Lime Legal

Enough’s enough

Published 18 February 2024

Rosa Aers became a homelessness caseworker because she wanted to be ‘socially useful’. Three years later she’s leaving, disillusioned with the gatekeeping, cynicism and lack of resources. Photography by Mark Pinder.

When I began work as a local authority homelessness caseworker, it was without preconceptions. As a student I had briefly volunteered in a hostel for homeless men, so had vague notions of the ravages of living on the streets. I had worked with young offenders, most of whom were transient and lacked a base from which to address their problems.

I looked at the issue idealistically and felt that housing’s role wasn’t sufficiently recognised. So when I set out to find a job I wanted one that would be ‘socially useful’. But I lacked a coherent plan of how to enter the field professionally until I stumbled across an advert for a trainee homelessness caseworker with an inner-London borough.

After tests and interviews and months of waiting for the council to finalise its budget, I started work alongside four other young graduates. Bright, kind and with a hilarious blend of optimism and cynicism, we formed a motley crew, dropped into the sprawling department. But our idealism quickly faded.

The first shock was our legal training. Aside from the complexities of the Housing Act and case law that I found intimidating and could not imagine getting fully to grips with, I was baffled by the hoops that had to be jumped through by the applicants and the value judgements we were being asked to make.

During the next three years, many applicants I interviewed could not accept that the criteria made any logical or moral sense. I could not fully accept it either. The concept of judging, to determine whether someone is in priority need for assistance, if an applicant is ‘less able to fend for themselves than an ordinary homeless person and subsequently at greater risk of harm or detriment’ seemed, and still seems, absurd.

I was asked to decide how ill or vulnerable someone was – while all the time feeling that anyone would be rendered vulnerable living on the streets. It was baffling. Later, I was infuriated when it emerged that gate keeping public funds is as powerful as the statute and case law in deciding whether someone would be assisted.

The process of assessing whether an applicant is legally entitled to assistance involves in-depth investigation. My first interviews were, to say the least, a bit of an ordeal. I felt embarrassed probing into people’s financial, medical and housing histories, and questioning the truth of their claims. Those first few months were a confusing minefield of building positive relationships with people we were then deeming ineligible for assistance, or conversely, discovering you have been lied to by people you believed you were helping.

Such situations give rise to suspicion, which can affect the way investigations are conducted. A caseworker may be convinced that an eviction was the result of substantial rent arrears, rather than – as the client had rightly claimed – because the landlord was intent on selling the property. The power I wielded in reaching decisions made me nervous.

Homeless applicants have the right to request a review of negative decisions made against them, but knowledge of the complex legalities is rarely in their favour. I was often fighting to defend decisions that in my heart I could not. A young single parent had abandoned her council tenancy in an area of extreme anti-social behaviour, due to the level of threat she felt and fears for her child’s safety. Her window had been smashed, but the police had not identified her as being at high risk and the anti-social behaviour was considered a prevailing condition of the area. Her case was deemed intentionally homeless, her appeal unsuccessful, her options non-existent.

Homeless at home

My earlier view of homelessness as primarily street homelessness was proven wrong. One can be ‘homeless at home’, living in overcrowded, insecure, unsafe accommodation, released from prison to no fixed abode or struggling to maintain independent accommodation due to health issues. At times a case would be deemed ‘not homeless’ when the property was barely habitable, not quite overcrowded enough, or only just affordable.

The range of homelessness scenarios and personal circumstances and crises that applicants presented with was massive. Examples include the bruised and brave women placed in refuges isolated from their support network, people with mental health and drug or alcohol issues not being picked up by addiction or mental health teams, asylum seeking families who were forcibly dispersed and became easy targets for prejudice and persecution, couples who have drifted apart but cannot afford the mortgage on their own, and prisoners finishing their sentence who have worked to become clean of drugs but are released into a hostel rife with them.

