scandal of councils turning away homeless is finally exposed

Tony Gosling tony at
Fri Mar 13 15:25:16 GMT 2015

The scandal of councils turning away the homeless is finally being exposed


A London council’s admission that it has been 
dodging its responsibility to homeless people is 
a chance to come clean on the size of our housing crisis
Homeless man in London
  The practice of directing homeless people 
straight to private landlords instead of 
assessing them is widespread among councils. 
Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Friday 27 February 2015 11.08 GMTLast modified on 
Friday 27 February 201517.00 GMT

Let’s start with the facts: gatekeeping – the 
practice of councils turning homeless people away 
when they request help – is illegal.

In practice, however, councils have been doing it 
for years, so last week’s High Court order 
warning Southwark council 
cease and desist will have sent shockwaves across the country.

During the proceedings, the south London council 
admitted that it was council policy to point 
homeless people towards privately rented houses 
or rooms before fully investigating whether they 
met the strict criteria to quality as homeless, 
which would then force the council to provide support.

How many others could be caught out doing the 
same? The majority, I suspect, and large urban authorities in particular.
Jayesh Kunwardia, a partner at law firm Hodge 
Jones & Allen, told Inside Housingthe fact that a 
council had admitted to the practice of 
gatekeeping was 

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Welcome as it is to see the council coming clean, 
I doubt the decision was entirely motivated by a 
desire to wipe the slate and start again. But 
there is safety in numbers and if Southwark is 
prepared to crawl out of the woodwork and admit 
that it had to adapt to survive the pressure of 
the housing crisis, perhaps others will now feel able to do the same.

This isn’t just a case of councils going rogue. A 
change of legislation in 2012, introduced by the 
coalition government, made it easier for councils 
to get around the gatekeeping rules.

To qualify for state help, a homeless person has 
to meet strict criteria. They must be eligible 
for assistance (basically a means test and a 
check on immigration status); they must be not 
directly responsible for being homeless; they 
must be in “priority need” (for example children 
who depend on them); and they must either live or 
work in the local area where they apply for help.

Councils have always retained the right to offer 
an applicant a property in the private sector if 
they are found homeless, but until October 2012 
that offer could be refused if the applicant was 
willing to wait it out in temporary accommodation 
until a more stable property – a council or 
housing association home – become available.

But because there is simply not enough social 
housing stock to go around and a rising number of 
homeless applicants, the right to a social 
tenancy for people found to be legally homeless was removed.

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As well as pushing down the number of homeless 
referrals to the social sector, the new law has 
another consequence: it forces down the actual 
number of people registering with a council as 
homeless. It does this because, when councils are 
allowed to place homeless people in the private 
sector, it makes little sense trudging through 
the rigorous application process. You’ll now 
likely end up in exactly the same private rented 
property you were pointed to in the first place, 
and you run the risk of taking the test and 
failing it – leaving you back at square one.

This legalised practice is not quite gatekeeping, 
but it almost is, and it certainly muddies the water around the whole business.

The cynical among us might also notice that the 
change in law has another knock-on effect. 
Official homelessness figures – while rising – no 
longer illuminate the true scale of the problem 
because many people who might have passed the 
test are no longer putting themselves forward to be counted.

Councils have been warned they may need to 
rethink their approach to homelessness in the 
light of the Southwark agreement, which was made 
in order to avoid a major High Court battle. The 
outcome of this deal and confession might not 
only be a better service for homeless people but 
a chance to shed light on the size of one of 
England’s fastest-growing social problems.

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