Lime Legal

Shown the door

Published 21 October 2023

Statistics show a steep drop in homelessness acceptances over the past five years. But that’s because single homeless people are being denied assistance they’re entitled to. Katharine Sacks-Jones reports

Government statistics on homelessness give little indication of the recession. Despite big rises in unemployment and repossessions, people struggling to meet their housing costs and advice agencies reporting an increased demand for help, the most recently published figures (for the first quarter of 2019) showed a 26 per cent reduction in homelessness acceptances compared with the same period last year.

Homelessness acceptances have been on a steep downward trajectory since 2013. The communities department (CLG) attributes the fall to ‘homelessness strategies and prevention measures being put in place by every local authority in England’.

But a recent Crisis investigation has found that many local authority homelessness services offer a poor service to single homeless people with the focus seeming to be more on looking for reasons that someone is not eligible for housing assistance rather than on what can be done to resolve their housing need.

This is of course at odds with CLG’s homelessness prevention agenda. Since the 1977 Housing Act, local authorities have been expected to prevent homelessness – and since the 2012 Homelessness Act, the government has increasingly encouraged councils to take a more pro-active approach. According to CLG, homelessness prevention ‘should not be targeted exclusively towards households judged likely to meet the "priority need" test’. However, our research has shown that single homeless people are often ignored.

Our mystery shopping project involved sending nine mystery shoppers, with a range of background stories, to five different local authorities across London. They conducted 45 visits over a three-week period.

All the mystery shoppers had experienced homelessness – their insights added credibility to their stories and made the claims seem more real. Researchers acted as landlord or relatives to further back up the claims.

Some of our mystery shoppers should or could have been deemed to be in ‘priority need’ but all cases should have received assistance under a prevention role.

The findings capture the experience of homeless people approaching a local authority for assistance and what happens when someone goes to their local authority in housing need.

The level of information, advice and assistance varied greatly between and within local authorities, but none of our mystery shoppers left with an immediate resolution to their housing need – nor did it appear that even with further visits many of them would have been helped to any meaningful resolution.

A handful of advisers were helpful, but this was rare. Sometimes shoppers received no advice or assistance and sometimes the advice was so limited as to be meaningless. In many cases the information or advice was misleading, wrong or totally inappropriate.

One mystery shopper was incorrectly advised that he could not be evicted from his property. Another with a background of domestic violence was told by one authority to try neighbouring boroughs to which she had no ‘local connection’, with no explanation of why they might be better placed to help her. Another authority gave her information on reporting hate crimes, an inappropriate and inadequate response.

Where support was offered to enable people to stay in their homes, this was often misdirected and inappropriate. A 17-year-old was told to return to her family home even though she told them she was at risk of sexual assault by her mother’s partner.

Some of our mystery shoppers – for example, a pregnant woman – should have been deemed to be in ‘priority need’. Some, such as those with mental health issues, were borderline, but should have been assessed to see whether or not they were ‘priority need’.

‘There’s a total lack of sympathy or empathy or anything… to be treated like you’re a second class citizen from the minute you walk in that office is just disgraceful.’

Mystery shoppers were however frequently deterred from even making a homelessness application, being told instead that, as they did not have children, they were not in ‘priority need’ or that they were not eligible to apply for an assessment.

Authorities consistently failed to ensure that our mystery shoppers in ‘priority need’ received their statutory entitlement to emergency accommodation while their circumstances were investigated and did not even appear to consider this an option. In one case, our pregnant mystery shopper was told to return with evidence of her pregnancy in four weeks’ time.

Hardly any attention was paid to individuals’ vulnerability as a result of mental health problems despite the fact some of our mystery shoppers were rough sleeping. The mystery shopper with a background of fleeing domestic violence was not properly assessed to see whether this might make her vulnerable and in ‘priority need’, despite the fact she raised concerns that her life was at risk.

Dissuading or not allowing people to make an application means that they will not show up in the local authorities’ homelessness figures and, in many cases, it appears that mystery shoppers’ visits were not logged at all.

We were shocked by the way many of our mystery shoppers were treated – often not receiving a sympathetic hearing, or anything approaching it. As one mystery shopper said, ‘There’s a total lack of sympathy or empathy or anything… to be treated like you’re a second class citizen from the minute you walk in that office is just disgraceful.’

Case of a woman fleeing domestic violence

One mystery shopper background story was that she is a woman in her 20s who is homeless because she has left the flat that she shared with her husband due to his violence and drink problem. After his last attack on her, she was hospitalised..

