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What to make of the homeless statistics?

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According to governments statistics produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government in March 2015, the number of homeless applications made to Local Authorities between 1st October 2014 and 31st December 2014 rose by one per cent compared to the previous year. This is no surprise given the number of evictions we are seeing at county courts in respect of tenants who have struggled with reductions in welfare benefits and what for some is the impossible task of trying to pay the bedroom tax shortfall in their housing benefit. With local charities and support organisations also facing financial cut backs in these difficult economic times, there is less support available and more and more people are finding themselves at crisis point with nowhere to live.

When anyone asks the Local Authority for accommodation as a homeless person, the Local Authority has to assess whether the applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, in a priority need category and is not intentionally homeless. If the applicant satisfies all four criteria, the Local Authority has a legal obligation to provide them with permanent accommodation and should provide them with somewhere to live temporarily until that accommodation is secured. Of the 28,460 applications made between 1st October and 31st December 2014, the statistics confirm that just 48 per cent of applications were accepted meaning that the Local Authority would provide accommodation for the applicant and his/her family. More than half of those people who considered themselves homeless and asked for help were declined  by the authority. Of the 52 per cent who were refused assistance, 25 per cent were considered to be not homeless, i.e. they had accommodation available to them which was reasonable for them to occupy. 

18 per cent were found to be not in a priority need category. To be in priority need, you or the people who live with you need to have some form of vulnerability. This applies where you are a pregnant, have dependent children, are vulnerable as a result of leaving care, the armed forces or prison or as a result of a physical or mental impairment. Other narrow circumstances may also satisfy this criteria. In our experience, Local Authorities are very quick to make a rush assessment of somebody’s priority need status and in many cases where somebody has told the Local Authority they have health difficulties, the Local Authority will asses them as not being in priority need without even speaking with their GP or support workers.

Nine per cent of applicants were found to be intentionally homeless, although in priority need. This would cover situations such as where the Local Authority states that you have been evicted as a result of rent arrears or that you have voluntarily left accommodation which was suitable for you. However, in many cases accommodation has simply become unaffordable for the applicant and it is not through a willful determination not to pay their rent that they have been evicted. Many have lost jobs as a result of redundancy or illness, some have suffered a relationship breakdown or other traumatic experience, some have had benefit sanctions or cuts which means they are simply unable to meet their rental liabilities. In that case we can often force a Local Authority to accept the individual should have help from their authority. 

What the statistics don’t tell you is about the number of people who are homeless who never make it into the figures. In our experience, many people aren’t aware of the obligations on the Local Authority to provide them with a homeless interview and fully assess their circumstances before making a decision about their eligibility for homeless assistance. It is not always easy to find information about where you need to go if you are homeless and many people don’t realise the extent of the Local Authority’s duties towards them. Of those who do make it as far as requesting a homeless interview, sadly, many are turned away. It is far too common that a Local Authority tells potential applicants they will not meet the criteria and there is no point in having a homeless interview. We have to routinely assist many clients of ours to force the Local Authority to abide by their duties to interview everybody who reasonably presents as homeless. 

We have experienced all of the above examples and have had to force the Local Authority to comply with their duties to the individuals who otherwise have no-where else to go. However, we expect that for every person who we can help to get the accommodation they are entitled to, there are many, many more who don’t know that legal aid funding can be provided to help hold a Local Authority to its obligations and don't get legal advice. Sadly, there will be a large number of people who accept what the Local Authority say when told there's no point having a homeless interview or who accept a negative decision that is made by the Local Authority when in fact those decisions can and should be challenged.   

Our specialist housing team can help assess if the decision of the Local Authority is correct and fight for you rights.                                 

By housing law solicitor, Elizabeth Lowe

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