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.