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Ombudsman seeing fewer homelessness complaints, but issue not gone away

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) is needing to investigate fewer complaints about families living in unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation, but a recent case shows the issue has not disappeared.

The LGO issued a special report into local authorities’ use of B&B accommodation in October 2013, and since then the Ombudsman has found it necessary to investigate significantly fewer complaints, with a drop of 27 per cent in homelessness complaints in the calendar year 2014.

In that report, No Place Like Home, the LGO highlighted the plight of families being forced to live in unsuitable accommodation, and the pressures and strains that placed on their lives. The report offered advice to councils on ways to tackle homelessness and reduce the number of people they left in B&Bs for months on end.

While it is apparent that individual councils nationally have been taking steps to deal with this difficult issue, the LGO is still seeing cases where authorities make errors in their handling of homelessness applications.

In one recent case, a family of five complained that they had to live in B&B accommodation for nearly 13 weeks after they left their home through no fault of their own.

The London Borough of Harrow placed the family in emergency self-contained accommodation in Luton, some 23 miles away. The family struggled to get the children to school every morning and after 10 days returned to Harrow, to a room in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The family had to share kitchen and bathroom facilities with eight other families. The children’s schooling suffered; they were kept awake by the noise and soiled themselves because they were afraid to use the shared facilities.

Six weeks after moving to the B&B, and before deciding the homelessness application, the council wrote to the family making them an informal offer to move them out of the B&B and into self-contained emergency accommodation away from Harrow. But the letter did not confirm where that accommodation might be, and for how long. The family declined the offer.

Officers said at the time they had no suitable accommodation in Harrow for the family and had they turned down a formal offer of accommodation, the council might not have even had to provide a room in bed and breakfast.

It was not until two months later the council finally determined the family’s homelessness application, and was then able to offer them self-contained accommodation in the borough.

The council has told the LGO it has since increased its supply of self-contained accommodation and increased access to private-rented properties. It has also restructured its homelessness service and there is now a single point of contact for applications. The council also employs an officer to liaise more effectively with families in B&B accommodation about their homelessness applications and housing options.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said yesterday:

“I am pleased to see our investigations are showing fewer concerns about the way councils are responding to the issue of homelessness. We hope this shows local authorities are learning from the cases we have published. However, today’s case demonstrates that some families are still not being treated in accordance with the law.

“While I applaud the steps that Harrow and many other councils are taking to improve the situation for homeless families, as the law states, councils must not leave families in bed and breakfast accommodation for longer than six weeks.

“I would now urge other councils to look at the lessons from both this case and my special report, examine their own procedures, and ensure homelessness applications are dealt with as swiftly as possible.”

In this case, the LGO has recommended London Borough of Harrow apologises to the family and pay them £250 in recognition of the delay and lost right of appeal, and a further £400 for the injustice of living in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks.

The investigation also highlighted that some other families might be similarly affected, and the LGO has asked the council to identify those families and offer them similar remedies.


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