Ombudsman highlights where councils in England can improve services to homeless people

By Agencies
July 16, 2020

Problems with the way councils in England are meeting new housing duties are making some homeless people’s situation worse, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

In a new report Home Truths, published on 15 July 2020, the Ombudsman examines the lessons that councils can learn from the first 50 cases it investigated under the Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced in 2018.

While the cases are from before the COVID-19 pandemic, the guidance is all the more pertinent as temporary, emergency measures introduced to reduce homelessness during the peak come to an end.

Problems identified in the new report include councils delaying helping people and difficulties in issuing Personalised Housing Plans – the documents which set out what has been agreed between the homeless person and local authority to address the problem. The Ombudsman also found simple communication issues, with people left unsure about the next steps they need to take, or not being told about their rights to challenge a council’s decision.

The report highlights stories from the Ombudsman’s casework, and gives advice on how councils can take steps to avoid similar situations in their areas.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "When people are in the very vulnerable position of being homeless or at risk of homelessness, even a small administrative failure can have a significant impact on their situation.

“Our cases show that, while people are not being made homeless by councils failing to meet their new duties, their problems are very much compounded – and [they are] often left homeless for longer than they might have been, when councils do not get things right.

“While we do see evidence of good practice up and down the country, I would urge all councils with responsibility for housing people in need to read my report and assess whether they can learn from it to make improvements to their own service."

The new Homelessness Reduction Act gave people who are homeless, or threatened with homelessness, new rights to services from councils. The Act’s aim was for councils to help more people earlier, to prevent homelessness as much as possible, and to help find accommodation for people who have become homeless.

The Act was a significant change for councils. It increased the range of people they are expected to help and the type of services they must provide. In particular, it introduced assessments of people who ask for help, and new duties to help people retain or find accommodation.

Responding to the report, Cllr David Renard, Housing spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: “This report provides helpful insight into how councils can best meet the requirements of the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA).

“Councils fully support the principles of the HRA. However, significant and ongoing funding challenges have limited their ability to fully deliver the Act and prevent homelessness.

“In 2018/19 alone, councils overspent on homelessness services by a combined total of £140 million due to an increase in demand for homelessness services, and a lack of affordable housing to accommodate people at risk of homelessness.

“Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, councils have worked incredibly hard to get the overwhelming majority – nearly 15,000 – of rough sleepers into housing. This is a momentous achievement but has exacerbated funding issues. Councils continue to face significant extra cost pressures and huge income losses as a result of the pandemic. Councils need to be fully funded for service delivery and loss of income so that they can effectively deliver the Homelessness Reduction Act and keep people from experiencing homelessness. 

“We would like to see the Government temporarily remove the No Recourse to Public Funds condition during the current crisis to reduce public health risks and pressures on homelessness services by enabling people to access welfare benefits.

“We are also calling for a ban on section 21 or 'no fault' evictions to be introduced as soon as possible to keep people out of homelessness, and for councils to be able to keep 100 per cent of receipts from Right to Buy sales so they can build more homes.”

* The report Home Truths is available to download here

* Local Government Ombudsman https://www.local.gov.uk/

* Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman https://www.lgo.org.uk/

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