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.
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.
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.
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.
Pictures from today’s action on Flickr can be found here.
This afternoon around 30 HASL members visited Lambeth council’s town hall demanding ‘social housing not social cleansing’. The local housing group, made up of homeless and precariously housed people, visited the town hall in the half-term holiday with their children to give the council a sense of what temporary housing feels like: cramped, noisy, and disruptive!
We were joined in our occupation of the town hall’s lobby by Lambeth Pensioners’ Action Group taking our numbers to 50+! Our sister group Haringey Housing Action Group also organised an action in tandem with ours.
Lambeth council refused to meet with our group to speak with us about our concerns and shamefully called the cops to try and evict us. About 10 police came and harrassed our members. We have still not received a response to our letter to Lib Peck about our concerns about recent changes to the social housing register and new powers to force homeless people into the private sector – both of which make everyone’s access to social housing even more difficult. We will continue our campaign on these issues and continue informing people of their rights if they are being pressured into the private sector. See our new leaflet here.
The action is one of many happening across London as part of the Radical Housing Network’s week of action.
Massive thanks to everyone who joined us today!
More info on why we were there…
HASL are protesting at Lambeth council’s use of the Localism Act to push homeless people into the private sector and at changes to the social housing allocations policy which de-link social housing from housing need. Members of HASL in temporary accommodation have experienced bullying from Lambeth housing office to find themselves accommodation in the private rented sector. They also saw their position on the social housing register decrease by a band as homelessness has been de-prioritised for social housing, even though they are desperately in need of secure housing.
Private rented accommodation is completely inappropriate housing, particularly for those who have already experienced homelessness – it is expensive, poor-quality, insecure, and often only ‘affordable’ out of London and the south of England. The private rented sector is the biggest cause of homelessness. Lambeth council should not be forcing homeless people into housing, outside of their communities, which will make them homeless again. They should not be making social housing more difficult for everyone to access, which is what changes to their social housing allocations policy has done.
The group are also concerned about people increasingly being housed in poor-quality temporary housing outside the borough away from schools, community and support networks.
Liz Wyatt, a member of HASL said: “Lambeth had the choice whether to use it’s new powers in the Localism Act to make homeless people’s lives even more difficult and undermine everyone’s access to social housing. It made the wrong choice and has implemented yet more housing policies which go against homeless and precariously housed people in the borough. We’re here to demand that Lambeth council stop socially cleansing its residents by forcing people into the private rented sector. We all need quality, secure, social housing and the council should be doing everything it can do ensure this.
“The Focus E15 mums campaign in east London saw them successfully resist being forced to Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings by Newham council. We plan do the same here in Lambeth and resist social cleansing with collective action. Our group has already had a number of successes in securing housing for our members.”
Join us on Friday 25th April, 11.50am meeting outside Brixton Customer Centre, Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill. Bring friends, family, neighbours!
Ellen is due a refund of the bedroom tax that she has been forced to pay for a year now, as she meets the criteria for the bedroom tax loophole. However, the housing office have not been all that helpful in getting this refund back to her.
The housing office have taken over a month to respond to our appeal letter and we only received the unfavourable response after chasing them up about this. The response gave very little detail or evidence of why this negative decision had been made.
The bedroom tax (one of many brutal welfare and housing cuts) is causing great hardship to the hundreds of thousands of people it is affecting. The refund offers a tiny respite from this stress and suffering by returning a small sum of money that should never have been taken off of them in the first place. It takes little effort from the council and will make a huge different to the people who receive it.
Join us to make our challenge at the housing office to demand the bedroom tax refund for Ellen and that our dealings with the housing office to be met with more respect.