The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has warned councils are “struggling to cope” with growing rates of homelessness after two cases where adults were not found suitable accommodation and councils neglected to inform individuals about their right to appeal their temporary accommodation.
A disabled man was left to sleep rough and ‘sofa surf’ for more than three months when Windsor and Maidenhead council were slow to find him a temporary residence, the ombudsman said.
It said the council mishandled the man’s homelessness application and then offered him accommodation which was too far from his support network in Windsor.
He was placed in a bed and breakfast, which he complained was “in the middle of nowhere” and had poor transport links. Despite calling the council on several occasions, there was no evidence his calls were returned.
When he was moved to temporary accommodation in Windsor, accessing the third floor flat caused him pain.
The ombudsman said Windsor and Maidenhead council failed to inform him of his right to appeal the suitability of the temporary accommodation and, when he did complain, the council mishandled his complaint.
The council only replied to the ombudsman after the office threatened to issue witness summons, the ombudsman said.
In the second case, Rother district council placed an elderly woman, Mrs B, in “squalid, filthy and damp” temporary accommodation that was 14 miles away from her former home and GP.
After the woman’s landlord sought repossession of her privately-rented home, Mrs B and her son, Mr C, were left homeless.
Contrary to government guidance, housing officers recommended she waited until she was evicted by bailiffs, leaving her with a £350 court bill.
Mrs B also claimed that she was told to approach a neighbouring authority for housing.
Following her relocation to a hotel room in a neighbouring borough, the woman made regular complaints about the poor state of her accommodation which was described as “shabby, dirty and in disrepair”.
The elderly woman, who had mobility problems, also struggled to climb four flights of stairs to access her room.
Despite expressing her concern, Rother council failed to inform Mrs B about her right to appeal her accommodation’s suitability and neglected to treat her complaints as an appeal.
Moreover, the ombudsman found that the council wrongly cancelled Mrs B’s housing benefit, after it suspected – without reasonable evidence – that she had swapped rooms with her son. This left the 68-year-old to foot a four-figure bill, following a tribunal in which Mrs B was not given the chance to dispute the claims.
Rother district council has been advised by the ombudsman to apologise to the woman and pay her £1,250 in recognition of the injustice, and to settle any costs awarded against her that resulted from her landlord taking possession action.
The ombudsman also asked the council to take appropriate action to ensure that a dispute about non-payment of housing benefit at the temporary accommodation is heard by the Tribunal Service.
In addition, Rother council has been prompted to make improvements to its housing service when dealing with families who face eviction from private tenancies and to give urgent attention to providing suitable temporary accommodation.
Finally, the ombudsman asked that homeless households were made aware of their right to request a review and appeal temporary accommodation.
In relation to the first case, the ombudsman recommended that Windsor and Maidenhead council apologise to the man and pay him £1,050 for the three-and-a-half months he spent without any accommodation.
The ombudsman advised the council to pay an extra £2,875 for the 11-and-a-half months he lived in unsuitable conditions.
It also suggested that the council create interim and temporary accommodation letters, which set out the right to review a location’s suitability, improve its complaints handling and the way it responds.
‘Struggling to cope’
Michael King, local government and social care ombudsman, said of the first case: “This is another example of a council on the outskirts of the capital struggling to cope with homelessness within its boundaries.
“While I appreciate the difficulties councils have in finding suitable accommodation, it is unacceptable that [the man in the first case] was placed in unsuitable accommodation for nearly a year, having been left for three months to fend for himself on the streets.
“[Windsor and Maidenhead] council also needs to improve its complaint handling, and the responses it offers to my office’s enquiries. It should not need to take the threat of witness summons for the council to provide evidence.
“Following a constructive meeting I have had with the authority’s managing director this week, I understand the council is now implementing the recommendations I have made and look forward to an improved relationship with it in future.”