When Sallie* found herself homeless last November, she was desperate. Her ex-partner had turned abusive. She took her two children and ran.
She couldn’t afford to rent anywhere near her older son’s school and her younger’s nursery and was turned away from the local domestic violence refuge. “It was really difficult, I didn’t know what to do. I walked into a police station and they referred me to the council,” she said.
It was here that a new piece of legislation should have helped her. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force in England in April last year, puts the onus on councils to rescue people from homelessness, and prevent them from falling through the gaps in the first place. The government has called it “the most ambitious reform to homelessness legislation in decades” and said it would help halve rough sleeping numbers by 2022.
But an investigation by the Bureau, which heard from more than 70 people across the country, has found wide-spread concerns that it is nothing more than a box-ticking exercise and that people are being denied support, told they are not really homeless and offered “ridiculous” solutions. Interviews with lawyers, charity workers and homeless people built a picture of inadequately funded councils able in some cases to do little more than hand out leaflets.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, said: “All evidence suggests [the act] is massively falling short.” Paul Noblet, of Centrepoint, echoed her concerns, adding: “Before the act even came into force, Centrepoint warned that councils were under-resourced to meet their duties.”
In Sallie’s case, she was told last November that under the new act the council had eight weeks to get her somewhere safe to stay for at least six months. While it was working on that, the council arranged for her and her two boys to move into a two-room space in an emergency hostel.
“I was told by the council worker that my case was so straightforward … that he was hoping to have a decision by Christmas,” she told the Bureau. Put that way, the hostel seemed bearable, even though the rooms were sparse and the neighbours included loud, angry and violent men and women.
Eight weeks later, and Sallie and her children had heard nothing. By then, it was the middle of winter. The radiator didn’t work, and Sallie started leaving the oven on low with the door open overnight to try to warm the room, snuggling in her youngest son’s bunk-bed to share heat. The sodden roof leaked constantly in the corridor that led to the communal bathroom. “I was shocked, they knew that we were fleeing domestic violence and this is where they placed us,” Sallie said.
It was more than six months before the council decided it had to support her and find her a home – she called it “living in limbo”. But even then, she was stuck on its council house register, bidding for specific homes and losing out each time. Ten months after moving into the hostel, Sallie and her boys are still there. She dreads another winter.
Hers is just one of many stories uncovered by the Bureau where the eight-week deadline for councils to prevent or end someone’s homelessness was missed. They include others fleeing domestic violence, people with severe mental and physical disabilities, and single parents.
“The new law just creates more paperwork and delay before clients get a final decision,” said Rachel Lovell, a housing caseworker at the Southwark Law Centre. “The authorities I work with seem overwhelmed with the new workload and it has made the homeless service worse, not better.”
“The solutions offered are often the ones that don't require the council to house them,” said Mike Hyden from the Bedford charity JustUs.
Lawyers told the Bureau they had seen people who were sofa-surfing, with no fixed address, be told they were not really homeless yet. That categorisation changes how much a council has to do to support them, and often means they only receive advice, rather than a place in a shelter.
Derek Bernardi, a lawyer at Camden Law Centre, said: “Camden council has told multiple sofa surfers that they are not homeless, but are only threatened with homelessness.” They included a woman he had represented, who with her three teenage children had been sleeping on the dining room floor at a friend’s home. “That friend had asked them to leave as soon as possible,” he said. She was eventually able to appeal and have the decision overturned.
The Bureau heard time and time again that councils are struggling to offer meaningful support while tackling their new responsibilities with very little extra funding.
While the government committed to £73 million in funding for the act, many local authorities say that money, which is split between 326 councils in England and must cover three years, is not enough. Local homelessness services face a shortfall of £110 million this year, according to research by the Local Government Association, and that is set to grow.
The latest official data shows that there are an average of 5,500 households approaching councils for homeless support each week. A third of those who were assessed were provided with accommodation. The new caseload has stretched staff to the limits. In Islington, council housing officers had 80 cases each on a single day in August, according to data compiled through Freedom of Information requests by the Bureau.
The lack of resources often means that support is shallow and insubstantial. One of the new forms of support councils are being asked to provide is a “personalised housing plan” (PHP): a tailored document that outlines the next steps the council and the applicant will take to avoid or get out of homelessness.
Too often, however, the Bureau was shown plans that included significant errors, completely irrelevant advice or text that had been copied and pasted from another person’s plan.
One of these was offered to Mohammed, who was being kicked out of his flat with his wife and four young children when he approached Camden council for help.
In the plan the “action” the council would take amounted to a promise to “listen and understand the things that are most important to you” and providing him with advice on his housing options – advice that consisted largely of a list of private rental websites. The plan was printed out and given to him to read, even though Mohammed is registered blind.
His wife had to read it out to him, and they discovered several serious errors. The plan also failed to take account of the fact he has a guide dog, which could have a severe impact on his ability to rent. “They don’t really pay attention to your needs,” Mohammed added. “There is no empathy, they just write down what is relevant to them.”
