Tag Archives: gatekeeping

Southwark must support survivors – house F now

gatekeeping letter

When F went to Southwark housing office in September 2017 for the second time to ask for a homeless assessment, she was given this instead. Unlawful gatekeeping.

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.

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End gatekeeping at councils! A domestic violence survivor’s experience of homelessness

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I had heard so many people’s frightening stories about how they were treated by the council, so when I decided to make a homeless application I thought it first best to research the law and the homelessness process, specially on domestic violence, for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). On the day I tried to make the application, I was gatekept almost immediately. I was told that I had accommodation and that they were unsure if I could open an application at all. When speaking to a housing officer, for quite some time, I had to keep stressing the fact that I was fleeing domestic violence and that although I was not ‘street homeless’, I was still homeless because I was in a refuge.

After a lot of back and forth, debate and protest with the housing officer – and with input and support from a HASL member and a friend – over the fact that the council weren’t following their own homelessness procedures (according to their website and the law). The fact that I am applicant who had escaped domestic violence was not taken seriously by them, in fact, they seemed to think it was a reason to treat me differently, by claiming that my refuge accommodation meant that I was not homeless. I was finally told that a homelessness application could be opened but that I then needed a separate appointment. The appointment was for two days time, but we were unable to make this date, so another was arranged for the next day.

The day I went to open the application, I provided my allocated housing officer with a folder containing supportive evidence of my circumstances and my medical evidence. The process should have been to open a homelessness application, collect some cursory evidence, and explain the process to the applicant. Instead, I had to debate and justify why I was making an application to RBKC and why I couldn’t go back home. At this stage, I was also told that the application didn’t seem strong. I explained what the legislation says to the housing officer and that domestic violence survivors have an exception to the local connection test (for obvious reasons) when approaching a council with a homelessness application. Although the reason for the application to RBKC was made on the basis of my complex and specialist medical needs and being under the care of Chelsea and Westminster (C&W) hospital, it was extremely premature for the housing officer to make these inquiries at such an early stage – when simply opening an application.

Over the course of many weeks I then had to keep chasing the housing officer to find out what was going on. She eventually emailed me to say: ”I am unable to continuously provide updates on the situation.” They made me feel like I was an annoyance.

The housing officer did call me on few occasions, but only to request information I had already provided, such as my mother’s details – who she said she would contact, but didn’t. She chased my doctor several times too to ask for a report to be signed and submitted which was vague on details, but my GP wanted to speak with me first to get all the necessary information of my conditions. Social Services were also asked for a report; the council said that the decision would be based on this. In the end, the decision was made without key information and without proper investigation. I was made to feel intimated and pressurised throughout the process and I was met with really ill-mannered attitudes when asking for more information and updates as to what was happening.

Whilst waiting for the investigation to be completed so a decision could be made, I got a call from the housing officer asking me to choose between two councils (Lambeth or Barnet) for my homelessness application to be referred to. It seemed that a homelessness duty had been accepted, but when I asked the housing officer if the duty towards me was recognised she did not confirm this and insisted that I decide between the two councils then and there. She told me that a referral had been made on the basis of local connection. I was feeling pretty anxious but persevered by trying to explain that the local connection does not apply to domestic violence survivors – in response to which I was told that this means I am free to ‘approach any council’.

I continued to try to give reasons as to why I had approached RBKC – based on my medical needs and because the hospital support I am receiving is at C&W hospital, and that I was regularly being driven by paramedics from my refuge to the hospital – but the housing officer consistently brushed off what I was saying and told me that if I did not choose then she would be choosing Lambeth for me due to local connection. Bearing in mind that local connection is usually based on living or working in an area of ‘choice’ over a period of time, for me, moving into a refuge in this part of London was not a choice. The housing officer was boxing me in to agreeing to Lambeth with no opportunity for me to consider Barnet – even though that would still leave me miles away from C&W hospital and vulnerable.

I told her I was being forced and that I was documenting our conversation. I ensured that I kept asking her if she was saying that I must decide on a borough then and there and she said ‘Yes, I am or I will decide Lambeth for you’. I felt that it was a predetermined action when asking me to choose, knowing that I would have no real choice but to opt for Barnet rather than Lambeth (for reasons which I had already made clear to the housing officer). I was bullied into choosing a borough, and I was told that my medical needs were secondary to local connection.

