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Family left to sofa surf for 12 months after being ‘forgotten’ by Waltham Forest council

A Waltham Forest family had to sofa surf for 12 months because the local council forgot about them, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The family became homeless in August 2022 but the Ombudsman’s investigation into the family’s complaint found the council did not do enough to help them find interim and temporary accommodation, despite deciding at that time that it had a statutory duty to help the family.

In January 2023 the council wrote to the family, and despite them saying they were sofa surfing with friends, the council missed telephone appointments arranged to review their situation.

In late April the same year the family told the council they were still staying with friends and family and were having difficulty getting the children to school because of long travel distances.

The council decided in August 2023 that, because the family’s circumstances had changed, it did not owe them the main housing duty and so its responsibility to help the family find accommodation ended.

Ms Amerdeep Somal said:

“The council had a duty to help relieve this family’s homelessness for 12 months, but it cannot show it took any proactive steps to help them find suitable accommodation, or even look into alternative accommodation, such as a property with fewer bedrooms than they needed.

“Its own records show it had no idea where the family were living for much of the period. Had the family not been forgotten about, there is a good chance they would have been able to secure accommodation with the council’s help. Instead, the family had to rely on the goodwill of family and friends to put them up, often at a distance from the children’s schools.

“Given that there were homeless children involved in this case, I would have expected the council to liaise with its children’s services department to check their wellbeing. It failed to do so for a year.

“I am concerned the council has not been able to tell us how many other families have been owed an interim duty but not been provided with accommodation. While I appreciate the severe shortage of suitable accommodation, particularly in London, it is not simply good enough to say it has been short-staffed and lacked available accommodation: the council still has to fulfil its statutory duties.

“The council has now told us it is making strides to invest in more accommodation for people in the borough. I hope the recommendations it has agreed to carry out will further improve the services it offers.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman remedies injustice and shares learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has agreed to apologise to the family and pay them a total of £6,000 for the time they spent without interim accommodation.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to remind staff about its duty to provide interim accommodation if it has ‘reason to believe’ a person is homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need.

It will also provide evidence of the steps it is taking to source sufficient interim accommodation, including an update in nine months’ time on its progress. It will explain the steps it has taken to reduce delays in making homelessness decisions caused by staffing shortages and develop an action plan on how it will address delays at stage 2 of its complaints process.

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