20 September 2017
Work as a legal aid housing lawyer throws up all kinds of scenarios. Many of our clients have already been evicted and are homeless. The image of homelessness that most commonly springs to mind is rough sleeping, but we spend much time advising and representing the ‘hidden homeless’: meaning those not visible sleeping on the street, but who also have nowhere to call home. They are hidden behind closed doors sleeping on friends’ sofas, crowded into one room of a hostel, they occupy garden sheds, garages and family houses – with one family in each bedroom. They are squeezed into council temporary accommodation units and left in limbo, with no guarantee of when they will be able to move into a permanent home of their own. In July 2017, councils across England were providing temporary housing for around 120,540 children with their families, and this number is rising. Homelessness is triggered by many things. The loss of an assured shorthold tenancy is the number one cause, when private landlords give notice that they want their property back and are not required to give a particular reason. Relationship breakdown, sudden loss of a job, domestic violence, illness, financial difficulties and innumerable unexpected life events all contribute to people losing their home. "They are hidden behind closed doors sleeping on friends’ sofas, crowded into one room of a hostel, they occupy garden sheds, garages and family houses – with one family in each bedroom" It is not a simple matter to find a new home after a becoming homeless. Finding affordable private rented housing is becoming harder all the time as rents rise but housing benefit levels remain frozen. The waiting lists for council and social housing are enormous. Private landlords are increasingly unwilling to let their properties to those on low incomes or benefits, some specifically stating that they will not even consider tenants who will need to apply for housing benefit to help them pay their rent. Welfare reform has also contributed to the dysfunctional housing system – the new scheme of Universal Credit has dealt a devastating blow to renters, as new claims often take 8 weeks or more to process. So tenants are unable to pay their rent for at least 2-3 months, and what landlord will tolerate that? People who have searched in vain to rehouse themselves are often left with no alternative but to turn to their council offices to request urgent help. However, they are not always treated lawfully – or with respect. It is true that local authorities are under immense pressure with tightened budgets and reduced housing stock available to them. A recent BBC2 documentary ‘No Place to Call Home’ showed one housing officer in Barking & Dagenham describing their department as ‘a housing options service without any options,’ as the demand for their services severely outweighed the supply. However, this lack of resources is often translated into scare tactics to deter people requesting housing help from their council. I have seen a range of different responses from authorities across the country. Applicants are often handed a long list of documents and informed that before any help will be provided, they must produce all the documents on the list. One homeless client I advised who was (very obviously) 9 months pregnant was initially not permitted to make an urgent homeless application, as the documents she had produced did not include a doctor’s note to confirm she was pregnant. Another pregnant, 18 year old client was inexplicably informed that her application for urgent housing could not be processed because her father’s name was not on her birth certificate. Young people are frequently passed between housing and social services departments, or between different authorities when neither wants to take responsibility for giving assistance. One 16 year old client approached his council for help after he was forced to leave home. He spent 9 months sleeping rough in a tent whilst social services and housing argued about who should help him. A single mother came to me with two young children, bleary-eyed and covered in insect bites, having spent a few weeks living in a garden shed. The council had evicted them after my client had to spend some unexpected time out of the country to care for her sick mother. They had returned to the council to ask for assistance, but none was forthcoming and so the shed was their only option. When legally challenged, the council relented and reluctantly provided the family with accommodation that was far too small (no room for enough beds) and was 2 hours away from the client’s place of work and her children’s school. When the council was challenged again, the response was irritable – what on earth was the problem now? We weren’t asking for the moon, just a decent home within a reasonable travelling distance from school and work. "Young people are frequently passed between housing and social services departments, or between different authorities when neither wants to take responsibility for giving assistance" Some homeless families are threatened with separation from their children, when they cannot get assistance from the local housing authority and are compelled to turn to social services. Families who present as homeless are frequently told that they cannot be housed together, but instead their children will be taken into care. It’s an effective way of scaring families away from the council offices. This often happens when families are not owed duties by the housing department (for example they may be deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ due to rent arrears and eviction). Social services have duties to assist children in need – which can include helping to house a homeless family together, perhaps by way of helping with a rent deposit. There are often no child protection issues save for their homelessness, which can and should be resolved without the far more expensive and inappropriate threat of foster care. One client found herself homeless when she built up rent arrears in the midst of trying to resolve some difficult personal circumstances. With a low wage cleaning job and a 9 year old autistic son to care for, social services were her safety net, as her homeless application failed and she could not find a landlord who would accept housing benefit. To heap further distress on the already humiliating experience of having to ask for help in the first place, she was told forcefully at her first interview that she could not be assisted, but her son would be taken into care. Her son was present and became understandably terrified. Her fear of losing him resulted in them both sleeping in her car for several nights before she obtained legal advice. I have known ’hidden homeless’ clients, including lone teenagers and families with children, ask for help with housing, but end up resorting to sleeping on night buses, in hospital A & E waiting rooms, in fast food restaurants, train stations and in cars. They stay on friends’ sofas and move on when they outstay their welcome. Their lives are in a constant state of flux, living out of boxes and paying extortionate fees to storage companies. The children cannot sleep properly, they have nowhere to bring their friends to play, they have no space to do their homework and their school work suffers. Their experiences will impact them forever. Different organisations, community groups and individuals often help where they can. This help varies from homeless cold weather shelters to the offer of a spare bed for a few nights. It sometimes takes the form of a hot meal at a community centre, a foodbank voucher or an advocate to attend the council offices and provide support with navigating ‘the system.’ Housing lawyers will of course continue to step in and provide legal advice on a case by case basis to help resolve homelessness, but this must be accompanied by policy change on a wider scale, if the numbers of hidden homeless are to decrease and their experiences of statutory services improve. Legal aid law firms and charities like Shelter cannot and should not be relied on to keep picking up the pieces one by one when people fall through the gaps. "Different organisations, community groups and individuals often help where they can. This help varies from homeless cold weather shelters to the offer of a spare bed for a few nights." Housing benefit rates must increase in line with the level of rents and the government and housing sector must work to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing. The introduction of new legislation such as the imminent Homelessness Reduction Act is a welcome sea change in the direction of early intervention to ensure homelessness is prevented or relieved, but for the Act to have teeth and for prevention to truly take place, there must also be affordable homes for people to move into. In the aftermath of the terrible Grenfell fire, it is also starkly obvious that change is not just needed in policy and on paper, but in the way we manage our social housing system and treat social tenants and those in need of settled housing. The sub text permeating through the authorities’ attitudes described in the cases outlined above is that those who need to ask for help with housing have no right to be heard, but should be grateful for what they are given – even if what they are eventually given is a substandard hostel in an unfamiliar area, miles away from jobs and support networks. Following the publication of the Grenfell fire Inquiry terms of reference, the Prime Minister promised that separate consideration would be given as to how best to address the broader issues of social housing raised by the fire – notably, the fact that tenants’ concerns were ignored or left unaddressed for so long and the lack of trust between tenants and the council, along with their Tenant Management Organisation. This is symptomatic of the treatment which is experienced in different ways across the country both by others living in social housing and by those approaching their local council offices for urgent housing help. We cannot allow the commitment to address these broader issues of social housing to be kicked into the long grass, or for the debate to only tinker around the edges. Now is the time to have a meaningful debate about what social housing means, including how those who need to request housing help from their council are treated. Amongst the myriad of housing issues that need to be addressed, action must be taken to ensure that hidden homelessness becomes a thing of the past.