Defending homeless families against illegal practice

Rising homelessness, a shortage of genuine affordable housing and housing benefits cuts are putting ever-greater pressure on local authorities to house homeless families. At Shelter we recognize the enormous pressure councils are under but cannot ignore that our legal team continue to see shocking examples of poor practice. Here, Jo Underwood, a solicitor with Shelter’s Children’s Legal Service, highlights her experiences. 

jo-profileThis year is the 50th anniversary of ‘Cathy Come Home,’ in which a young family finds themselves descending into homelessness. Many excellent housing commentaries, blogs and articles have recently mused over housing law and policy developments in the past 50 years and what has changed for families who now find themselves on the brink of losing their home. It’s given me cause to reflect on my own experiences of advising homeless families during the course of my work as a housing solicitor at Shelter.

The film has some extremely uncomfortable scenes in which Cathy desperately seeks help from the council. Her treatment becomes increasingly frustrating and shocking to watch. Eventually her children are taken away by social services when Cathy finds herself homeless.

Fifty years on, there has been much welcome change in homelessness law and policy. However, there is more to do – not least because Cathy’s treatment sadly still resonates with social welfare housing lawyers.  Homeless families who attend their council offices to request urgent help are not always assisted in the way they should be. It is true that local authorities are under immense pressure with tightened budgets and reduced housing stock available to them. A recent BBC2 documentary ‘No Place to Call Home’ showed one housing officer in Barking & Dagenham describing their department as ‘a housing options service without any options,’ as the demand for their services severely outweighed supply.

Nevertheless, I and others see a lack of resources translate into scare tactics to deter applicants.  Homeless applicants are often put off by being told they will be rehoused miles away if they pursue an application.  Alternatively they are informed that they will probably be housed in an awful hostel/bed and breakfast (vivid descriptions of the awfulness usually follow). This is often before their circumstances have been assessed and a thorough search for available accommodation has taken place.

Applicants are also often informed that before any help will be provided, they must produce all the documents on a long list handed to them. One homeless client who was (very obviously) 9 months pregnant was initially not permitted to make an urgent homeless application, as the documents she had produced did not include a doctor’s note to confirm she was pregnant.  Another pregnant, 18 year old client was inexplicably informed that her application for urgent housing could not be processed because her father’s name was not on her birth certificate.

Young people are frequently passed between housing and social services departments, or between different authorities when neither wants to take responsibility for giving assistance. One 16 year old client approached his council for help after he was forced to leave home. He spent 9 months sleeping rough in a tent whilst social services and housing argued about who should take responsibility.  We have known other clients, including teenagers and families with children, resort to sleeping on night buses, in hospital A & E waiting rooms, in fast food restaurants, train stations and in cars.

The youngest child I have known to sleep rough was just a few days old. A family were discharged from hospital with a new born baby, but had nowhere to live after leaving the hospital.  Hospital staff had understood the family would receive emergency housing assistance. They had tried to make a homeless application before the baby was born, but their application had got ‘lost’ in the online form they had been asked to complete before they could see a housing officer face to face. They had made phone calls to no avail and were refused assistance on arrival from hospital, so bemused and defeated, they resigned themselves to sleeping on a park bench with their baby.

Some homeless families are, 50 years after Cathy, still threatened with separation from their children. Families are frequently told that they cannot be housed together, but instead their children will be taken into care. This often happens when families are not owed duties by the housing department (for example they may be deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ due to rent arrears and eviction). Social services have duties to assist children in need – which can include helping to house a homeless family together. However, the threat of separation terrifies families and many simply disappear into the numbers of ‘hidden homeless’ – sofa surfing and staying wherever they can with friends and family members.

A client recently found herself homeless when she built up rent arrears in the midst of trying to resolve some difficult personal circumstances.  With a low wage cleaning job and a 9 year old autistic son to care for, social services were her safety net, as her homeless application failed and she could not find a landlord who would accept housing benefit. To heap further trauma on the already humiliating experience of having to ask for help in the first place, she was told in no uncertain terms at her first interview that she could not be assisted, but her son would be taken into care. Her son was present and became understandably distressed.  Her fear of losing him resulted in them both sleeping in her car for several nights before she obtained legal advice.

Shelter was able to resolve all of these clients’ problems with a letter to the authority concerned and if necessary, threat of legal action. However, what happens to all those who don’t manage to find legal advice? Fifty years on from Cathy, there is still work to be done, to ensure that those who are most in need of a housing safety net receive the help they so desperately need.