I was later informed that I would get a decision letter in the post and that Barnet would be in contact with me as the referral would be made by the end of the day. I have not had any form of contact from Barnet. However, they have contacted my key worker asking for a copy of my documents.

A referral to another council under local connection after a homeless duty is recognised, is not an action that has to be done, especially if there are special circumstances. I am still at a loss as to why severe needs are discounted in favour of meeting a local connection test. This incident has left me especially shaken and feeling bullied, resonating the helplessness of the situation that I had escaped. The support of HASL really gave me the confidence to know that I am important and that I should not be bullied into compromising my health and rights.

For me, remaining in a domestic violence home continued due to the fear of how would I survive if I ever left – where would I go? How would I start over? How would I eat or sleep ? How would I rebuild my life? Domestic violence is a horrible situation to be in and come from, and unfortunately the victim (in turn, survivor) is the one that ends up losing their home and having their life up-rooted.

When I fled domestic violence, I used to be confident in our government, councils and support networks – they have policies and laws and are supposed to help and support people, right? They are supposed to help me get back to a better quality of life, help me find a suitable, safe and long-term secure home, and live free of domestic violence. By not being given the help and by making the experience of getting support horrible through bullying and intimidation, recovery becomes an unnecessary struggle. Councils are making the process so difficult through unpleasant and unnecessary gatekeeping that they are actively contributing to people not being able to leave abusive environments, or having to find themselves going back to these domestic violent situations.

I have now put the council’s decision to review, but had it not been for the skills in being able to research and communicate (which I am not always able to) and for HASL’s support and guidance, I dread to think what would have happened or where I would have ended up.

It is with this ordeal that I am reminded of a few words from Gladstone Women’s Health:

”A domestic violence victim can’t even start a plan to leave until they first believe that life outside of that relationship is better and possible.”

Lambeth council – we need to talk about gatekeeping

HASL has highlighted two serious cases of unlawful gatekeeping by Lambeth council as well as other extremely poor treatment of these two homeless HASL members, but Lambeth council have so far failed to respond to address these issues and our wider concerns.

One of the cases of gatekeeping, where a family were turned away from help and returned to their severely overcrowded accommodation, resulted in a woman being physically assaulted by a member of another household in the shared accommodation they were living in.

The other case saw the housing officer pretend to open a homeless application for our member, and then a month later, when our member enquired what had happened to the application, it turned out he had been lying and had never started one in the first place.

These members have pursued reviews and complaints about their treatment with the council, but Lambeth’s internal processes are still not acknowledging the issues we have faced nor are they resolving them satisfactorily. HASL members and supporters have also collectively shown their concern and support for these HASL members using twitter and visiting the housing office as a group.

We are calling on Lambeth’s councillor for housing Matthew Bennett and the head of the housing office to meet with us to listen to these issues and finally work to resolve them. He must acknowledge the seriousness of what has happened in these cases.

As well as unlawful gatekeeping for many months, causing significant harm to our members and their families, both members have also faced other appalling treatment at the housing office. Some issues include:

  • Both members have medical needs that were ‘assessed’ by housing officers with no medical background. Similar to the infamous ATOS medical assessments for disability benefits, these ‘assessments’ were incredibly crude and used an out-dated understanding of vulnerabilities and disabilities. ‘Oh you can do this, can you? You’re fine and don’t require any assistance’ is essentially the conclusions drawn from these poorly conducted assessments. These inadequate assessments have serious consequences for our members who were left without suitable housing.
  • When allocating temporary accommodation to one of our members, a proper suitability assessment, which took into account her children’s needs and well-being, was not conducted.
  • After not receiving the council’s decision letter, our member has been denied her right to review the decision when she did finally got the letter, because she had missed the original deadline. This again goes against what the law says which says clearly that a review can happen within 21 days of receiving the letter (not the date the council sent the letter, especially if it didn’t arrive!)

Current homelessness law does not do enough to protect and support homeless people, but Lambeth council can’t even manage to follow the basic law that exists – from our experience they have regularly failed to meet their legal obligations, causing us significant harm and distress.

