The ‘emergency service’ struggling to cope

As pressure on council homelessness services mount, families need legal help to stop them ending up on the street. And increasingly that is being taken away.

If you suggested to someone at random that homelessness assistance is akin to being the 4th emergency service, my guess is you would be greeted with a look of confusion.

But why? If you are homeless or are threatened with homelessness you should be able to get support from your local council, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Once a council has reason to believe someone is eligible for homelessness assistance and is in ‘priority need’ they have a legal duty to look into the case and, if needed, provide emergency or interim accommodation while they do so.

It’s also a statutory requirement for councils to provide an out of hours service. This means if a family have nowhere to stay that night but the council has closed for the day, they can get a roof over their head while the council carries out further investigations to establish that the family meet the requirements for support.

Thousands of households, many of them families with children, are assisted by councils under the homelessness legislation every year.

Like our other emergency services, the homeless legislation provides a vital lifeline to save people from dangerous and risky situations.  But there are signs that our 4th emergency service is struggling to cope:

Shelter’s housing advice services have come across cases which suggest homelessness assistance is under increasing strain. We’ve heard of families being turned away because they haven’t got the right ID. We’ve heard of families needing emergency homelessness support being treated with contempt or suspicion.  We’ve heard of physical barriers stopping people asking for homelessness support they desperately need – like out of hours telephone services which don’t answer calls, or families with literally nowhere to go being told to fill in an online form before they can even get seen.

The official homelessness statistics for the last quarter of 2013 showed that homelessness acceptances fell slightly. But at the same time more people than ever are approaching councils for help: last year that number hit a five year high. The combination of these two facts makes us worry that more people are being turned away unfairly – and adds to our utter alarm at last week’s Civil Legal Aid regulations, which come into force on 22 April.  These will make it more difficult to get Legal Aid to judicially review a council’s decision (until the applicant has received permission to proceed with the hearing).  As we’ve pointed out in a previous blog, this will make it more difficult for a homeless family, such as baby Jack’s, to get the help they need to challenge an unlawful decision to refuse assistance.

We know that local authorities are struggling to cope. We know that their budgets have been squeezed and things will only get worse when they have to find even more savings in future. At the same time, the number of people needing help is increasing and the availability of affordable housing is worsening. And now families will find it harder to challenge when they haven’t received the homelessness support they needed.

We need action to make sure councils can respond rapidly to families who have been made homeless.  This means reducing pressure by increasing the supply of genuinely affordable housing, and helping people to stay in their accommodation by keeping Local Housing Allowance in line with rents.

But crucially, it also means ensuring people have access to Legal Aid to challenge unlawful decisions that leave them at risk of street homelessness.