Last week the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report commissioned by the House of Commons into Homelessness. The report estimates that 88,410 homeless households applied to local authorities for assistance during 2016-2017. On a single night in autumn 2016, 4,134 rough sleepers were counted, an increase of 134% since autumn 2010.
The report singled out the government for criticism, firstly for failing to assess the impact of its welfare reforms on homelessness and secondly for failing to evaluate how local authorities were using funding it had introduced to mitigate the impact of its welfare reforms. Since the government is not looking at this matter, we have decided to take a brief look at how local authorities are handling the homelessness crisis.
Local Authorities and the homelessness crisis
It is clear that local authorities have an unenviable task, on the one hand people are suffering cuts to benefits, making housing less affordable and causing more people to become homeless, on the other hand, local authorities are operating in a climate of pressure to make budget savings. The cost of homelessness to local authorities is significant, some £1.15 billion a year.
Other factors are also increasing homelessness, for example, in recent years lack of affordable housing has also contributed to the rise in visible homelessness. In London the costs of private rented accommodation has increased eight times faster than earnings, with private rents rising by 24% and average earnings increasing by 3%. As a result of this increase, one third of all homelessness cases last year were the result of Landlords increasing rent to the point of unaffordability.
The increase in demand puts real pressure on local authorities when dealing with homelessness and the temptation then becomes to try and push away people seeking housing assistance. This is known as ‘gatekeeping’ and is a way for a local authority to reduce the burden on its services by turning away applicants for homelessness assistance, even in cases where they may have a statutory duty to assist them. As legal representatives practising in housing law, gatekeeping is something that we notice on a regular basis.
It is a Local Authority’s duty to provide a written decision as per the Housing Act 1996 and make such inquiries as are “necessary” to establish whether an applicant meets the criteria of the threat of homelessness, eligibility, priority need and whether an applicant made themselves intentionally homeless.
From experience, applicants will often be deterred from making an application, re-directed to other departments or advised within the first encounter that they have not been found homeless without adequate investigation. The onus is often put on applicants, most of which are very vulnerable and at a low point in their lives, to fight and prove to the council that they are in need of help, when the local authority is obliged by statute to investigate an applicant’s case.
This leads to applicants being turned away who meet the necessary criteria but do not know how the procedure or law works or are unable or too exhausted by the process to pursue their rights. Homelessness law is often complicated and technical and sometimes has strict procedural deadlines (such as 21 days in which to request a review of a decision) and unadvised applicants often fall foul of these requirements. In some cases the only option is to issue a Judicial Review of a local authority for making an unlawful action or decision. Applicants are best advised to seek legal advice regarding their rights at the earliest opportunity, especially if a local authority is refusing to take an application for assistance from them or if a local authority has made a decision that they will not be assisting the applicant.
Hope on the horizon
There is some hope for the future as with the introduction of the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in April 2018 it is proposed that much greater emphasis will be placed on local authorities to prevent homelessness. Only time will tell if the Act in itself will be enough to reduce ‘gatekeeping’ by local authorities, but it seems likely that local authorities will need more resources to really get to grips with the homelessness crisis