Working with the council to prevent and reduce homelessness
What are the problems?
Research that we have conducted in the past two years (LINK) has confirmed that it is very difficult for people on low incomes to afford the high rents required for private tenancies in this borough.
Recently a client with an annual income of £35,000 was unable to afford a one bedroom flat in his local area. One problem is that tenants who qualify for Housing Benefit still have to pay a substantial amount to cover the full rent. Robert* is an elderly client with long-term health conditions who depend on welfare benefits including Housing Benefit. He lived in the same private tenancy for nine years; but when the landlord served him with a notice to leave the property because he wished to sell it our client could not find another private tenancy to move to because his Housing Benefit left him too much to pay.
In an emergency, tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit can apply to the council to top up this benefit with a Discretionary Housing Payment; but it can take the council up to three months to consider these applications. Bertha* is a single parent with a 10-year-old son who fell a month behind with her rent when she lost her job and was threatened with legal action to pay the arrears and possible eviction. She managed to get a part-time job that just covered her basic living expenses and applied to the council for a Discretionary Housing Payment to supplement her Housing Benefit and help her pay the arrears; but she was told that she would not get a decision for at least 8 weeks and was concerned that by then she would have been evicted.
Residents who cannot afford suitable private tenancies can apply to the council for social housing, but access to the small amount of social housing available in the borough is severely restricted. Margaret* is a single parent with an 8-year-old daughter who lives in private accommodation shared with other tenants. She has two rooms, sharing the bedroom with her daughter, and must share the bathroom and kitchen with other tenants. In January 2017 she had to stop working because of a relapse of aggressive ovarian cancer with a poor prognosis. Supplying medical evidence she applied twice to go on the register for social housing and was twice refused. It was not until May 2018 when, with our persistent support and further medical evidence, she was put on the waiting list for a two bedroom flat in social housing and invited to complete a homelessness form.
Even when people are already homeless it can take a long time for the Council to assess whether they are eligible for any form of housing. Arthur* had nowhere to live when he split up from his partner but retained responsibility for his 15-year-old son. After staying with various friends he came to us for help when he was sleeping in his van while his son was staying with school friends’ families. When we contacted the council we were advised that once the council had reviewed several documents that our client would need to provide it would take up to 33 days to decide whether he could be offered temporary emergency accommodation for himself and his son.
What Richmond Council plans to do
In all the ways that we have described people on low incomes in the borough face a real risk of becoming and remaining homeless. However, from April 2018 the Homelessness Reduction Act has placed new requirements on local authorities to take stronger positive action to prevent and relieve homelessness. In response, the council has announced ambitious plans to shift substantial funding from temporary accommodation (currently totaling £4 million a year) to financial support for private landlords who are willing to accept and retain tenants who might otherwise be at risk of homelessness and to providing more Discretionary Housing Payments. The council has also recruited more staff for this work.
What we are doing to help
We have met with the council to discuss how we and other local organisations can help identify residents at serious risk of homelessness and refer them to the council promptly. We aim to work closely with the council staff responsible for implementing their plans, but we are also collecting evidence from the experience of our clients to find out whether in practice the council’s measures are reducing and relieving homelessness in the borough.