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Homelessness assistance for people with serious mental health conditions: can I get a self-contained flat or do I have to stay in a hostel?

Posted on 29th October 2018

There is no general right for a person with a serious mental health condition to get a self-contained flat. Although there is a basic requirement on local housing authorities to ensure any homelessness accommodation it arranges is “suitable”, this is no guarantee against a long-term stay in a hostel, even for a person with a serious mental health condition. That is because decisions about what “suitable” means in a given case is a discretionary decision which the local housing authority gets to make. There is a process for challenging any such individual decision, though it is always an uphill struggle.

The Law – What is suitable accommodation for homeless people?

This is one example of the many holes in the Swiss cheese that is the Part VII Housing Act 1996 regime, the body of law which gives people in this country protection against homelessness, or “homelessness assistance”. Although there is a limited right to self-contained accommodation (itself something of a Swiss cheese) which applies to households with dependent children, there is no corresponding right for vulnerable adults with even very significant mental health problems. Indeed it is common for even highly vulnerable applicants to spend an indefinite amount of time in a hostel.

This is particularly egregious, given that poor mental health and homelessness / housing problems have such an intimate relationship. Poor mental health makes it harder to cope with homelessness and housing problems, which is why the law identifies people who are vulnerable as a result of mental illness as one of the core categories of people in “priority need” for accommodation. At the same time, however, homelessness and housing problems can make a person’s mental health worse, not least such periods spent in unstable emergency hostel accommodation, that in many cases go on for years. While hostel accommodation is usually intended as an emergency stop-gap for the period immediately after making a homelessness application, frequently it will continue for as long as it takes until the applicant finally makes it out of temporary accommodation into a stable home, whether through bidding on the housing register, being made a direct offer, or some other route such as an application directly to a Supported Housing provider.

Challenging unsuitable accommodation

The only route of challenge for a person in these circumstances will be to persuade the local housing authority that the accommodation is unsuitable. If you are owed a main housing duty, you may have the right to formally review the accommodation offered to you.

There is a basic requirement on local housing authorities to ensure any homelessness accommodation it arranges is suitable. However, “suitability” of temporary accommodation is not strictly defined in law, and local housing authorities are left to treat each case on its own merits. The relevant legislation and guidance do prescribe certain matters which should at least be taken into account when suitability is considered. They must consider all the circumstances of the case. As well as “objective” circumstances which would apply to everybody (such as accommodation which is in a dangerous condition, etc.), these include “subjective” circumstances which may be significant only for the particular applicant.

So for instance, hostel accommodation might be unsuitable for an applicant with a severe mental health condition if there are particular reasons. However, this generally entails a set of specific arguments and a high evidential threshold. An applicant might argue that living communally and sharing facilities is particularly distressing for them, because of the impact it has on their mental health condition – but to succeed, they are likely to need compelling evidence from medical or other professionals who might be involved with their care.

There may of course be other arguments. If there is a dependent child in the household, then additional protections may apply. Alternatively, the hostel may have other problems, such as its location in relation to the applicant’s support network, employment, hospitals, etc., or “objective” problems such as health and safety or HMO licensing problems. Finally, there is a general principle that what may be suitable for the short term may not be suitable for the long term, and the fact that accommodation has been established as suitable at one point in time does not mean it will still be suitable after the passage of some months or years. Any homelessness applicant in long term temporary accommodation has a right to a suitability review, and they should make full use of it.

If you are living in accommodation which you do not feel is suitable, you should consider seeking advice and assistance from a housing law solicitor. This is an area which is covered by Legal Aid, subject to the Legal Aid means test.

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