Tag Archives: Olive Morris House

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.

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Lambeth Housing Office’s Multiple Failures Leaves HASL Member on the Streets

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth have been supporting one of our members who is currently homeless to get emergency accommodation from Lambeth Council. His personal situation means that he should have placed into emergency accommodation immediately, and supported in finding longer term accommodation, however staff at the housing office have on numerous occasions failed to ensure that this occurs. He is now sleeping rough on the streets whilst the housing office continue to fob him and HASL off. We are deeply concerned about our friend and also about the conduct of some of the staff in the housing office and their inability to follow basic procedures and fulfil their duty to house people.

Below we outline the multiple occasions on which Lambeth housing office staff have not followed the correct procedure for supporting a vulnerable homeless person.

As a housing action and support group we are learning about our housing rights together as we go along. This has meant that on this occasion, as we are still learning, the housing office has got away with a lot. However, we are learning fast. We have learnt that the housing office will lie to your face, treat you with disrespect, and do everything they can not to house you. This will probably come as no surprise to those who have had to deal with them before. The support HASL has provided for our friend has meant that through these interactions, there has often been another HASL person to watch his back.

Visit to housing office number 1:

Visit to register for priority homelessness. Told that he is not in priority need and therefore is not given emergency accommodation. Told that they will pass on his medical information (which strongly makes the case for priority need) to be reviewed by someone else. Sent away without anything.

What should have happened

He should have been accepted immediately as priority need homeless and provided with emergency accommodation. The Shelter emergency housing rights checker confirms this as did a Shelter case worker.

Not having done this, they should have given him emergency accommodation whilst they are reviewing the case. Civil Law Advice are interested in pursuing a judicial review against Lambeth’s decision not to do this.

They should also have informed him that if they do not deem him in priority need, they will issue him with a section 184 notification which he can give to a housing association he is in contact with to prove that he is homeless.

Visit number 2:

Having learnt from Shelter that he does indeed fulfil the criteria for priority need homelessness, he returned with someone else from HASL to see if they could query this and get the emergency accommodation needed. After waiting for over two hours in the housing office we spoke with someone we were told was a manager. She dismissed Shelter’s assessment – “they’re a lobby group, of course they say you’re priority, they say everyone is…we’re the council, we’re professionals, we act on the facts” – and then said very rudely and bluntly “in my opinion you are not priority need”. She said threatening that we were lucky enough that someone from their office was reviewing the medical evidence. It seemed if we pushed it much more she would just drop it altogether. We asked what he was to do tonight as he had nowhere to go. She told us that if he is on the streets, he can call the Lambeth Safe Street Team and they will come and check on him. He was told to call up to find out about the decision which would be made within the next two days.

What should have happened

Well, of course she should have looked into his case and come to the same conclusion as Shelter and arranged for emergency accommodation. She should have listened to what we were trying to say to her and spoken to us with respect.

Or, she should have acknowledged that whilst the case was being reviewed, he should be in emergency housing.

Failing this, instead of suggesting the streets and the Safe Street Team as appropriate support, she should have suggested some kind accommodation that has a roof.

Visit number 3:

Our friend returned to the housing office in person on the deadline they had given for the decision. He was told that a decision was yet to be finalised and was told to phone the following day. He called up the next day to find out what the decision was only to be told that the decision could take up to six weeks.

What should have happened

He should have received the decision as he was promised and not been given false deadlines which it now seems the manager had made up to get us out of there on our second visit.

Lambeth housing office have knowingly left a vulnerable homeless person to find somewhere on the streets whilst they make a decision on whether he is in priority need (which the manager hinted would be a negative one), denying him emergency accommodation they should provide in the interim and continually misinforming him (not informing him about the section 184 notification, “call in tomorrow and the decision will be made”).

Homeless services in London 

We are also appalled by the homeless services and support that are (un)available to homeless people that we have learnt about from our friend.

There is often strict criteria on accessing homeless shelters and services meaning that our friend has been turned away from a shelter which did not accept those who had access to public funds and denied support from one organisation because he has mental health issues.

He has been encouraged by his social worker to sleep rough in order to access rough sleeper support services such as Lambeth Safe Street Team, Southwark Spot Homeless Team, Streetlink, and No Second Night Out. However, for the last two nights, the people who are supposed to locate and support him have failed to do so. He has been told by No Second Night Out that he can sleep on the streets for a maximum of 10 days but after that if the team turn up and do not recognise him, he will no longer receive help.

We are a housing support and action group. We believe in decent homes for all. This sort of service, where the housing office fails to live up to its name and fails on so many other levels as well (basic respect), is not acceptable. We welcome people to get involved in the group to provide support for each other and take action together.