Following the publication of our new research on homeless families being sent to live miles away from their home area, we caught up with Jo Underwood, Solicitor for Shelter’s Children’s Legal Service.
In defiance of legislation, ministerial demands and Supreme Court rulings, local authorities across London continue to house homeless families in temporary accommodation outside their home area and frequently, outside London altogether. Shelter’s recent report highlights that the current figures on out of area accommodation placements are unprecedented.
What do you say to a distressed and severely depressed mother of young children who has been given a very short time to decide whether to accept temporary accommodation over 20 miles away from the area she knows? The journey back to her children’s school will involve a long walk to the train station, two trains, then another walk, taking 2 hours each way. They know no one in the new area and availability of new school places is uncertain. The children will no longer be able to see their friends after school, as the journey is too long and expensive.
Advising on the law and procedure when clients seek advice on out of area temporary accommodation has become the relatively easy part of the interview. The law says that as far as reasonably practicable, local authorities must place homeless households within their home area. If the accommodation is unsuitable (which out of area placements often are), then the client can request a review by a senior housing officer in the council and then sometimes the case proceeds to a court challenge. This process can take months.
Having laid out the law and procedure, what is becoming far more challenging is fielding the onslaught of distressed questions that follow on. As the Shelter research shows, families are faced with weighty decisions to make, often in a very short period of time. If they accept the temporary accommodation, how long will they be there? Should the children move schools or would it be best for them to try to cope with the long journey each way, in the hope that they will be moved back to their home area soon? What to do about jobs? How will they begin to find and then trust new counsellors, doctors, child mental health teams, psychiatrists…? Will they ever be housed back in their home borough? These questions are incredibly difficult to answer.
Local authorities say they have been put in an impossible position. Rising rents, rising numbers of families being accepted as homeless and welfare reforms such as the benefit cap, mean that authorities can no longer source affordable accommodation, especially in London, to meet the needs of all the homeless families who approach them for help. The chaos that has ensued is clearly shown in the Shelter research, with some authorities placing households out of their area, only to receive the same number of households in return from another area. One recent news story highlighted a London authority successfully bidding for temporary accommodation in Canterbury, presumably meaning that Canterbury now has to look for accommodation for its own homeless families elsewhere.
In the midst of this chaos, the best interests of the homeless children concerned are often buried deep underneath considerations of resources and affordability, which now dictate the decision making process. Authorities have a legal duty to safeguard and promote the interests of children. This is not to say that the best interests of children operate as a trump card – of course affordability and resources are important considerations. However, in the midst of the balancing exercise, the impact on children of out of area moves must be properly understood by the authority. Each family’s circumstances must be carefully considered. However, this duty to safeguard and promote children’s interests becomes meaningless in the face of authorities acquiring large quantities of temporary accommodation in another area. It means that in reality, despite paying lip service to children’s interests and to their own policies governing who goes out of area, authorities are effectively pre-determining that a quota of families will need to be sent elsewhere.
The Shelter Legal Team’s interview rooms are host to a steady procession of tearful parents who say their children’s interests have been ignored. They are not coping with long journeys to school, or with being moved away from everyone and everything they know. Their children can’t see their friends after school because the journey is too long. The parents are exhausted with impossible journeys to and from work and / or school. They are in a quandary as to what to do about jobs and they want to know when they will feel settled. They can’t rent privately because they can’t afford the deposit – or the rent – or they can’t find a landlord who will accept housing benefit.
Housing lawyers will continue to wrestle with these difficult issues and where necessary and appropriate we will raise review requests and court challenges. We will try to use the law to improve policy and practice.
However, what is also required is ministerial rhetoric and legal duties towards children being translated into local authority practices that provide genuinely suitable accommodation. This will avoid the misery currently being experienced by so many homeless families.