According to government statistics released on 7th March 2014, between 1st October and 31st December 2013 only 46% of homeless applicants were provided with full assistance by the Local Authority under their homeless duties. This means that more than half of those who seek help from the Local Authority to find accommodation in often desperate situations, have been left to fend for themselves. When a person presents as homeless to the Local Authority, it has a duty to interview that person and decide if they meet the strictly applied criteria which gives rise to a full duty to re-house them and their family.
The Local Authority will firstly consider whether the applicant is actually homeless. A person is not just homeless when they have absolutely nowhere else to go, but can also satisfy this criteria when it is no longer reasonable for them to occupy the current accommodation (such as when they are subject to domestic violence) or when they are threatened with homelessness in the next 28 days (such as when they have a Warrant of Eviction which is due to be enforced).
In the last quarter of 2013, 28% of applicants were turned down on the basis of not being homeless. This figure seems quite high and gives me cause for concern that those who are trying to escape unreasonable and unsafe living situations are being turned down without a thorough investigation and assessment. Take the example of a family being subject to anti-social behaviour and threats of violence. In our experience the Local Authority will often try to say that other mechanisms such as injunctions and police assistance can be put in place and so they deem it reasonable for that applicant to stay where they are and decline to re-accommodate them.
The next step in the homeless eligibility criteria is for the Local Authority to decide if an applicant falls within the priority need criteria. These include (amongst others) pregnant women, applicants who have dependent children or who are vulnerable due to disability. The statistics show that 19% off those who applied between 1st October 2013 and 31st December 2013 were refused on the basis of not meeting the priority need criteria. Unfortunately, this statistic fits our experience and we find that in particular many single males often fall foul of the necessary criteria.
Where applicants have health problems that leave them particularly vulnerable, the Local Authority should fully investigate those issues, perhaps by seeking copies of their GP records or by liaising with any medical and social professionals involved with that person. However, all too often such investigations are not complete and instead the Local Authority only goes as far as to consider the often limited information provided by the applicant at the homeless interview. Without any knowledge of the legal criteria the Local Authority will be applying, applicants don't always emphasise the true impact of their health conditions on their daily lives and their ability to cope on the streets.
The next step is to consider whether the applicant has become homeless "intentionally". People who fall into this category include those who have been forced to leave their previous accommodation due to allegations they behaved in an anti-social manner or those who have voluntarily left property which was available to them. The Local Authority will frequently conclude that those who have been evicted due to rent arrears are intentionally homeless, despite the fact that properties may have been simply unaffordable due to rent increases or reductions in benefits and despite all of the tenant's best efforts to retain possession.
Indeed, I feared a sharp rise in such cases where tenants have lost social accommodation due to arrears arising from the bedroom tax and then face the prospect of being found to be intentionally homeless and ineligible for Local Authority assistance. However, between 1st October 2013 and 31st December 2013, only 8% of the declined homeless applications were refused on the basis of the applicant being intentionally homeless. This was a decrease of just less than 1% compared with the same period in 2012 and it is pleasing to see that this category hasn't seen any rise at all, despite the implementation of the bedroom tax. However, we can't breathe a sigh of relief just yet as this time next year we may see a different picture emerging. At the moment many tenants have been able to avoid outright Possession Orders due to relatively low level arrears and a degree of sympathy from the Courts. However, as arrears increase and second opportunities pass, we expect to see more evictions and more homeless applications in 2014.
The homeless legislation is complex and many Local Authority decisions go unchallenged. Often this is because applicants don't know their legal rights and how to request reviews of negative decisions. We would encourage anyone going through the Local Authority homelessness application process to seek legal advice and assistance. With more challenges, we suspect the number of applicants ultimately provided with assistance in being re-housed would be far greater than 46%.
Stephensons' housing law team is ready to help anybody who requires assistance with their homeless application and have a great deal of experience in challenging Local Authority decisions, ensuring people receive the assistance they are entitled to. If you need any help please contact us on 0175 321 6399.
By Elizabeth Lowe, solicitor in the housing law team