about it here. It’s great to meet our sister groups from across London and organise and socialise together. We shared lots of successes, tactics, and made plans and good action points.
We ran a housing rights workshop with the brilliant English For Action at one of their classes in Lambeth. Their students were really engaged as we discussed the housing rights we have and things that we can do to get more!
Our research from Freedom of Information requests looking at how London councils are forcing homeless families out of London was published in the Guardian. You can read our full report here. We wrote up our findings for Novara Media here
We organised a twitter storm and launched a petition in support of our long-term members who were being denied help by Southwark council for their severely overcrowded and unacceptable living conditions. Later on in the year, the families all eventually got the council housing they desperately needed, but they should never have faced such poor treatment from the council.
With many of our members concerned about what Brexit would mean for them and their families, we contacted Southwark Law Centre who came to deliver a ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop for us.
We featured in the Southwark News talking about our experiences of out-of-borough temporary accommodation.
We decided to canvas the Labour canvassers who had been leafleting in our Walworth area. We confronted the Labour canvassers demanding their commitment to immediate action on our serious housing cases that we presented them with. Whilst they made empty promises to look into the cases, we also leafleted and held our ‘No More Overcrowding’ banner outside Morrisons and received a very warm response from passersby.
Brilliant and very useful blog from EFA London (English for Action) helping us to talk about and understand the Grenfell tragedy and how as people dealing with bad and unsuitable housing, we can organise for the safe, secure homes we all need.
We had our first kids homework club in Peckham library. Lots of HASL kids are dealing with really stressful and unsuitable housing, so it’s nice to have a space centred around them and to make our activities more kid friendly!
We had some of our research looking at how London councils are forcing homeless families out of the city published in Legal Action magazine.
We helped run a workshop at the Get Organised! day long event for grassroots groups to skill share and build links together.
HASL summer BBQ in Burgess Park.
Our member Alvaro and his family spoke about living in overcrowded housing and Southwark council’s disgusting treatment of them for Channel 4 news – we were very proud of them! We wrote about their case and four other families also in overcrowded housing for Verso’s blog here.
Homemade cheesecake and lasagne at our kids club!
We helped run a packed workshop on organising practical solidarity at the London Anarchist Bookfair with our friends Haringey Housing Action Group, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty and Brighton Solfed. We also had a very stylish stall with lots of housing rights leaflets as well as screen printed t-shirts and tote bags.
We joined the brilliant United Voices of the World the union at their monthly meeting to talk about housing rights and how we fight for the secure, quality council homes we all need.
The UVW members were so welcoming and engaged with the workshop – it was so much fun to join them. We can’t wait to work together more as there is so much overlap between the issues we are dealing with and our organising tactics!
We supported an important court case challenging the racist Home Office policy of detaining and deporting EEA nationals who were rough sleeping. This court case was organised by our friends North East London Migrant Action who have been campaigning and resisting this hateful policy.
We helped with an in-depth interview about our organising here for Shine A Light.
Southwark council threatened to evict one of our members and force her to Nottingham where they say she has a ‘local connection’. We helped to guarantee her an extra month in her temporary accommodation, but we want the council to accept a full homeless duty to our member and house her in suitable temporary accommodation. We’ll be supporting our member to challenge the council’s appalling treatment of her.
Our busy last meeting of the year with cake that one of our members made for us!