And now we are witnessing the effects of the credit crunch and a wave of repossessions. One client was a homeowner, on income support following unemployment with severe mental health issues. The man weeping in front of me had been encouraged to remortgage and borrow £40,000 against the property he had lived in for 12 years. I phoned the mortgage company to enquire what checks were made to ensure he could maintain the repayments, only to be told that ‘we are a sub-prime mortgage lender, we don’t check things like that’. Most cases involving sub-prime lenders are former council flats or houses, bought through the right-to-buy scheme. Now these owners, facing repossession, are looking to return to social housing, but the stock is ever-decreasing. Many will be found to be intentionally homeless.

Then there was the couple who hadn’t paid the mortgage for five months because, as became clear after trawling through their bank statements, a lot of their income was spent on internet chat rooms. Even so, I found it hard explaining to the shaken couple sitting in front of me that, as far as I could see it, they couldn’t claim interest rises had made the mortgage unaffordable. As such, the council would not provide assistance and they would be found to be ‘intentionally homeless’.

Same old story

When, during training, I expressed anxiety about how to get through the many cases we would be investigating when they were so complex and unique, the solicitor was not worried. He assured us there are only a handful of scenarios, and that details change but the plot remains essentially the same.

Seeing 10 clients a day and working on 15 longer term cases at any time, I began to categorise people’s lives into these ‘seven stories’. The 33-day deadline within which each case must be resolved became the most important measure of success.

People were transformed into a file full of paperwork – the bank statements, payslips, rent books, medical records, passports and address histories that we trawled through. The prize could be a grotty third floor flat on a defeated estate – if the applicant won.

There were occasional and much celebrated successes. People rehoused to safety or placed in a desirable property near their family, work or children’s school, people whose lives could be rebuilt.

The rigidity of large local authority departments can create problems with external agencies, and yet the clients would benefit greatly from improved cooperation and understanding. Time and resource constraints mean that, despite everyone’s best efforts, inter-agency working is not as slick or productive as it could be. Day-long battles with social services are reduced to departments protecting their own limited pot of cash – yet the client is the one left in a waiting room all day while internal stalemates are resolved.

Every day I was confronted with difficult political, social and moral questions. Homelessness caseworkers, despite the gatekeeping agenda, go out of their way to effect positive change in people’s lives and play an engaged and dedicated role. But for me the grind has been enough. The cynicism too prevalent, the resources too scarce, the legislation too punitive and the relationships too fleeting and ultimately too bureaucratic. I am leaving homelessness. Like so many cannot.

Win some, lose some

Two homelessness cases from Rosa’s client list.

Raymond Langley, 44

I fell into difficulty with my mortgage after my appendix ruptured and I took time off work. I tried to clear what I owed but eventually lost my house over a debt of £2,500.

I was advised to go down to South Tyneside homelessness unit. Losing my home had taken its toll and I was suffering from depression.

My doctor and ward councillor wrote letters to the homelessness unit but they didn’t get tied in with my application. As a result I was placed in a low priority band and advised to go to a Salvation Army hostel because it was clean and the food was good.

I found living in the hostel hard and it got to the point where I had to get out. I’m now in a kind of limbo, sofa surfing with family members. I’ve not been offered anything from the council – I’m just told to keep bidding for properties.

I honestly don’t know what to do. If I were younger and fitter I’d join the armed forces.

I just feel that I’ve got no direction or stability at the moment. There are times when I just think what’s the point. This isn’t a life, it’s an existence.

David Gray, 17

I was living with my dad and we’d been arguing for ages. One day things just boiled over. We had a massive row and he told me to leave home.

It was late when he kicked me out and I stopped at my Nan’s for the night. The next morning I went to the council housing office.

I had a one-on-one interview with a homelessness officer straight away and she sorted everything out. She filled in the forms and told me everything would be all right.

I was very down at the time because I was on my own. She put me in touch with the local YMCA and the people who sort out benefit. The next day I was in the hostel. She said I was in a high-risk category because I was young and it was the first time I’d been homeless. While I was in the YMCA, she kept ringing to check that I was OK. She was brilliant.

After two months I got a private letting and the benefits were sorted out. My experience of dealing with the homelessness unit was really good. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. They reassured me and said they’d sort it out. And they did.