At least Mohammed had been able to present to a council in person. Centrepoint, the homelessness charity, has shared exclusive research with the Bureau showing that the websites for 138 councils across England did not provide a physical address where people could present themselves as homeless. Instead, many offered only an online application, a potential barrier for those living on the streets or in hostels.
Centrepoint said most of the homelessness information on council websites was confusing and unclear. “In these cases often clients do not get a response at all and have no proof that they have submitted the application,” Grace Ogunyemi, from the charity, said.
In the end, Mohammed turned to a law centre to help him challenge some of the errors in the plan and to get more detailed advice. His PHP was updated, but his housing situation did not improve – he was added to the council’s social housing register, but is stuck bidding for properties. He and his family — six people and a guide dog — share a one-bedroom unit at a hostel.
He and his wife have taken to putting their three youngest children in nappies overnight because the only bathroom is down a communal corridor and they are wary of the other residents. “It is like being in a prison but the children are here with me. They are living out of laundry bags,” Mohammed said.
Derek Bernardi, of Camden Law Centre, said: “PHPs are woefully inadequate and rarely include any steps that will actually make any meaningful difference.”
He added: “Some steps are ridiculous, for example ‘to listen and be understanding’ or ‘to provide my contact details’.”
The best alternative the council could offer Mohammed was to try renting privately. His PHP listed several property rental websites. He was far from unique – many of the lawyers and support workers we spoke to said this was common practice.
The Bureau found several examples of PHPs where private rent was put forward as the best and only option. One plan, drawn up by Folkestone and Hythe district council, lays out the steps the council will undertake as: “Provide you with the link to spareroom.com; Provide you with the link to the Rightmove website; Provide you with the local Housing Allowance Factsheet.”
However, with housing benefit frozen since 2016, it is rarely a solution. A charity worker in Bournemouth said: “From the homeless support hub we run, we have not yet been successful in finding private rented accommodation for any of our clients … The council are quick to point people in this direction but the reality is that there are very few landlords in the area that accept benefits.”
One council even recognised this in its PHPs, writing: “It is really difficult — almost impossible — to find accommodation [here] that can be covered by housing benefit.” Yet it still told those at risk of homelessness to do so, effectively meaning they needed to leave the area to find somewhere to live.
Camden council said: “Since the HRA took effect there has been a 33% increase in the number of households we are working with … We desperately need this funding to be increased and for the government to make tackling homelessness a priority – otherwise we fear we may face more really difficult situations where families and individuals have to spend too long in temporary accommodation.”
Another method cash-strapped councils fall back on is mediation with a person’s former host or landlord. While this can work, the Bureau has heard of cases where a council’s intervention has caused serious issues.
A 28-year-old woman living in Chelmsford had left her family home after her parents were violent and emotionally abusive. She told the Bureau the council “literally rang up my abusers and asked if it was safe for me to go home”.
Centrepoint told the Bureau that mediation is often offered when young people approach councils as homeless. “The aim of this [mediation] is to get the child back in their family home rather than to patch up the relationship and act in the best interest of the child. Parents often claim to councils that the child can move back in when in reality the child has no access to the property. The young person then cannot get benefits and the council will not help,” said Grace Ogunyemi.
There were early signs that councils would struggle to take on the ambitious terms of the Homelessness Reduction Act. While it was rolled out nationwide in April 2018, Southwark Council adopted its provisions a year earlier.
The council soon found problems. An internal document from March 2018 — before the legislation came into force nationally — notes “key risks” in being able to fully implement the act, including “lack of available properties to prevent homelessnes … the volume of new reviews … [and] Inadequate DCLG funding”.
Kieron Williams, Southwark’s cabinet member for housing management and modernisation, said: “We’re the only council in the country to fully test the Homelessness Reduction Act before it began. While we have had great success in preventing homelessness, we have also found you can’t provide a really effective service on the cheap.
“To meet the need in our borough we had to top up the government’s funding for the pilot service by £750,000; given the scale of cuts local government has faced, this is not sustainable as increasing numbers of people become homeless.”
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, said the Homelessness Reduction Act had great potential, but could only fulfil that “if councils are properly resourced and if the government tackles the root causes of homelessness”.
A government spokesman said: “No one should ever be without a home and we are providing over £1.2 billion up to 2020 to reduce all forms of homelessness.
“There are encouraging signs that the Act is making a real difference in providing vulnerable people with the support they need. But we want to make sure it is working the best it can, which is why we will carry out a review to help us understand what else needs to be done to make it more effective.
“Next year, we are providing a further £422m to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping and as part of our review of the Act we will assess the level of new burdens funding for councils.”
*Name has been changed
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Take your own action If you’re concerned about the results in your area, you can write directly to your MP to raise the issue. You can also sign up to Crisis's campaign to raise housing benefit rates here.
Tell your story If you’ve had direct experience in England of failing to get housing from your council, you still have until 15 October to submit evidence to the UK government consultation on the Homelessness Reduction Act.
If you’re 16-25 and worried about homelessness, the Centrepoint Helpline is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm; call 0808 800 0661.
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Our reporting on the housing crisis is part of our Bureau Local project, which has many funders. Our work on the housing crisis was supported by the Bertha Foundation. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.