The homeless and not receiving good treatment from local authorities, according to a report published by Crisis earlier this week.
More from: Homeless miss out on help and advice
The homelessness charity engaged ‘mystery shoppers’, many of whom are actors in the Cardboard Citizens theatre troupe of former rough sleepers, to test the services of councils across England.
Between February and April, these mystery shoppers visited 16 local authorities to examine the quality of advice and assistance provided to single homeless people. They visited seven councils in London and nine across the south-east, Midlands and north.
The report said many of the mystery shopper homeless clients received little or no help from their council because they were not deemed to be in ‘priority need’. This categorisation meant councils had no legal duty to house them.
In 50 out of 87 council visits (57%), mystery shoppers received little or no help. They were routinely signposted to written information about renting privately. In some cases they were turned away without any help or the opportunity to speak to a housing adviser.
The research also indicated that in 29 visits councils failed to apply the legislation correctly. Mystery shoppers often did not receive an assessment and were rarely given the opportunity to make a homelessness application.
The number of households being placed in temporary accommodation was up 6% at the end of June over the same time last year
However, 37 out of the 87 visits resulted in the mystery shoppers being housed, either in emergency accommodation or by arranging to return them to their previous address.
Councils in London performed poorly compared to their counterparts elsewhere. But examples of good performance in the capital’s homeless advice offices suggested that culture, training and resources played a major role. Improvements could be as basic as offering those presenting as homeless a private room where they could discuss their problems, said Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes.
Councils are under massive financial pressure here. The volume of acceptances for housing assistance is down by 2%, according to quarterly statistics from the Department for Communities & Local Government. But the number of households being placed in temporary accommodation was up 6% to 59,710 at the end of June, compared to the same point in 2013. In a sign that measures to curb benefits in high-value areas are having an impact, the number of households living in temporary accommodation outside their home local authority area rose by more than a quarter.
A report presented to Reading BC’s audit and governance committee at the end of September shows the strain this increased demand for temporary accommodation is placing on council finances. It warned that the council’s £88,000 annual temporary accommodation budget for homeless people was likely to be exceeded due to the increasing numbers in need of it and the rising charges being levied by bed and breakfast owners.
Peter Box (Lab), chair of the LGA environment, economy, housing and transport board, argued that the Crisis findings had to be put in the context of wider financial pressures on councils.
He said: “Councils work hard to prevent homelessness occurring in the first place. Where homelessness does take place, councils have an important role to treat people who need their help with respect and to place them into secure, affordable accommodation.
“The ability of councils to do this is only getting tougher as a result of 40% cuts to council budgets over the lifetime of this Parliament and a shortage of affordable housing.”
Mr Sparkes acknowledged that councils were in a “near impossible situation”.
He said the research showed that the widespread application of gatekeeping arrangements, used by many councils to manage demand for homelessness services, meant that too many people in genuine need were being turned away because they were deemed to be insufficiently vulnerable.
But given that new home building rates were not even coping with increased waiting lists, many authorities will have little option but to ration scarce resources in this way.
The housing crisis needs bigger answers though, Cllr Box said. “It is in everyone’s interest to remove unnecessary barriers that prevent homes being made available to people who desperately need them. Councils are keen to play their part in this and could go further and faster to support the development of badly needed new homes if government gave councils greater financial flexibility.”