Homeless families are being denied support, told they are not really homeless and offered “ridiculous” solutions by councils who do not have the resources to help them.
Though councils have a legal duty to prevent people becoming homeless, many of them are not helping people who are in danger of homelessness, an investigation by non-profit organisation the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.
A lack of resources means many councils are “failing to meet basic requirements”, charities have said, and there is a lot of variation between how different councils are interpreting their responsibility under the law.
Leeds City Council carried out the second-most homelessness assessments of any local authority in the UK between April 2018, when the act came into place, and March 2019, totalling 5,334 assessments. It found it had a duty under the law in 99 per cent of cases and prevented or relieved homelessness in 84 per cent of cases, which was the highest in Yorkshire.
On the other end of the scale, Wakefield Council, which carried out 1,339 assessments, found it had a duty to prevent homelessness in only 74 per cent of cases and prevented or relieved homelessness in only 17 per cent of instances.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “It has been over a year since this the Homelessness Reduction Act was introduced as a bold new approach to helping ease homelessness but unfortunately, all evidence suggests it is massively falling short.
“Shelter staff on the frontline of our housing emergency say many councils are often failing to meet basic requirements to provide timely, tailored support - often due to a sheer lack of resource. But there is a more fundamental issue undermining the Act’s success and that is that there simply aren’t enough social homes available for councils to put people in.”
Katie Vine, a trainee solicitor at Henry Hyams in Leeds who deals with housing cases, described the catch-22 situation where a housing benefit claimant has been evicted because they were unable to pay their rent.
The council classes being evicted as being voluntarily homeless, which means it does not have a duty to help them find a home.
“When someone’s been evicted and deemed intentionally homeless by the council, it’s then ten times harder for them to find somewhere to live.”
She added that the introduction of Universal Credit has only worsened the situation.
“We’ve gone from dealing with 12 cases a week to 25, in just six months.”
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 the investigation by Bureau Local, which heard from more than 70 people across the country, 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.
The Bureau heard of several instances 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.
Oliver Carter, public law and human rights lawyer at Yorkshire-based solicitors Irwin Mitchell, said these findings would come as “no surprise” to lawyers working with homeless people. He added: “This investigation provides yet more evidence that underfunded local authorities are not able to meet their legal duties to homeless and vulnerable people.”
He said where these duties fail, councils can be open to legal challenges.
“We see councils failing to provide adequate housing, social care and support services to vulnerable people in their communities, and the increase in street homelessness in recent years is visible to anyone living in major towns and cities. As legal aid lawyers, we try to resolve the problems our clients face, but there are not enough of us and legal aid has also been significantly cut since 2013, hampering our ability to pick up the pieces when the state fails to protect people.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Leeds City Council and Wakefield Council have all been contacted for a comment.