In the dark: Homelessness ordeal gets worse when councils don’t communicate

It is bad enough to be made homeless and living in cramped and insecure temporary accommodation. It is even worse to be moved into accommodation miles away from home and wrenched away from family, friends and schools. But if the local area where you were being moved didn’t even know were arriving?

 On Monday, the BBC reported that boroughs are failing to let other councils know when they have housed homeless people in their district.

At Shelter we already know that moving families away from their home can have a huge impact. People often try to maintain their old life as much they can, but costs and circumstances can make this near-impossible. Some even have to break up their families. We heard from one mother who arranged for her oldest son to stay on her mother’s sofa during the week so he could attend his old school, after facing bullying and bad behaviour in a school in the new area.

“He was doing really well there. Top of his class. Enjoying it. And here, the only school I could find for him was really bad. None of the teachers seemed to care, he was behind in all the lessons. He became really withdrawn. Then he fell in with a bad crowd. At first I thought, it’s fine I’ll try and keep him going. But then I thought, this is his life, this is everything. He has one chance. It’s sad as his brothers really miss him. I really miss him!”

So when councils do not inform receiving local authorities about the move, it can make a bad situation even worse. This failure is deeply troubling for families who risk falling through the gaps and missing out on access to schools, GP surgeries and other services.

The massive shortfall in affordable homes, welfare changes, and the backlog in the numbers of families in temporary accommodation, means that councils are looking further afield to house homeless households.

But if a council does decide to source temporary accommodation for homeless families beyond their home borough, it must do it properly. Under the Housing Act 1996, councils that move homeless families into temporary accommodation outside of their home borough must notify the host local authority within 14 days. This allows local authorities to plan for all of the services the family might need.

A source from a Kent council told the BBC that councils failing to communicate properly mean children often have to be sent by bus to schools far away because they have arrived at short notice and there isn’t a closer school place available. Welfare concerns about children are also reportedly not being shared across local authority borders.

While the legislation tells local authorities to tell the receiving council that a homeless household is being moved to the area, outside of London, there is no standard way to do it. Within London, the ‘NOTIFY’ system, run by helps keep track of people placed out of area. But there is no equivalent for authorities outside of the capital.

We have recommended extending the NOTIFY system outside of London with more central government oversight. At the moment, the scramble for available properties means placements are still chaotic, with councils left in the dark. If we are to better understand trends around out of area placements, and help improve the experience of homeless households, then proper oversight of notifications will be key.

Without a considerable increase in homes for genuinely affordable rent, and while housing benefit continues to be squeezed, councils are going to continue to struggle to find homeless families anywhere suitable to live.

But there is no excuse for not following the law. Councils must be minded to their statutory duties and communicate with each other. If the current systems are not working properly, local authorities should get together and build something better.