Homelessness / poverty

Derby City Council : where the ‘hidden homeless’ don’t count.

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Recently the Derby City Council published their “Council Plan Performance Measures and Actions 2014/15” which shows how they are doing on their annual objectives. Recently my eye was drawn to one in particular “CP4 A15 Reduce homelessness and increase the housing supply” ; the Council has reported that it is “On Track”. In other words – “we’re doing a great job for the homeless in Derby!”

I asked the Council how they had arrived at this conclusion. Much of the response will be covered in other articles but their position on the numbers of homeless was:

  • We have managed to keep well within our limit of accepting no more than 300 people as statutory homeless, with a 2014-15 year end figure of 278.
  • This is an improvement on last year when we accepted 316 people as homeless.

When most people think of homelessness they would probably relate to this definition by Crisis:

“Homelessness is the problem faced by people who lack a place to live that is supportive, affordable, decent and secure. Whilst rough sleepers are the most visible homeless population, the vast majority of homeless people live in hostels, squats, bed and breakfasts or in temporary and insecure conditions with friends and family”

This is NOT what the Council ( or for that matter, the Government)  are measuring – they are only focussed on those who are Statutory Homeless.

Statutory homeless is a legally defined population. Broadly it includes pregnant women, families with dependent children, vulnerable, or certain young people; it generally excludes people who are single, or couples with no dependent children.  In addition, any applicant has to prove that they are not “intentionally homeless”, and have a “local connection”. If all of these are demonstrated, then the Council has a duty to house them and treat them as an emergency case….and to count them.

Sceptically, I challenged the Council on the “achievement” of the target. …or the “limit” according to their terminology. My assertion was that they had achieved this by applying a more severe interpretation of the more ambiguous elements of the criteria thus avoiding their duty. The Council rejected my statement on the basis that they consider that the process is

“specific and not something ( homeless application) that the local authority can ‘choose to accept or reject”

Many local authorities in London, notoriously, reject nearly all of the homeless applications, regardless of eligibility, as a way of controlling the extent of their statutory duty. So a local authority does have a choice.

To reinforce their point, the Council went on to say:

“In 2014/15 614 households approached Derby City Council for homelessness assistance of which 278 were accepted for the main housing duty.  This represents a 45% rate of acceptance to approach.  In the previous year, although there was a greater number of approaches (802), the number of acceptances (316) was proportionately lower (39%)”

However under a separate Freedom of Information Request,  it was confirmed that the 2 years previous to these were 62% acceptance rates – thus indicating that the Council were in fact rejecting more people now, than before.

The statement was finished by:

“We will not know as an authority how many approaches will be made in a year, nor the proportion of acceptances that will be made as a result of our statutory inquiries.”

Other than by good fortune and a fluke, the only way to manage to a target when the number of approaches can’t be controlled is by tightly “managing” who is “accepted” . The consequence of this is that people who have a legal right to housing are at risk of being left to fend for themselves…..just so that Derby City Council do not exceed their arbitrary limit of 300 people.

Another way to control the number of people who are ”accepted” as statutory homeless, is to “throttle” the number of people who formally apply as homeless. Legally, if on initial contact, the Council has “reasons to believe” that a person may be homeless then they have to raise a homeless  application.

Any person who is on the verge of homelessness is vulnerable and in need of an urgent meeting with a housing officer. This is not possible – they have to negotiate a call centre. A visit to the Council offices is no advantage as the applicant will be referred to the desk phone,  and so join the virtual queue. I am told by a reliable source that there is a significant drop-out rate at these early stages

If people do get through to Housing Options they will be discouraged from making a homeless application – people are told that it will take  a long time, or they will end up in B&B’s, or the properties will be of poor quality or if they are accepted, they will still end up in the private rented sector with a risk of an unsympathetic landlord. They are encouraged to join the Housing Register, on the basis that it will be quicker – this is not the case. If they have a tenuous local connection then they will be directed to a different council and excluded from the data.

If they do get to the application stage, then there are many ways to avoid an “acceptance”. They will be told to seek help from friends, and relatives, delays will be introduced into the process in the hope that the applicant will find a place and negate the duty. If a place is found in Milestone House ( short-term Council hostel) then they are considered not homeless, and the duty discharged with no recorded acceptance. “Hairs will be split” over whether their homelessness was  “intentional”, the definition of “vulnerable” squeezed to avoid their responsibility. It is possible to appeal  if anyone is prepared to go to the expense of taking a legal stance, however it is easy to see how many would struggle to follow that route. Only those with a strong resolve,  stamina, spare time, and money will be successful.

Why do the Council go to this trouble to side-step their responsibility…and not just provide the help ? Money!

There is a high cost of helping the homeless. In 2014/15 the Council paid £218,000 for temporary accommodation whilst they were finding permanent properties. There was also the cost of the Council staff and storage costs of the homeless person’s possessions.

The target, or limit, of 300 homeless has been achieved and is a great success for those Council employees whose personal performance, pay and promotional prospects are dependent on this arbitrary number. For those people who found themselves consigned on a  technicality, to the wrong side of the flexible fine legal line which  has left them stranded without any local authority support, then the muted euphoria of the  Council’s “on track”  performance, has left them precariously “off track”.

Derby, like all cities, has a significant “hidden homeless”  problem;  but no one knows how big it is, or where they are – they are not counted. The dogmatic focus on an irrelevant measure is a callous way to sanitise a reality and to airbrush a collection of personal tragedies to a blind spot below the radar of public attention…..and wrap it up as a success.

We are all blissfully ignorant of those amongst us – the “hidden, non-statutory, homeless” who, in the eyes of the Council, don’t count.

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