Help just a call away for the homeless, the distressed and down on their luck

Housing adviser Simon Clifton and Andrea Deakin, below.
Housing adviser Simon Clifton and Andrea Deakin, below.
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Homelessness problems peak over Christmas and New Year. Sheena Hastings visits the helpline of homeless charity Shelter.

SIMON Clifton is a couple of hours into his shift as an advisor on the national phone helpline of homeless charity Shelter. In the street outside the windows of banks, shops, cafés and offices twinkle with Christmas lights and shoppers hurry by laden with bags, heads down in the frosty air. They’re rushing towards the welcoming warmth of home.

Up here on the fifth floor, Simon and dozens of colleagues who staff this year-round service advise those who either have no home to go to or living in very difficult conditions or situations. A screen suspended from the ceiling shows that however busy the advisors are, there are always callers queueing to get through. Problems are manifold, and many callers are desperate.

Another agency, in the south-east, calls for information on behalf of a 30-year-old woman living in a flat with her partner and another tenant. The woman’s boyfriend is the landlord, and she wants to end this violent relationship then leave.

A few months ago, when they were already co-habiting, the partner got her and the other tenant to sign a tenancy agreement – effectively charging her rent for a room that they were already sharing. She wants to know whether, if she leaves, this assured shorthold tenancy means he can take action to get rent from her until the contract ends in summer 2013.

Simon gives comprehensive advice about the County Court processes, other sources of advice, information on domestic violence. He advises that the young woman would have a good chance of defending any case brought against her by her landlord/boyfriend if she appealed against a demand for future rent.

Simon deals with the call in a calm and thorough manner. The helpline has handled 90,000 calls this year, an increase from 65,000 in 2011/2012. The average length of call to the free helpline is 26 minutes, including eight minutes after-call “wrap time”, writing up notes and passing on information where necessary.

There is ever more pressure on Shelter’s service (which is part-funded by Marks and Spencer), so the after-call process is being streamlined to allow more calls to be dealt with. The target is to help 150,000 callers a year by 2015.

For Simon the attraction of the job, which he’s been doing for six years, is simple. “I enjoy it because we get to help people in difficult situations and make a difference, and you don’t know what’s coming next. We advise on housing legislation, but every call crosses over into other areas, such as welfare benefits, immigration, debt or domestic violence.”

When advisors come across a particularly complicated case, they can put the caller on hold and seek guidance from a team leader. Everyone in the room has had the rigorous three months Shelter training followed by 15 months of further monitored and assessed learning before they are signed off.

Other calls Simon takes during the afternoon include one from a woman living in housing association accommodation in a remote area which has no normal drainage and instead the flats are serviced by a cess pit. The housing association took over the cleaning of the cess pit from the council, putting the cost of this onto the rent without consultation. This has led the caller (who is severely disabled and lives on benefits) to accrue arrears. She has now been served with an eviction order over a bill for £215.

A distraught mother from the Midlands calls about her son, a student who has got into financial difficulty over rent arrears in private student accommodation – and has found out that he was paying twice the rent paid by his flatmates. The landlord was now taking him to court for non-payment of rent for the whole academic year.

Simon advises the mother about where the son can get more help from a housing aid office and suggests he talks to his student union, as well as going to a Shelter drop-in advice centre closer to where he lives. Problems to do with students, landlords and failure to read small print in contracts are a growing area of work for Shelter. Failure to return a deposit crops up regularly and although landlords are supposed to put tenants’ deposits in an approved scheme, not all comply.

Two calls were from single parents with children in urgent need of accommodation, and another was from a woman with a mental health disability who had been thrown out by her violent husband.

Emergency accommodation is in very short supply, even in big cities, and council housing officers will argue against giving scarce resources to any but the most vulnerable.

“Because that woman had matrimonial rights to live in a house she is not technically considered homeless and the council say they have no obligation to offer emergency help,” says Simon. After-hours advocacy is available, and a great deal of time can be spent arguing with local authority housing officers about needy cases.

A call comes in from a woman who lost her husband in the summer and is still living in the council accommodation in which he was the named tenant but they had shared for 20 years. She was also still technically a co-tenant with her sister in a flat in another borough.

She wanted to stay in the flat she’d shared with her husband, although the council were telling her she must leave. Simon didn’t have good news for her – even if she succeeded in staying in her marital home and applied to take her name off the other tenancy, her sister would lose her home. It seems neither woman had understood her rights.

As Christmas approaches, the season of fun brings extra expense to cash-strapped families and can lead to tensions ending in homelessness, says Andrea Deakin, helpline operations manager.

“At this time of year people on the streets get colder and need help with shelter, and people can become homeless due to relationship break down through the pressure of Christmas on top of ordinary stresses like rising fuel and food bills.”

Deakin has learned from her own helpline experience that it’s best to check that information given by councils is correct.

“For example a woman rang who had moved from her family home in Bradford to live in Leeds with her partner and four children. The relationship broke down, and she was then burgled. She was being harassed by local youngsters and had had bricks thrown through her windows.

“She felt unsafe and decided to return to Bradford to be near her mum, but when she made a homeless application the council told her that technically she no longer had a connection with Bradford, and she ended up spending four nights over the Easter weekend in the car with the children. She was given accommodation after a solicitor threatened the council with judicial review.

“Some of the most difficult cases are fit and healthy people who have had a job but fallen on hard times. Maybe they’ve been made redundant and got behind with rent or mortgage, then suddenly they’re evicted and homeless. A lot of street homeless are young and male and an increasing number are from the ‘squeezed middle’ group.”

Temporary homeless shelters are in short supply, with only two or three in any large town or city. There’s also a massive ‘hidden homeless’ problem, says Deakin. “These are people who are living in very overcrowded accommodation or ‘sofa surfing’ with friends, moving from one to another. I think we need to look at our housing stock overall, and simply build more affordable housing. We also need regulations on landlords to make them maintain properties properly and protect tenants’ deposits compulsorily.”

Shelter’s free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 (calls are free from UK landlines and main mobile networks).

M&S donates 5p from every product sold in their ‘Food on the Move’ Christmas range to Shelter’s helpline.

Fall in home ownership

Census data from the Office of National Statistics shows that home ownership has fallen for the first time since records began 60 years ago. Since 2001, home ownership overall has fallen by seven per cent, while the proportion of homes owned with a mortgage has dropped by 15 per cent.

This reflects the growing trend in young people and families who are unable to get a foot on the property ladder. Rising numbers are being pushed into the private rental market. The proportion of homes rented privately has rocketed by 69 per cent since 2001. A recent YouGov poll for Shelter revealed that 44 per cent of Britons believe their children or future children won’t be able to afford a decent home.