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Temporary accommodation: a permanent problem?

Since 2010 there has been a rise of 33% in the number of people accepted as homeless by local council boroughs with projected increases to come – so it was welcome news in the Government’s March Budget that an extra £115 million will be provided to tackle homelessness. In a recent survey by the Local Government Association it was documented that 80% of local authorities anticipate a rise in demand for temporary accommodation, so it is more important than ever that this temporary accommodation is fit for purpose for the individuals and families dependent upon it.

The devil is in the detail and it has emerged that the Government’s pledged £115 million is aimed specifically at providing more hostel beds for people who have slept rough. More beds is a good thing indeed, but this fails to address the root causes of homelessness –and equally it fails to acknowledge the problem that hostels themselves are in the homelessness cycle. Often hostels and B&Bs are inadequate and fail to meet the necessary legal standards – whether statutory limits regarding over-crowding, health and safety requirements, or basic clean damp-free standards.

With the increase in homelessness, the use of hostel and B&B properties is on the rise to accommodate these vulnerable applicants. Commenting on the B&B where she works, one employee has recently told The Guardian that the property is “a melting pot of vulnerable, dangerous and sometimes suicidal characters all under the same roof.” The picture is painted of a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and instability. And it is this context into which vulnerable families are often housed.

Our firm has recently acted for one such family, housed by the London Borough of Brent in temporary accommodation. A single woman was caring for her three young children, one of whom had serious medical needs requiring surgery, and another with imminent school examinations, and the youngest aged 18 months. They were accommodated in B&B accommodation, sharing one room between the four of them, and sharing a communal kitchen. The room suffered from damp and mould, and the family often felt threatened by other tenants in the large B&B. The law is crystal clear that such a family must be housed in suitable accommodation, and where only B&B accommodation is available, this placement must not exceed 6 months. This family however had been living there for more than 7 months before our client was fully informed of her legal rights. Our firm issued urgent judicial review proceedings in the High Court. Despite contesting our client’s position for as long as possible, and despite the clear breaches in law, at the eleventh hour the local authority eventually conceded and agreed to accommodate the family in suitable accommodation. This was one family whom we could assist, but the fear is that there are countless families in unsuitable accommodation in unlawful conditions, who have no idea of their legal rights or how to seek redress.

So whilst it is welcome that that £115 million will be directed at tackling the issue of homelessness, it is important that this money is properly spent. It is also clear that money alone isn’t enough. Recent statistics in Wales have encouraged the debate that a reform in law is needed in the UK as opposed to just financial aid. Since the introduction of Welsh homeless prevention laws in 2015, there has been a decrease of 67% in formal homelessness in the last nine months. Such a decrease is much needed in London. Along with hostel bed spaces in decent hostels, the Government needs to tackle the key causes – ever-increasing private rents, slashed welfare cuts, and too little social housing.