Homelessness

Unemployed pushed to back of housing queue

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(The Pavement, 8 November 2011) Unemployed people will be pushed down the housing register under a new proposal from London’s Westminster Council, introduced to “discourage a benefits culture.”

Under the council’s new housing allocation policy, which will come into force on 30 January 2012, applicants who have been working for more than two years will receive 50 extra ‘points’, moving them closer to gaining a council home.

To qualify, the applicant (be it an individual or the main applicant from a family) must have been working at least 16 hours per week under a written contract for at least two years. Applicants with temporary contracts, meanwhile, must have been employed continuously, with no more than one month’s gap between contracts.

Successful applicants will keep their bonus employment points until they have been re-housed or their application is closed. If they lose their job, the points will not be removed, as long as there is a “realistic prospect of re-employment.”

Those who have been looking for work for more than two years will also receive 50 extra points, as long as they have been “actively engaged” with the council’s Homeless Employment Learning Project, which aims to help those in temporary accommodation into work or further education.

According to Westminster Council’s cabinet member for housing and corporate property, Councillor Jonathan Glanz, “These changes ensure that not only do we prioritise the most vulnerable, including those living in overcrowded properties and those with medical needs, but we also reward those who are doing their best not to be dependent on the state by working or actively seeking work.”

The council is also hoping that the employed people they house will later move out of their council home into private accommodation, leaving their former property available for other people on the housing list.

The plans have met opposition and criticisms from a number of homeless groups and MPs. Alastair Murray, deputy director for Housing Justice, told the Evening Standard that many people would find it difficult to provide the required paperwork, adding: “Quite a lot of homeless people do work but the kind of work they are able to do is quite unstable, so they may not be eligible.”

For Kay Boycott, Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, the real issue is not the allocation of social housing but the amount of it: “Britain’s desperate shortage of social housing makes decisions around how to allocate it incredibly difficult. What we really need is to build more truly affordable homes for families across the country so we do not find ourselves in this difficult position of having to judge who is most worthy of this scarce resource.”

Earlier this year, Councillor Guthrie McKie, Labour’s Housing spokesperson, described the proposal as “very unfair and extremely divisive.” However, Councillor McKie may find scant support higher up in her own party. At the annual Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband declared: “When we have a housing shortage, choices have to be made. Do we treat the person who contributes to their community the same as the person who doesn’t? My answer is ‘no’. Our first duty should be to help the person who shows responsibility.”

Additional priority will also be given to applicants who have lived in Westminster continuously for 10 years. While priority is already given to applicants with young children, who are homeless or have special medical needs.

Westminster’s plans are just one example of a wider trend, which is seeing unemployed social housing applicants penalised across the country.

Similar policies have already been introduced or proposed in Manchester, Wandsworth and Newham. While in its recent Housing Allocations Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham stated: “The council is proposing to provide a fixed number of new lettings each year for people who have taken part in specific council-supported programmes to get back into training or employment.”

On a national scale, the minister for housing, Grant Shapps, has pledged to give local authorities the freedom to draw up their own social housing priorities list. In an article for Inside Housing, Shapps wrote: “I believe that many councils will use their new powers to reward and acknowledge those actively working and contributing to their local area, as Westminster and others have done. And rightly so.”

Shapps insisted that “we will retain the ╘reasonable preference’ criteria, establishing proper priority for those in greatest need”, however the vulnerable are not immune from the shifts in policy. Under the new Localism Bill, homeless applicants would be forced to accept offers of “suitable private accommodation” – or face a penalty. This shift, it is explained in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (CLG) Localism Bill Impact Assessment will allow local authorities to “discharge the duty they owe to homeless households.”

If passed, the law would also allow local authorities to operate closed waiting lists, removing the right for anyone (without restriction) to apply for social housing. According to the CLG’s impact assessment, “Under this option, the rules determining which categories of applicants qualify to be considered for social housing would be decided at the local level,” although “the rules determining which applicants receive priority for social housing would continue to be set centrally via the statutory ╘reasonable preference’ categories.”

Shelter issued a briefing for the second reading of the bill, in which it expressed concern over the “undermining” of the legal duty to homeless people: “The proposed changes sever the link between homelessness and recognising the need for a settled home by allowing councils to discharge homeless households into the insecure PRS [Private Rented Sector] rather than find them a settled homeâ•” there is a distinct lack of good quality housing at the bottom end of the PRS market meaning that many of the most vulnerable households will be placed in unsuitable accommodation.”

