Tag Archives: homelessness

Forcing homeless families out of London – our report on London councils ending their homeless duties with private rented accommodation

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Using Freedom Of Information requests sent to London councils, we looked at how hundreds of homeless households are being forced out of their home communities and out of London into private rented housing or else facing destitution. You can read our full report HASL report on private sector discharge -final

The Guardian has covered the research here

We wrote about our findings for Novara Media here

Camden council – stop the cycle of homelessness and poverty

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We blogged urgently earlier this month when one of our members was given a days notice by Camden council to view and accept private rented accommodation. Camden council were using their new powers given to them in the Localism Act to force homeless households to accept an offer of private rented accommodation. If they refuse this offer, the council can end their homeless duty and evict them from their current temporary accommodation. The council will also remove them from the social housing waiting list.

We are deeply concerned at Camden council’s policy and treatment of homeless households. Why are Camden council forcing homeless households to accept private rented accommodation – or else face street homelessness – when the private rented sector is one of the biggest causes of homelessness? Homeless households must be allowed to wait for secure social housing if they wish.

We demand that Camden council urgently review their homelessness policy and housing allocations policy:

  • Camden council must not force homeless households into the private rented sector. If a private rented offer is made, the uptake of this offer should be voluntary not mandatory. No one should face homelessness for refusing a private rented sector offer.
  • If a private rented sector offer is accepted, the council should allow them to remain on the waiting list for secure social housing. Homeless households, people in housing need, and those who have faced homelessness must be able to access secure, social housing.
  • Whether homeless households remain in temporary accommodation or voluntarily accept a private rented offer, these two groups must have high priority on the housing waiting list because of their high housing need.

Our member

Our member and her daughter were left in a hostel for over a year by Camden council, having to use shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. As soon as we raised concerns about this, they were provided with self-contained temporary accommodation. However, shortly after this, the council have now forced the family to accept a private rented offer.

We had another member who was also kept in a hostel by Camden council for over a year, and then after we challenged this, she was moved into private rented accommodation.

We are concerned that the council are happy to neglect people in hostel accommodation for years and when challenged, force them to accept a private rented offer. It certainly feels like a punishment for raising unsuitable hostel accommodation. After enduring unsuitable hostel accommodation, clearly these households need quality, secure social housing.

We sent a Freedom of Information request to Camden council to find out their policy on forcing homeless households into private rented accommodation. The FOI shows that in the last year the council conducted 112 suitability assessments, and have subsequently discharged their duty with a private rented offer to 25 households. So far, the number of households forced into the private rented sector is relatively small, although of course, the impacts on these families will be huge. That our member, who challenged her unsuitable hostel accommodation, was selected for a private sector discharge, does look targeted.

Overcrowding and insecurity

Our member is already worried about what moving into this private rented accommodation means in terms of insecurity. “How long will I be able to live there for? What happens after 2 years?” She asked us. Of course, with private rented accommodation, we can’t answer, because it is all in the hands of the private landlord (although any private rented offer given by the council through the Localism Act must be for a minimum of 12months) and whether she is able to cover what could be an ever increasing rent.

The accommodation is also a one bedroom flat so housing officers suggested that her 15 year old daughter could put a bed in the living room. This is totally unacceptable. Good quality housing means people have living space and private space. Living spaces should not double up as bedrooms.

Camden council must support homeless people and meet our demands above rather than their current project of cutting their housing waiting list.

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.

Southwark council decide DV survivor can be street homeless – Stand up to Southwark council!

Update today, cllr for Housing Stephanie Cryan responded to our email saying that they are looking for private accommodation for C. We have responded that this is unacceptable. We will not let Southwark council avoid a homelessness duty to C with an offer of insecure, unaffordable private rented accommodation. Forcing homeless people into the homelessness-generating private sector is not a solution. Homeless people, particularly survivors of domestic violence, need the security of council housing. We reiterate our request that the council reverse their cruel and harmful decision not to accept a full homeless duty towards C and we invite you to support our demand (see below).

We are deeply concerned and distressed that our member C, who is a survivor of long term domestic abuse which has left her with post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, panic attacks and other medical issues, has been deemed not in priority need and therefore able to live on the streets by Southwark council yesterday.

We are calling on Southwark to immediately reverse this decision, accept a full homeless duty to C and ensure that she has suitable temporary accommodation in Peckham where she has important family connections. Please join us in tweeting the council @lb_southwark and the councillor for housing @steviecryan to show your support for C.

