Why You Need to Know How to Challenge Local Authority Homeless Decisions

How To Challenge and Win Local Authority Homeless Decisions

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Some of the obstacles and tests which a homeless application puts in the way of someone applying are shown above. But there are ways around every single one of these tests. Each is fully set out and explained in the book.

The longer read…

How Your rights to help when homeless have been hidden away from you and how to take them back.

Imagine that you have 10 houses to give away. Outside your door are 11 people. How do you decide which 10 get housed and which 1 does not? This is the difficult dynamic faced by every local council homelessness department every day. To guide their hand in this decision making there exists both statutory legislation and case law. The problem is that both of these seem to have been increasingly side-lined over the past 10 years due to the effect of the Government’s ‘prevention of homelessness’ agenda.

The result of this for individuals threatened with homelessness is that when they approach their local council for help they are all to often denied the legal rights to assistance and accommodation to which they are entitled. Instead, they are sent away with nothing but generic ‘advice only’ and offered neither accommodation nor a legal decision letter. The result for the country is that we as a nation now have no idea of the true extent of housing need in this country because of the way in which central government requires local councils to record homelessness demand.

How a Homeless Application is supposed to Work
How the system should work is like this: if you or I approach our local homeless department and ask for help, the law places a duty on the council to quickly assesses whether our approach gives them a reason to believe (not proof), that we might be homeless or threatened with homelessness within the next 28 days. That simple test with a very low threshold of acceptance is the sole trigger for the entire statutory process of a homelessness application.

If the council also has a reason to believe that we might be eligible for public funds, might be homeless and might have a priority need, then the law says that we should also be provided with accommodation while this is fully investigated and decided. This second test should be concluded on the same day that we approach and ask for help, so that we are not left on the streets that night. It too has a low threshold of acceptance so that if there is any doubt, the council should provide some accommodation for us whilst it investigates further.

At the end of the process (and a more thorough investigation), we receive a formal decision letter setting out the council’s decision, what evidence it is based on and how that evidence has led to the decision. It also sets out our rights to ask for a review of that decision. This is what a homelessness application entails and it is every person’s legal right when faced with homelessness. Except, that’s not exactly how it has worked out over the past decade under the government’s ‘Prevention of Homelessness Agenda’ because these legal duties have been overlooked when people who were homeless or in housing need approached their local council and asked for help. It is my belief that denying those in housing need their legal rights is wrong.

How the ‘Prevention Agenda’ changed what happened.
Prior to 2002, if you went to see your local council’s homelessness department because you were either homeless or potentially homeless, you would have been given a full legal assessment and offered accommodation pending the outcome of that process, just as described above. Then, in 2002, the government department for homelessness (Communities and Local Government), came up with the idea of local councils doing more to ‘prevent homelessness’. What this meant in theory (and to be fair, often in practice), was that your local council should be more proactive in taking steps to either prevent you from losing your current accommodation or, if that was not possible, to actively find you somewhere else or at the very least, help you to do so. Who could argue with such a positive sounding programme?

On one level it seemed to work. In many instances, the results of this government initiative were positive: many households were able to avoid actual homelessness and the trials of temporary accommodation precisely because local councils took greater action to prevention true ‘rooflessness’. Officially the number of people recorded as homeless plummeted, decreasing year on year. The number of rough sleepers dropped to as close to zero as had ever been seen. The government patted itself on the back. Local councils throughout the land even renamed the job titles of their Homelessness Officers to ‘Advice Officers’ or ‘Prevention Officers’ because, well, no one was really homeless any more were they?

What this meant in practice however (in my experience) and what really went down year on year, was the number of formal homelessness applications being taken and recorded. In the drive for prevention, councils were unofficially (but strongly) discouraged from recording anyone’s approach as a formal homelessness application unless it was absolutely inescapable; much to the frustration of staff in housing and support organisations representing homeless people across England.

The statutory assistance has too often simply not been offered.

The constant criticism, which has never gone away, is that for a variety of reasons approaches from households seeking housing assistance were increasingly not recorded as homeless applications, but as ‘advice’ or ‘prevention’ applications and those individuals and families were simply never given their legal rights to a statutory assessment, with the right to accommodation pending a decision and the right to a review of that decision. The full extent of this practice is not and probably never will be, fully known. Never-the-less, from shortly after 2002, the figures for the number of homeless households in England decreased and continued to do so year after year. The question is whether or not what really went down year after year was not the number of households in danger of homelessness but simply the number of formal homelessness applications being taken and recorded as such. The practice is commonly known as ‘gatekeeping’.