On being discharged she moved into her sister’s house, in the borough, which is now overcrowded. She feels unsafe as her husband has come round to her sister’s house and now knows where she is staying. She cannot go back to live with her husband or her sister. During this time, the woman has had a high level of absence at work. She comes from outside the borough and she has not changed her GP.

In two of the local authorities she was told to come back with further information. She felt rushed and not listened to.

In another two, she was told she was not a priority because she has no children. One gave her a list of refuges to call. The other gave her details of the local hate crime reporting centre (a completely inappropriate response).

In one of the authorities, it was suggested that things could not be ‘that bad’ as she was still working. She was told to try other local authorities for assistance. She felt that she was treated in such an insensitive way, that she tried to make a complaint. She was prevented from doing so.

Our shoppers reported that staff were often rude and unhelpful and treated them without even a basic level of customer service, respect and courtesy, with rarely any privacy offered while personal and sensitive interviews were being conducted.

Often little time was taken to understand their circumstances and some of the shoppers did not get to see an adviser at all, either being interviewed over an internal phone, being told there were no appointments available or being dealt with and sent away by receptionists ‘gate-keeping’, through misleading advice or preventing shoppers from seeing a housing officer.

As one of our shoppers said, ‘when you see a housing officer you at least get some idea but the person at reception isn’t necessarily fully trained in the housing thing and they’re just there to fob you off’.

Our mystery shoppers were often treated with suspicion and mistrust, sometimes being told outright that the officer didn’t believe their story or that they were homeless. Shoppers were asked to explain themselves ‘time and time again’, sometimes repeating their story to a number of different members of staff.

Mystery shoppers were repeatedly told very early that they were not a priority, as if saying that ended the need for the council to engage with them further.

When people approach their local authorities for help in a crisis, they are already facing a stressful situation and our shoppers felt that being asked to answer a lot of probing questions repeatedly was unreasonable. Shoppers were also repeatedly asked for extensive documentation sometimes including six months’ bank statements and five years’ addresses before any help was offered.

This amount of information might be hard for anyone, for people who are homeless, vulnerable or lead chaotic lifestyles it may be impossible. Without this proof, shoppers were often advised that they could not make a homelessness application or receive any assistance. It was a catch-22 situation, as one mystery shopper put it, ‘When they find out you haven’t got any paperwork they can’t help you. I didn’t have any paperwork because it was all in my flat and, of course, I couldn’t get into my flat.’

‘Shoppers were also repeatedly asked for extensive documentation sometimes including six months’ bank statements and five years’ addresses before any help was offered.’

The mystery shoppers felt that many of their visits were a waste of time and they left the homelessness services feeling depressed and disheartened by the way they’d been treated.

While the project was London-based, it backs up evidence that Crisis and others have gathered in other parts of the country, which suggests that vulnerable people are being turned away from local authorities with no solution to their housing need.

Some rough sleepers and single homeless people have high needs, but some just have a housing need. The failure to address the issue can lead them into rough sleeping and the risk that other issues, such as mental health or alcohol abuse, are likely to worsen.

Homeless people do not necessarily want or need a council house for life, they may ‘just need a place to stay’ and help with their housing crisis. The all-or-nothing approach of the local authorities we shopped – either someone is entitled to the main homelessness duty and housing assistance or they receive no or little assistance at all – urgently needs reviewing.

It seems that unless people do have rights then assistance can’t be guaranteed. We need a Scottish type approach where all are guaranteed some help, but that may be preventative action rather than a social house.

Government homelessness statistics only tell a very small part of the story. If we are really to reduce homelessness, we must reform the assistance provided by local authorities. In a recession, it is more important than ever that real help is available as soon as people first seek help.

Crisis has made a number of recommendations to address some of these problems and improve the system.

Local authorities must go further to fulfil their statutory duties under the current legislation. The level and standard of advice and assistance needs vast improvement and meaningful homelessness prevention and housing options should be provided for all in housing need, not just those deemed in ‘priority’ need.

The current safety net needs widening. The government has undertaken to review the homelessness legislation and must deliver on this commitment. It should introduce a new duty on local authorities to prevent the homelessness of all who approach them and offer emergency accommodation to those who need it.

And local authorities’ homelessness units need to be properly resourced. Crisis recognises the funding constraints local authorities face. But existing resources for homelessness prevention must be used to work with single homeless people through providing advice, assistance and housing options, such as private rented sector access schemes.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is policy manager at Crisis.