(The Pavement, 25 September 2009) Local authorities are encouraging hostels to dissuade applications and not to document rejections for temporary housing in a practise known within the industry as ‘gatekeeping’, a leaked document sent to this magazine has revealed.
The report claims gatekeeping not only “prevents people from exercising their legal rights and denies them the opportunity to resolve their homelessness”but also distorts official statistics. “If no application is taken, then there is no record of the household having approached the local authority,”the report said. The law states that local authorities have an obligation to take a homeless application from anyone they believe may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, and that they are under a duty to accommodate while they make inquiries. It also says a formal written decision, which carries with it a right of review, must be written.
However, the report, which originated from Shelter, highlights a number of cases where local authorities had prevented or actively discouraged people from applying as homeless. One way of discouraging applications was to insist on excessive amounts of documentation before providing assistance. The report cites research which found in 2005 that “initial filtering procedures”were deterring young people from making a complete application or giving full information. People had complained of waiting for up to a day to receive an interview, or simply being given information leaflets rather than speaking to someone. They were also asked to produce difficult to obtain written information, such letters from were they had been staying previously to prove they could no longer live there.
Shelter’s report highlighted 50 cases from across the country. Requests were even made of those who had suffered domestic violence or relationship breakdown, with one woman fleeing violence being told she was intentionally homeless because she had not reported the violence to the police. Refusing applications on the basis of a lack of “local connection”was another practise found, despite the local authorities having a legal obligation to assist before any referral can be made to another area; other vulnerable would-be applicants were found to have been placed on a general housing waiting list.
Many applicants were given on-the-spot verbal decisions that they did not qualify, making challenging the decision harder. This is not the first time gatekeeping has come to public attention. In 2005, a survey for Shelter’s national magazine Roof found that 63 per cent of council staff, out of 60 local authorities contacted, felt pressured to bend the rules to reduce the numbers of people they accepted as homeless. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was at the time reported as responding: “Suggestions that this is about avoiding helping people are completely wrong…We have not seen any substantial evidence that this is happening and reject findings of this survey.” However, in 2006, the then Minister for Housing and Planning, Yvette Cooper, wrote an open letter to local authorities advising against the practise, saying that: “I do want to see continued reductions in homelessness numbers, but that must be achieved through more effective help, not as a result of a ‘gatekeeping’ approach…It is critical that vulnerable households should not be denied the assistance they need.”
Despite having been written in September 2005, the Shelter report remains unpublished over two years later. A spokesperson for the charity told The Pavement: “The document… was intended for internal use rather than publication. We have various reports, which are more of a collation of information passed to us in the communications, policy and campaigns department from people in our services reporting trends or problems so we can decide on the best way to try and solve them.” However, in a letter accompanying the report sent to The Pavement, an anonymous employee suggested Shelter’s response has been purposely “low profile.” The covering letter also added: “These practices, as the report evidences, are not isolated but endemic and nothing less than an abuse of some of the most vulnerable groups in our society… This is the territory where Shelter should be taking central and local government head on.”
Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson said: “Where it is apparent that gatekeeping is taking place, Shelter is working with the government and with local authorities both publicly and behind the scenes to tackle the problem and ensure homeless people have access to the help they need. “Shelter’s policy and campaigning work is not influenced or compromised by government contracts.”