We know we are not the only Lambeth residents facing these problems at the housing office. We have spoken to others at the housing office who have spoken about gatekeeping and we have witnessed people in the housing office being unlawfully turned away without help. As well as dealing with these two cases, Lambeth council must change the practices in the housing office so that people are treated with respect and given the help they need.

One of the people affected by gatekeeping at Lambeth explains her situation:

At every single step of the homelessness process I have been denied help by Lambeth council. It has been such an impossible struggle to get even the most basic help that I’m legally entitled to. As well as dealing with homelessness, my medical needs, and trying to get on with my life, I have had to spend huge amounts of energy and time dealing with Lambeth council’s homelessness service. What should be a really simple procedure, where they can support homeless residents, has lasted many months and caused me significant distress and anxiety and further worsened my medical needs. The disrespect and poor treatment I have faced has felt so hurtful and demoralising. 

If I am struggling to get through the homelessness process, and I’ve had incredible support from HASL, then what chance do others doing this alone have?

Lambeth must address the issues we have raised.

Lambeth council’s systemic gatekeeping of single homeless people

HASL have uncovered – and are challenging – yet more gatekeeping of homeless people by Lambeth housing office. We have blogged about our member Mary Luz who was denied housing help last May and forced to return to severely overcrowded housing. We knew from conversations with people at the housing office and from our visits there that this was not the only instance of gatekeeping at Lambeth housing office.

It is very common for single homeless people to face gatekeeping at housing offices, as often they may not meet the automatic priority need test (for example, if you have children, you are automatically in priority need). In this case, we have found Lambeth housing office have a built-in policy to gatekeep single homeless people. Homelessness is rising, and youth homelessness in particular – a group that is likely to be significantly affected by Lambeth’s unlawful policy.

Our long time HASL member, we’ll call her Liz to protect her privacy, has recently faced gatekeeping by Lambeth council which has resulted in her being kept homeless for two extra months, and facing anxiety, stress and demoralisation that comes with being treated so poorly and denied basic rights. Liz requested a homelessness assessment at Lambeth housing office back in March 2016. She stressed the important mantra that she was homeless and in priority need – which means that the local authority is legally obliged to conduct inquiries into the person’s situation. She was booked what she was told was a homelessness assessment for the following week.

 
Attending the homelessness assessment with a buddy, the housing officer attempted a number of gatekeeping tricks, but Liz and her buddy thought they had navigated these successfully ending the meeting with the officer informing her that he would open a homeless assessment. He handed her numerous forms to fill out which again seemed to suggest the opening of a homeless assessment. Again during this meeting, Liz stressed she was homeless and in priority need at which the legal obligation to conduct inquiries kicks in.

After not hearing anything for almost two months, Liz contacted him to find out what had happened to her application. He didn’t respond, so with the help of HASL she wrote a letter to Lambeth council last week threatening legal action. This finally prompted Lambeth into action and revealed their gatekeeping tactics and lies that they had subjected Liz (and numerous other single homeless people) to. She was informed that she had not in fact had a homeless assessment but a ‘housing assessment for a single person’. So she would now be booked in for an actual homeless assessment this week – having to go through another stressful interview/meeting talking about her homelessness and vulnerabilities, as well as this assessment now being delayed by two months.

It turns out that Liz was lied to about being booked a homeless assessment, lied to during the meeting where she was told an application would be opened, and lied to by the housing officer that she was not eligible to join the housing register. Importantly, the ‘housing assessment for a single person’ meeting, suggests that it is Lambeth’s policy to gatekeep single homeless people with this meeting.

Liz explains herself:

I feel extremely demoralised by this experience. Dealing with homelessness and the homelessness application process is difficult enough – finding out that you believed you went through this process already, but actually you hadn’t because they purposefully had decided not to meet their legal obligations is even more difficult. They have made me endure homelessness for an unnecessary extra two months.

They make it such a struggle that you want to give up, which of course, is entirely their plan. I also feel furious at the multiple lies told to my face to deny me my rightful access to housing. I feel thankful that I’ve got the support and solidarity of my housing action group so I’m not going through this alone.”

