Billy Green,* 23, and girlfriend Stacey
Williams,* 18, were renting a room in a house in Brighton
until their landlord evicted them with a day’s notice in June.
Green had just been laid off as a builder and Williams was four
Green says: “Everything was fine, and then it all went Pete Tong.
It was really frightening. We had to sleep rough.”
His mother paid for the couple’s train tickets to Green’s home
city, where she lived. After a night staying with her, Green went
to the council to make a homeless application but was told that it
owed no duty to them as Williams had no connection with the city.
They were advised to go to the council where Williams had a local
connection, even though when anyone makes an application the local
authority has to consider their circumstances and “anyone who can
reasonably be expected to reside with them”.
Green says: “Her connection was me, so they should have put us into
temporary accommodation until they had checked out our story.”
Trevor Watt, homelessness prevention adviser for Shelter’s south
west region, says the couple’s experience is becoming more common.
“Councils are under pressure from the Office of the Deputy Prime
Minister to reduce homelessness applications and in my view this
has led to creative interpretations of what the law says. Where
they might get away with it, they are trying to evade their duty,”
In England and Wales the Homelessness Act 2002 introduced new
categories of priority need, including 16- and 17-year-olds, young
care leavers, people leaving institutions or fleeing domestic
violence, former prisoners and former armed forces personnel. The
Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003 brought in a similar policy.
Anyone can present to a local authority as homeless. If the council
has “reason to believe they may be homeless and in priority need”
this kicks off an interim duty to provide accommodation. While
providing interim accommodation, local authorities have to make
enquiries into the applicant’s case and check whether they have
made themselves intentionally homeless. The last test, which is
discretionary, is whether the individual has a connection with the
“Because all local authorities are under enormous pressure to
reduce homelessness pretty much at any cost, where they are able to
refuse local connection they always do,” says Watt.
Anecdotal evidence reveals that some local authorities are making
this the first rather than the last test, he says. “Where they
believe from the initial interview that someone wouldn’t be owed a
full duty because there’s no local connection, they tend to say
that first of all and tell them to go away. But that’s applying the
law in the wrong order.”
But even if there is no local connection, the council has to
provide interim accommodation until the referral process to the
relevant local authority is complete.
For Green and Williams, it was only because a family friend was a
council information officer that the couple realised the local
authority was in the wrong.
They approached Shelter which took up their case and told the
council that it was acting illegally.
As Green says: “You can’t put a young couple on the streets,
especially when the woman is pregnant.”
The council apologised and moved quickly. “They put us into
emergency accommodation – a room in a massive shared house. It was
disgusting, dirty and cold. But we were lucky, we were only there
for a week. Then we were moved to a family and baby unit run by a
housing association. We had lots of support there and that is
Soon afterwards, they were offered a two-bedroom council house in
the city and they moved in a few weeks ago. In between decorating,
Green is looking for work.
“I’m just relieved because we’ve got a base that we can build on
now and get everything ready for the baby due in January.”
The couple’s story ended positively, but a recent report reveals
that significant numbers of homeless young people are not being
helped by the homelessness legislation.(1) Since the two acts have
come into force, young homeless people accepted by local
authorities are spending longer in temporary accommodation; most
expect to wait six months to a year before being offered long-term
housing. Some had been placed in unsuitable temporary accommodation
where they were at risk of violence, theft, bullying and exposure
to alcohol and drug misuse.
Evidence from statutory and voluntary agencies suggests that local
authorities are more readily declaring care leavers and 16- and
17-year-olds as having made themselves intentionally homeless.
Watt says: “We have noticed a real increase in the number of care
leavers accepted through the homelessness route but having the duty
to them discharged because the local authority says they have
become intentionally homeless.”
But he adds that as soon as the young person experiences any
problem, councils say they have no duty. “But with care leavers you
are talking about vulnerable young people, some with behavioural
problems, being asked to live on their own for the first time and
they simply can’t handle it.
“And if young people are asked to leave home by their parents the
local authority can say they brought it on themselves.”
So while on the one hand the changes are welcome because the duty
to these young people is unambiguous, he says, their benefits have
been weakened by the proportionate increases in intentionally
homeless decisions and the harshness by which local authorities are
applying this rule.
He believes this is a direct response to pressure from the ODPM.
“It believes homelessness can be measured by the number of
applications, so if applications go down that means homelessness is
going down. But it’s easy to stop people applying, it doesn’t mean
they’re not homeless.”
* Names have been changed.
(1) I Anderson and S Thomson, More Priority Needed:
The Impact of Legislative Change on Young Homeless People’s Access
to Housing and Support, Shelter, 2005