The new vulnerability test used by councils to decide whether someone is vulnerable enough to be deemed ‘priority need’ – and therefore owed a full homeless duty if other criteria are met as well – looks at whether the applicant would suffer significantly more than ‘an ordinary person’ if they were faced with street homelessness. Clearly our member C, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by many years of domestic abuse, would suffer more than an ‘ordinary person’ if she is forced into street homelessness, which is a very real threat. (Although obviously there are clear problems with this test as no one should be forced into street homelessness.)

We are shocked that the council found otherwise, and we are deeply concerned at some of the reasons they gave in deciding that C can live on the streets – they literally say she has the ‘skills’ to deal with street homelessness. Here are some of the statements made by the housing officer when coming to the decision. C’s attempts to get on with her life, and her vital support networks, are used against her as proof by the housing officer that she can cope with homelessness with statements such as – you made an ESA application, therefore you can live on the streets, you made this homeless application, therefore you can live on the streets. As well as these ridiculous conclusions, there is also a deep lack of understanding of vulnerability (having good mobility and literacy skills are used as evidence that she is not vulnerable) and the daily struggle many survivors experience in dealing with domestic violence. These are just some of the hurtful statements contained in the letter that C read yesterday. (our bold and italics)

This Authority understands that you were naturally adversely affected by your experiences as the victim of domestic abuse. However we are of the opinion that your experiences have not prevented you from managing your affairs and accessing relevant services and support from friends and professionals organisations…As a result, we are satisfied that your medical and social issues have not prevented you from undertaking most everyday tasks. It is therefore considered that you have the ability and skills to cope in your situation of homelessness.”

It is the Council’s opinion that you are not vulnerable as a result of your medical condition or your history of domestic violence. We have considered that these circumstances do not significantly impede your normal function or impair your ability to manage your daily tasks, including using public transport, shopping, cooking and managing your health and finances.”

We are also concerned that when C went for her homelessness interview last month, she was denied her supporter that she requested attend with her. Again highlighting how Southwark council have failed to support the interests and well being of survivors. It is likely that the absence of a supporter would have made the interview more difficult for C.

Last month, with the support of South East London Sisters Uncut we highlighted Southwark’s poor treatment of DV survivors with our member S. Southwark council reversed their decision as a result of public pressure on twitter and promised to investigate and produce a policy to ensure that DV survivors receive adequate support and treatment through the difficult homeless application process. But we have not heard anything from Southwark council about this, and yesterday’s decision clearly shows that staff urgently need training on understanding domestic violence and its impact on survivors’ lives.

We will be supporting C to review the council’s decision, but we also believe it is unfair and detrimental to her well being that she should be made to go through this difficult process. We hope that Southwark will take immediate action to reverse the decision.

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.

HASL get member housed back in her community!

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Yesterday morning, about thirty HASL members and ESOL group English for Action, visited Southwark council’s town hall in support of our member Ruth and her family who had been housed by the council all the way out in Woolwich.

This accommodation was far away from their school, community and work places. To get to school her children had to travel on 3 buses for 2 hours, and then they had to do this after school to get home again. That’s 20 hours commuting each week on 30 buses! This was having an extremely negative impact on the children’s education and well being. Everyone needs and deserves decent housing in their community. We won’t let people be forced out.

We went to demand ‘A home near school’ and after a short time in the town hall’s lobby – where we played Twister, Jenga, and talked with staff about the housing crisis and our group – we were told that alternative temporary accommodation on the Aylesbury estate* had been found for the family. Ruth was relieved and happy at the outcome, as we all are that Ruth and her family are now back home.

But it shouldn’t take 30 people occupying the town hall for homeless people and families to be treated well and provided with suitable temporary accommodation. And we were appalled by one housing managers comments when we asked him why no furniture (no beds!) was provided in the accommodation – “it’s got a roof, it’s liveable”. We doubt he’d call this liveable if it were provided for him and his family. This is no standard or way to treat homeless people.

We want to challenge the poor treatment and provision for homeless people in Southwark and fight social cleansing! Get involved in HASL to help us do this!

Thank you to everyone who came and supported Ruth. Don’t struggle alone! Together we can win!

*The Aylesbury estate is in the process of ‘regeneration’ (demolition of council housing and its replacement with unaffordable private housing = social cleansing). Secure tenants are being moved/forced out leaving perfectly habitable flats empty. Southwark is using some of these flats to house homeless people (and collect rent from them!).  This seems sensible enough as it keeps people in their home borough (and makes Southwark council money). We oppose the demolition of the Aylesbury estate and support all residents and locals who are fighting for it. Check out Fight for the Aylesbury for more information and action.

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