Liz has made a formal complaint about the situation and HASL will be planning further actions to challenge gatekeeping and mistreatment. She should not be made to endure the homeless process again because of Lambeth’s failures to do this the first time and should be placed in band B where there is criteria for homeless people working with the council to deal with homelessness. Of course, twitter is a helpful place to make public complaints to @lambeth_council @cllr_peck and @cllrmattbennet about issues in their housing office.

HASL have also drawn up a pledge against gatekeeping that we will be approaching Lambeth council with.

Justice for ML – HASL’s mass visit to the housing office

HASL olive morris house mary luz

 

Thanks to everyone who came to support ML at Lambeth’s Olive Morris house this morning in a joint HASL and English for Action action! We have simple messages for the council:
A home close to school / una casa circa de la escuela

Justice / justicia

Respect / respeto

This morning, over twenty of us visited Olive Morris House with the simple request that the family be given the suitable social housing they would have had if Lambeth had given them the help they were entitled to back in May last year. ML’s case is one of total neglect by Lambeth council that resulted in her being physically assaulted in the overcrowded shared housing she had visited them to get assistance with. We demand accountability and justice from the council.

Our visit resulted in a short meeting with the manager of the housing office. Whilst they said that they would contact us by the end of the day about the case, they refused to meet our basic request that the family be given secure, social housing in their local area. They also called the police on our group as they were keen to get us out. But we left in our own time of our own accord.

Although we have not got our immediate request met on this visit, we have made our message very clear and spoke to people high up in the housing office to make them aware of this case, the urgent need for action, and that we will continue until our request for suitable social housing is met.

We promised that if our request is not met, we will return as a (growing!) group until it is. Please get involved and join us to fight for good quality homes we all need and deserve! And why not tweet @lambeth_council @cllr_peck in support of ML to keep the pressure on them.

HASL guide to gatekeeping

What is gatekeeping?

Gatekeeping is when people are denied the help, services and support they are legally entitled to by council staff employing different tactics to turn us away and make us give up. Gatekeeping is very common is housing offices when people go to make homeless applications and also in social services when people try to access housing help.

Southwark housing office has a particularly bad reputation for gatekeeping. In February, a High Court judge ordered Southwark council ‘to cease with immediate effect the policies and practices’ which had seen a homeless family refused help by the council and told to look for their own accommodation in the private sector.  In May, a homeless man, Mr Kanu, who had been denied help by Southwark council, won in the Supreme Court where the judge ruled that Mr Kanu was entitled to housing. Sadly, Mr Kanu died shortly after this victory. Despite these legal cases, we know that Southwark housing office still continues to gatekeep homeless people.

What does it mean? What are the impacts?

The effects of gatekeeping are to keep vulnerable homeless people homeless or in unsafe, overcrowded housing.  It denies them the immediate housing help they need and their place on the housing register so that they might eventually access secure social housing.

Charities are predicting a particularly bad winter with high street homelessness this year with gatekeeping playing a role in this.

Women trying to escape violence have nowhere safe to go.

For the housing office, it means that their homelessness statistics are kept low so that the true scale of homelessness is hidden.

How do you spot it?

Housing office staff say things like: “I can tell you now, you are intentionally homeless”

“You need to bring more evidence before we can start a homeless application and give you interim housing.”

“We can’t help you, you need to find your own housing in the private sector.”

“You’re not homeless until the bailiffs evict you.”

“If you have a roof, then you are not homeless.”

“If they have a pulse, then they’re not vulnerable”

How can we challenge it?

London Coalition Against Poverty has been going since 2007 and is made up of local groups who meet up and provide support and action on each others housing issues. LCAP groups have long been challenging gatekeeping at their local housing offices by:

Making sure that people know their rights

Providing buddies for each other to attend the housing office together

Visiting the housing office as a big group and refusing to leave until a homeless application has been accepted.

Regular leafleting outside housing offices to talk to people about their rights and the housing group and local campaigns and actions challenging gatekeeping at a local housing office.

 

Don’t struggle alone! It’s easy for them to turn one person away, but if we stand up for each other, we can fight for the support and services that we all need and deserve. We welcome you to get involved and help us organise more ways to challenge gatekeeping.