Recorded Homelessness in England is increasing. 28,000 households applied as homeless in 2013; a rise of 33% in just 3 years.  Yet this is a record only of those few who received an actual homeless application, not the number of households who asked for and needed help.


Despite the rise in the number of applications, the proportion of people accepted by their local authority as Homeless and in Priority Need has barely changed. This means a lot of refused applications from people who probably don’t know how to challenge those decisions.

The % of applications resulting in a full homeless duty in the last 3 years.

At the same time the number of legal aid cases is decreasing, down by over 50,000 over the same period.

Homeless Gatekeeping and why no one knows how many people are in housing need in this country any more.

This avoidance by local councils of carrying out their legal obligations to those in need has very real and negative implications for those individuals and families facing actual or threatened homelessness. It’s also had an effect on what we know about housing need in this country. Local councils are required to record the demand for their homeless services in two broad ways: by the number of statutory homelessness applications they open (undesirable), and by the number of ‘prevention applications’ they open (desirable). Unfortunately, it is only that first figure which informs the official statistics on the level of homelessness in England today.

This leads to problems.
So called ‘prevention applications’ have no real existence in law and legally, many of these should probably be recorded as homelessness applications but they are not and so they are not counted in the official statistics for homelessness. This measure also completely excludes the number of people approaching their local council and asking for help who do not have either a homelessness or a prevention case recorded but are simply dealt with as ‘advice only’ cases. (a legally meaningless and non-existent type of application). The figures of homeless applications and physical approaches should map each other fairly closely. Instead, where the latter is known at all, they are wildly disparate with the latter dwarfing the former. Unfortunately the number of real, actual approaches is only recorded internally on an entirely ad hoc basis because an individual council (sensibly) decides to do so.

The effect of this is that the true level of housing need in this country is now not known at a national level; a shocking state of national ignorance. Prior to 2002, the number of homelessness applications did act as a fairly accurate indicator of the level of demand of housing need. Now, it is a measure only of those who have managed to get through all of the barriers put in their way and actually get a formal homelessness application taken. The real figure of need is the total number of people approaching their local council asking for help with their housing. Unfortunately, while some local authorities will record this informally for internal purposes, there is no national level recording of this and so the degree of need across the country today is simply unknown.

Yet there is no inherent conflict between preventing a person’s homelessness if possible whilst still taking and investigating a legal homelessness application. The conflict comes when the latter is what is measured and becomes a target to be met. And pressure to meet this target was very strongly felt by all local council homeless departments. Its effects rumble on to this day. Yet without any formal homelessness application being taken, a person is absolutely denied their statutory rights to apply for housing, denied their potential offer of social housing and denied their legal right to appeal any negative decision (because no official decision was ever made).

Why does all of this matter?
It matters for two reasons. As a nation we need to know the true level of housing need being experienced by local councils. Central government ‘s ‘prevention of homelessness’ agenda has caused immense damage to both our statistical knowledge and to the relationships between local organisations and local councils. Only when local councils are freed to carry out their legal duties without the interference of meeting targets can they do that effectively. On an individual level it matters because if you or anyone you know or work with, is ever at risk of homelessness, you will only have access to your full legal rights if you have a homelessness application taken. Without it, you have nothing. Without it, your request for help doesn’t even officially exist. But to get one, you first need to know such a thing exists and then you need to know how to maximise your chances of receiving help through this rather arcane statutory route.

The book ‘Get Housed’ is designed to give to every person in housing need (and those who work with those in such need), a full knowledge of what your rights to housing assistance are and how to make sure that you are given these rights if you approach your local council and ask for help. It shows you how to successfully challenge every aspect of every decision your local housing department make regarding your housing, in order to maximise your chances of getting housed. The end result is that armed with this knowledge of your legal rights to be housed; you’re more likely to be.

The How to Get Housed book can be ordered from your local bookshop or the usual online bookstores. Buy it and know exactly how to get yourself housed.