If you’re sick and go to A&E you can expect to be taken seriously, even if the receptionist suspects you could have waited for a GP appointment. You may be triaged, you may endure a long wait, you may even eventually be sent away without treatment if you really didn’t need it. But you wouldn’t expect to be fobbed off before you’ve even got a foot in the door.
Unfortunately people who need help because they are homeless cannot guarantee the same. When things go wrong council homeless services can seem like a public service that doesn’t, well, serve the public.
At Shelter we try to be sympathetic to the pressures on councils. The leading single cause of homelessness is now the loss of a private rented sector tenancy. Amid high rents and prolonged welfare cuts more and more ordinary families find they simply cannot house themselves and have to turn to the council for help. We understand that, unfortunately, councils are also feeling the pressure of the lack of genuinely affordable homes and struggle to rehouse families. Finding accommodation, even temporary respite, is a struggle and councils have to ensure that they’re only housing those who need it.
But we cannot ignore that too many people come to us for help because the council is being unreasonable in not even taking a homeless application. This is unlawful practice – often termed ‘gatekeeping’ – and it flies in the face of what the vital housing safety net should do.
It’s a story that our advisers hear too often, but some cases still have the power to shock.
Like the young man who was told by a council in the south-east that he’d only attempted suicide to try and take advantage of the homelessness legislation.
Single people are only entitled to be rehoused if they’re in ‘priority need’, which can be because they are more vulnerable than the average person would be if they became homeless. Such assessments are notoriously difficult and drawn out, but this was extreme. The council did not dispute that he had mental health problems, or that he had tried to kill himself. Instead they claimed that he’d tried to take his own life just to get classed as vulnerable and eligible for rehousing.
When we hear stories like this it can be hard to give councils the benefit of the doubt, no matter how stretched their resources are.
The homeless legislation purposefully sets a low bar for enquiries to ensure that people who might need help aren’t left out in the cold. Local authorities should make enquiries if they have a reason to believe that a person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. They should also provide interim assistance like a B&B if they have reason to believe that the household may be in priority need and eligible for assistance.
But when gatekeeping happens, councils instead fob people off, refuse to take their applications, or refuse to offer the necessary interim accommodation. This means that the homelessness safety net cannot do its job of protecting families and vulnerable people. This sort of unlawful practice is unacceptable no matter how grave the housing pressures facing councils.