Rules of the house

Be wary of housing departments that fail to
assess people who are homeless, says Neil Bateman.

I recently heard about a housing department
that referred homeless people to social services claiming that they
were not able to help them.

Presumably there was no need for any social
work involvement other than to act as advocates against the housing
department. Even if there were a need for some social work input,
it does not absolve the housing department from its legal

The law on homelessness is actually
comparatively straightforward. The legislation is fairly
intelligible and well structured, the code of guidance that
councils must “have regard to” provides a clear explanation of
people’s rights and generally the trend of case law has been in
favour of homeless people. So those social workers who have contact
with homeless people should possess at least a basic understanding
of homelessness law.

Housing officials can be very conscious of the
pressure on their housing resources, and judgements about matters
such as whether or not someone is in priority need or is
intentionally homeless can lead to simplistic interpretations, and
for personal values to influence decision-making. When combined
with bad experiences with “problem tenants” the potential for
stereotyping and legally flawed decisions is considerable.

The legislation is absolutely clear (and this
is mirrored north of the border). If someone approaches a local
authority in connection with finding accommodation and he or she
“appears” to be homeless, then the duty to assess is triggered. The
person does not need to apply for a homelessness assessment and the
duty is triggered when any part of the local authority is
approached. In unitary authorities, this includes social services
but the duty to assess would need specific delegated powers within
the council.

The duty is to make inquiries about the
person’s housing situation and then to go on to assess a number of
other factors, such as potential priority need and local
connection. The inquiries have to be fairly thorough and certainly
a quick over-the-counter interview is most unlikely to be

Above all, once a decision has been made on
homelessness, it must be communicated in writing to the applicant.
This is essential as it sets out his or her rights to challenge the
decision. When someone might be in priority need, a duty to provide
“suitable temporary housing” is triggered while the assessment
takes place.

It is also well worth bearing in mind that
homelessness, in law, is not just rooflessness. Among other things,
it includes situations such as sleeping on someone’s sofa, being
threatened with homelessness within 28 days and having to leave
property because of violence there. And even if people have no
right to be provided with housing, there is often still a duty to
“advise and assist” – not simply issuing a list of
bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Of course, social workers can play a key role
not just as advocates for homeless people but in providing clear
thorough reports about people whose entitlement may be unclear. It
is essential that the social worker’s role is recognised from the
outset – as an expert in assessing social needs and not as a
quasi-gatekeeper for the housing authority.

So sending homeless people to social services
may be a breach of the law by housing colleagues and a number of
legal remedies may be available – including an injunction.

Neil Bateman is performance management
manager for Connexions Suffolk. If you have a question to be
answered in Welfare Rights please write to him c/o Community


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