Another proposal Shelter has requested to be removed from the bill is the removing of tenancy lease security, which would allow councils to reassess tenants after a minimum of two years and evict them if they no longer met the criteria, in terms of for example income and benefits.

The Localism Bill is to have its third reading in the House of Lords on 31 October.

Homelessness

Who decides?

(The Pavement, 3 July 2010) If you’ve struggled with a drug or alcohol addiction, refused help from an outreach worker or had mental health problems, chances are you’ve been discussed at a Safer Streets partnership meeting. Also known as multi-agency meetings or Local Strategic Partnerships meetings, these gatherings take place in boroughs across London and are a chance for homeless service providers to get together and discuss how to help individual rough sleepers off the streets.

To give you an insight into what is decided at these meetings, we spoke to Sam Ball, deputy director for London of Crime Reduction Initiatives (CRI), the national social care charity which is commissioned by Camden Council to run Camden Safer Streets Team (SST).

Camden SST provides “street-based outreach work” in partnership with a number of key agencies:
• Hostel providers
• Drug/alcohol services
• Drug-intervention teams
• Police
• Mental health services
• Primary care services
• Local day centres
• Drop-in services
• Street wardens

Input is also provided by “Community Auditors” from StreetSafe, a Camden SST scheme through which, Mr Ball explained: “concerned members of the community can report on street activity directly to a single point of contact and are assured of a prompt and helpful response”.

Of these agencies, representatives from the Drug and Alcohol Agencies; Drug Intervention Programme; Police; Hostel Providers; Day Centres; Drop-in Services and Street Wardens attend regular meetings at Camden SST’s London regional office. These so-called “tasking and targeting meetings” take place every fortnight in King’s Cross, Holborn, Bloomsbury and Camden Town, with two additional monthly meetings for the north of the borough. Organised by Camden SST, each meeting is chaired by the team leader responsible for that area.

So what is the purpose of this type of partnership meeting, a format used by many local authorities? “It’s designed to allow coordination of a comprehensive and consistent care package for clients,” explains Mr Ball. “It includes both service interventions and enforcement interventions where appropriate.”

The implementation of these enforcement tactics, such as Anti Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), is made clear by Camden Safer Street Team to homeless people in the borough, according to Mr Ball: “On initial contact we explain that street activity is considered anti-social behaviour and that continuation of that behaviour could lead to enforcement.

“We do it this way because we’re aware then that we’re able to give a clear, consistent and honest message to clients. Our aim is to enable people to break free from harmful patterns of behaviour, therefore reducing the impact of this on the individual and as well as on the community around them.”

A “care package” – also known as a service plan or care plan – is basically a way of identifying what support or services you need. “Decisions are made about which agencies need to be involved in a case,” explains Mr Ball. “In terms of hostels, for instance, each hostel has a specific designation, for instance those able to cater for individuals with mental health needs or those requiring continued-use placements”.

Rather than discussing budgets and homeless services in general, the meetings are focused on the “clients”. For Mr Ball, “it isn’t about funding, it doesn’t come down to that – it’s who is best placed to meet this client’s needs. That’s very much the focus of those meetings.”

So deciding, for example, increased funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation is not on the agenda. “That’s kind of out of our hands,” Mr Ball explains. “We might request and advocate for that on behalf of the client if we felt they needed that but we wouldn’t be able to make that decision.”

According to a street count carried out on 22 April 2009, Camden has just six rough sleepers. However, statutory homelessness figures for January-March 2010 (Supplementary tables – Local Authority Breakdown – Statutory Homelessness: 1st Quarter (January to March) 2010, England) identify 668 people in temporary accommodation in Camden, plus 88 instances where duty of care is owed but accommodation has not yet been secured.

With such a fluid homeless population, the partnership selects particular people to discuss at each meeting. “We wouldn’t necessarily go through every single client known to Camden Safer Streets Team because, as you know, there can be a changing picture and we want to prioritise in terms of need … to make sure people get the right level of input in a timely manner,” Mr Ball adds.

After the meeting, the next step is to offer targeted support to clients. “Obviously we’d want to agree a care plan with the client so … if we or the client were to identify that actually they might benefit from, [for example], a mental health service then we’d look to do what we can to support them to engage with that service and get that service involved.”

Although Camden SST has a contract with Camden Council, they are not required to give the council an exhaustive account of every meeting. “We wouldn’t report back, naturally,” says Mr Ball. “But, as with any service provision, our communication with the council happens along the lines with which they commission us, so we have an ongoing communication with Camden Council.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=1053

Homelessness

Shelter report: shocking claims on gatekeeping

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(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.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=373