People in Lambeth, and in boroughs across the capital, are being made homeless through a combination of changes to the benefits system, delays caused by staff shortages and a housing loophole which means that people judged to have made themselves “intentionally homeless” are no longer the responsibility of the overstretched local authority….
There are currently more than 23,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in Lambeth, and the list continues to grow.
Daniel Regan works on Brixton Advice Centre (BAC)’s housing team, focusing in particular on trying to get homeless people into local authority accommodation, and keeping vulnerable tenants already in it from being pushed out. He tells me that it’s an uphill struggle, to say the least.
“They’re the most demanding and the most urgent cases we deal with,” he says. “These are people who are days or even hours from being on the street – if they’re not already.” It is emotionally draining work. People sometimes come to BAC the day the locks have been changed on their homes, and they have nowhere to sleep that night. “It can be very intense,” he says.
In the eight months he’s worked at BAC, he tells me that he’s helped families, pregnant women, people with physical disabilities and, most commonly of all, people with profound mental health issues – all either homeless or on the verge of homelessness.
There is almost always one common factor: housing benefit being cut
For those that make it to BAC’s doors, his job is to untangle the often complex and traumatic reasons behind their circumstances. “When people come here, they’re usually at the lowest point of their life,” he says. “Sometimes they find it difficult to talk about it because they’re so traumatised by whatever is going on in their background. It’s hard, but you have to push that to the side and get to the issue. We’re their advocates, so in order to make their case you have to draw them out, you have to ask the most difficult questions.”
The reasons are myriad, but he says there is almost always one common factor: housing benefit being cut.
For example, when people lose an income-related benefit – such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – their housing benefit also immediately stops. “Rents are so high in London that in a couple of months if they don’t sort it out they end up thousands of pounds in arrears,” he says.
What Daniel and his colleagues see frequently are cases where people wrongly have their benefits cut, get into rent arrears, and then receive eviction notices. Even when they eventually win their appeal against the benefit decision, entirely vindicating them, this may have taken many months, sometimes even years. By then they may have been evicted and made homeless.
If you are evicted for arrears, no matter how vulnerable you may be, or whose fault it is, you are then classed as ‘intentionally homeless’
Worse still, at that point the local authority no longer has a duty to re-house them. Technically, by allowing themselves to get into rent arrears, irrespective of whose fault it actually is, they are deemed to have made themselves “intentionally homeless”.
“In that situation, a mother with children can go to a local authority and say ‘I’m homeless’, and they will probably put them in temporary accommodation,” Daniel explains. “They won’t leave children on the street. But for people who don’t have children, if you are evicted for arrears, no matter how vulnerable you may be, or whose fault it is, you are then classed as ‘intentionally homeless’. And that’s a really difficult hurdle to overcome.”
For Lambeth, a local authority with a desperate housing shortage, struggling with a 56% central Government-imposed cut to its budget, it means one less person on their list. “This is not a hypothetical situation,” Daniel says. “It’s the vast majority of clients we see.”
Defending yourself in such circumstances is an extremely complicated and lengthy process. Not only are you challenging a benefits decision by the Department for Work and Pensions, but you’re also fighting a possession order. For most people, it is completely overwhelming.
“Often clients don’t understand what’s going on, and they can’t cope,” Daniel says. “If you’re suffering from mental health issues, or maybe you’ve just lost your job, the stress of all this takes a serious toll.”
It can take a team of three legal experts to challenge a single homelessness case
Where there is an underlying housing benefit issue, Daniel will point them to his colleague Nathan Scott [see Welfare benefits: The domino effect), to work on that aspect. He may also introduce them to Pete Woan (see Debt: Guilty until proven innocent) to deal with the debt issues, while he focuses on trying to get them housed, or preventing them from being made homeless in the first place.
That it can take a team of three legal experts to challenge a single homelessness case offers some insight into quite how stacked the system is against people who find themselves in this situation. Those who don’t make it to an advice centre like BAC, who don’t realise that such support exists, have almost no hope of successfully fighting their case. And with benefits appeals no longer within the scope of Civil Legal Aid, this free advice is becoming increasingly hard to come by.
“It’s not going to get better any time soon,” says Daniel. “I think all we can do is limit the excesses of what’s going on, and to advocate for the individuals we come across. We’re dealing with a tiny percentage of the people out there [who need help]. Hopefully the work we do has a massive impact on the lives of the individuals we do deal with – but it’s not making a dent in the system.”
He believes the situation has been getting progressively worse. “The local authority’s default position is now, ‘no, we’re not going to accept a duty to this person’. That’s what we have to battle against.”
“The only person I’ve ever had a duty accepted to was a mother who was pregnant as a result of rape, and even that took a fight”
Things are particularly bad in London, he says. “My colleague James was talking to someone from an advice centre in Birmingham, and they don’t have the same issues there. The local authority, in general, accepts a duty towards people because they don’t have such a chronic shortage of housing stock. In London, and particularly in an oversubscribed borough like Lambeth (see The death of social housing), it’s just ‘no’. I don’t know what the threshold is now, but the only person I’ve ever had a duty accepted to was a mother who was pregnant as a result of rape, and even that took a fight.”
Daniel says he sees the impact of the cuts every day. “Most of the people who we see have some kind of psychological or psychiatric problem,” he says. “They’re totally isolated and have no one to talk to and nowhere to go. All the support networks have been cut.”
“We see the cuts to social services very clearly in that the level for their intervention is now incredibly high,” he adds. “Often, we end up having to threaten to take them to court just to get them to do an assessment.”
Above all, perhaps, he notices the cuts in how much longer bureaucratic processes take. “Every time, [Lambeth Council] tell us it’s due to staffing shortages. It’s obvious that we’re putting massive pressure on the housing department – but that’s absolutely right. They must behave lawfully, whatever pressure they’re under. And what should take days now takes weeks or months to process. Sometimes they don’t even respond to pre-action letters at all.”
Working at BAC has been an eye-opening experience, he says. “The popular discourse about people who are poor, who are on benefits, or who are economically challenged, is that it’s a choice. What you realise when you come here is there is no element of choice at all.”
“They are in their situation because of complex socioeconomic factors. Complex family issues. People don’t choose to be on benefits, don’t choose to be trapped in the welfare state. They are there because they have no alternative. Working here has just reinforced that for me.”
I ask if he encounters people trying to cheat the system. “People always ask me that,” he says. “Of course I’ve had people come in occasionally who are chancing their arm – I’ve had maybe a couple – but the vast, vast majority of people that I’ve encountered here are in a desperate situation. I don’t think there’s any comfort or security to being on benefits. The welfare state is a social floor, it’s the bottom. It’s not the lap of luxury some people might have you believe.”