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
Southwark council were featured in a Guardian article on the Homelessness Reduction Act. They explain the ‘positive effects’ of the Homelessness Reduction Act in the borough:
- 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!