Dispatched to the sharp end

15.02.2017

Like a lot of housing professionals I used to bemoan the fact that housing issues didn't receive much media attention. Not anymore.

We might not always like the way housing is covered (yes I'm thinking of you Channel 5) but it definitely gets its share of air time and column inches. A day doesn't seem to go by without the mainstream media covering another way the housing market adversely impacts on a particular group.

But then the housing crisis now affects so much of the population that even the Secretary of State has to admit the market is broken.

So in one sense there wasn't anything particularly surprising watching Channel 4's Dispatches exposé on Monday evening. And the programme covered what's been an open secret among housing professionals for years. Namely that some (but by no means all) council homelessness teams routinely misapply the legislation and deny help and temporary accommodation to people legally entitled to it.

But even as someone who's worked on the front line, trained staff, and helped restructure homeless teams the footage still had the capacity to shock. And two days later I still find myself thinking about some of the scenes we witnessed.


Ticket dispenser "Please take a number"

Mystery shopping

Much of the documentary involved actors walking into councils and asking for help because they were homeless.

In many cases the council turned them away without undertaking any proper assessment of whether the s.188 test was met (the legal threshold for whether temporary accommodation must be provided).

Examples included:

  • A woman fleeing domestic violence being told that a recommendation from the police or another service was needed to substantiate ("just basically to prove") the domestic abuse, then being told nothing could be done until the following Thursday (?!), and then being told to self-refer to a shelter. The woman then approached another council who advised that she'd need to access a refuge herself by approaching the police.
  • Someone suffering learning difficulties being turned away, having waited for over three hours to be seen. She then approached another council in mid-afternoon to be told she must call the out of hours number after 6pm. Having called the emergency service the woman was told that she'd need to provide proof of her learning difficulties for temporary accommodation to be provided. She was then advised to attend the office she'd already visited the next day.
  • Someone suffering from mental illness being told there's no duty to help them because an illness must be 'life threatening' for them to qualify as vulnerable.

And then there was the pregnant woman sleeping rough who subsequently lost her child.

Criticism

It's easy to criticise local authorities. Goodness knows I've done it myself in a previous life, when working as a paralegal representing homeless people.

But in reality the success of this last line of defence - the safety net meant to protect the most vulnerable from sleeping on the streets - is inextricably linked to wider factors. And those factors currently include a reduction in social housing lets, a gap between private rents and housing benefit, the benefit cap, more applications from private tenants facing eviction, a doubling of rough sleeping, cuts to supported accommodation, and cuts to local authority funding passed down to housing departments. The list is well rehearsed and depressingly familiar to anyone working with homeless people.

So I'm glad that Dispatches disguised the identity of the council staff they filmed. They are unhappy actors at the sharp end of the housing crisis, often left having to deal with issues caused by factors outside of their control. And sometimes, as the documentary showed, left without the necessary resources or training to provide a decent service.

Questions

The question that repeatedly came to my mind when watching how council staff dealt with homeless people - i.e. 'is this really where we're at?'- perhaps needs to be replaced by 'how do we get out of here?'

One of the stated aims of the Homelessness Reduction Bill is to 'change the culture' of statutory homelessness services. And the Bill has in part been shaped by the type of mystery shopping exercise Dispatches so effectively deployed.

But is it naïve to expect the Bill's changes to the homelessness process to be successful, particularly in areas under extreme pressure like the South East, when the wider structural factors causing homelessness remain unresolved?

It's already been observed elsewhere that the Bill could become a convenient stick which central government might use to beat local government.

But I suspect a more immediate issue worrying many council managers is the adequacy of Government funding to implement the proposed changes. The Association of Housing Advice Services estimates £161m is needed just for London boroughs to implement the Bill in the first year.

Whether or not you agree with this estimate one thing is certain. Council managers will have to be very creative when remodelling their services and deciding how to spend the extra cash that's on offer.

They'll be some tough choices when considering:

What expenditure will most effectively enable the council to discharge the new duties and prevent homelessness for the greatest number of applicants?

And given that there's no additional funding presently earmarked for 2019/20 onwards, a particular conundrum is:

What expenditure - spent now - will most likely result in improvements that sustain into future years, thereby contributing to improved outcomes after the extra funding runs out?

Answers on a postcode to your local council homelessness manager please.

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