 

A Gatekeeping Masterclass from Lambeth Council

After a recent judicial review in the High Court, where Southwark Council was order to stop refusing vulnerable people from applying as homeless through the use of ‘gatekeeping’, we thought other boroughs would have taken some notice. Apparently not. In fact, a housing officer and senior housing manager at Lambeth didn’t even seem to agree that such a thing as gatekeeping existed; it’s a conspiracy against local councils, you see.

Today, HASL visited Lambeth Council at Olive Morris House to support two members whose families are living in private rented sector flats which are infested with rats and bed bugs, have blocked drains and exposed electrical wiring – facts which the council are already aware of.

As the judicial review of Southwark Council’s practices and policies detailed, under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities *must* investigate applications from anyone ‘it has reasons to believe may be homeless or threatened with homelessness’, and provide temporary accommodation to those with children or who appear vulnerable. This means that once a council has taken the housing application, they must then make inquiries about whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and whether a duty is owed. Where the council have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, that they are eligible for assistance and in priority need, the duty to secure accommodation for homeless applicants, pending the decision as to whether a duty is owed, applies. This is process is enshrined in law, but trying to get a council to recognise their duty and what they should be doing is nearly impossible – made worse by the hostility people face from council staff and all the other policies and options councils put in place that people have to navigate.

Our first stop was with a housing advisor. After briefly discussing what we were there for, the officer almost immediately refused both housing applications, stating that both families were not homeless. We challenged this flippant decision, reminding the officer of their legal duties. He began questioning who we were so that he could record our details and demanded to see all the other evidence we had for proving that the families were homeless. Gatekeeping hurdle one.

We objected to this unlawful gatekeeping so he called security. During a heated debate, we repeatedly requested an explanation, but he refused and stormed off around the corner whilst security tried to move us away from the desk. Gatekeeping hurdle two.

We stood our ground and eventually were sent to meet with Lambeth’s manager of the welfare reform and private sector teams. With the slick soft power you would expect from a senior council worker, he listened to the facts of the case and agreed with the first housing officer that there was no ‘reason to believe’ that the two families were homeless. Reasonable belief, apparently, is what the housing officer says it is: a gaping hole in your roof exposing you to all the elements wouldn’t meet that definition according to the manager – advice which runs contrary to the High Court’s deliberations in the Southwark case where ‘reason to believe that the applicants are homeless’ is supposed to be a low threshold. The difficulties people face when living in these conditions also has absolutely no bearing on what is reasonable. Despite the fact that other families in the building had been moved out, given the extent of the repair works the landlord needed to do on the flats inside and the environmental report on the problems with fire hazards and health and safety, it was still reasonable for both families and their children to continue living there. Gatekeeping hurdle three.

We were offered all too familiar excuses: “Do you really want to make us send them to Birmingham?” “It’s not our fault there’s no social housing, it was all Thatcher” “We just don’t have any temporary accommodation, what can we do?” “Can’t they just repair the house themselves?” Gatekeeping hurdle four.

After 3 hours of waiting and pleading, and with our members running out of time before picking up their children from school and going to work, it became clear that as with so many of our interactions with Lambeth Council, a decision was going to be made informally in the corridor. Gatekeeping hurdle five.

Both families just want out of their horrendous flats. We wanted something in writing about the council’s refusal to accept the homeless applications. Initially, the senior manager said he could do that, but an hour or so later he made it perfectly clear that it was an inconvenience for him. Gatekeeping hurdle six.

Throughout the day, our collective approach to support was dismissed as ‘Advocacy’. We were accused of acting irresponsibly in demanding written reasons as to why homeless applications were being refused and creating more problems in the future with ‘out of borough’ or out of London accommodation – in the long-winded process of fighting for the council to follow the law, we became the problem and were dramatised as causing more difficulty for the families in the future.

During these kind of interactions, it can become increasingly difficult to hold onto the simple realities that are, in fact, playing out. Today, Lambeth Council sent two families back to accommodation they know to be dangerous and unhealthy, simply because they refused to believe that it *might* be possible that their housing conditions constituted homelessness. We believe they acted unlawfully in doing so.