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Surviving Homelessness
Part 2

by survival expert James Mandeville

Homelessness part 2: reader rating= 4.5

Things the homeless need to know in order to survive:

It's not your fault:

Experience of a homeless 26 year old girl:
'Homelessness is something you never think will happen to you, until it happens to you. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be sleeping rough and the experience made me realize that it could happen to anyone who doesn't have great financial means. It opened up a world that I'd been oblivious to. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all homeless people are junkies. Or that they're homeless because of a character flaw in the person and that they're dangerous and shouldn't be trusted. Vulnerable people are not dangerous.'

If you are living in poverty, are homeless or are about to become homeless, this is what you face:

Rule one is to learn that no one in Government, Local Government, the churches, or those living in your immediate community could care less about you as a person or your situation; local council officers go by paragraphs of law and they have no in–built flexibility. If they seem to show an initial interest in your case and try to build a rapport with you, this a deliberate ploy to get you to trust them, so don't be fooled by them. They use this tactic to draw out sensitive information from you and to cross check what you have told them as they always work from the start point that you are misleading them.

If the council offers you accommodation take it, even if it is not suitable. If you do not accept the first offer the council make they will declare you intentionally homeless or obstructive and not help you further. So, as rubbish as the accommodation may seem, take it and then fight your case once you are in (Citizen's Advice, Shelter Legal, etc.).

You are now regarded as a burden and an embarrassment to society and quite often to your family and friends as well (these will very quickly desert you or turn against you unless you are very fortunate). You offend those better off than you with your very presence. You are an unpleasant statistic. You need to forget pride, shame and embarrassment and grow a thick skin because you will certainly need it. You are one of the new lepers about to find out what it feels like to be marginalized.

Rule two: When you ask the council for homeless help you are treated like a beggar. Beggars can't be choosers! And Beggars better accept that they will get kicked around, conned and abused by local councils. It is best to quickly realize that no one in government, and certainly not in local government, really cares about the homeless; it is all political rhetoric.

August 2019:
Alison Morton, Housing Options Team Leader with Northallerton D.C. refused to listen to a 72 year old woman with a medical diagnosis that required treatment and aftercare. The council forced the woman and her 70 year old husband to move out to a village with no facilities and only two buses a day, making continuity of medical treatment very difficult if not impossible, at the same time refusing to consider that the move left the couple isolated and deprived of their social network. Alison Morton decided under Section 7 of the Housing Act that the property on offer was suitable and issued a final offer letter, at the same time completely ignoring the definition of what constituted "suitability" under Section 7 of the Housing Act. Under threat of withdrawing financial help and any further assistance from the Council unless the property was accepted, the couple were forced into a property in a remote village with no amenities and restricted access to medical care, without amenities necessary for continued wellbeing and depriving them of any chance of finding work to improve their poor financial situation.

This is not an isolated story, many experience inflexibility and insensitive treatment by housing options, especially the elderly. The attitude of most housing options officers is that they are doing you a favour and that you messed up saying, "You came to us for help," making it sound like you are the biggest nuisance on the planet and they are benevolently helping you at great personal expense.

Inside Housing 01/08/18: An anonymous housing officer told reporter Kate Belgrave: 'Homeless households are viewed as "scrounging."'

Certainly, that is the attitude of Hambleton D.C.'s housing options team.

The homelessness code of guidance for local authorities published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (22 February 2018) sets out a number of guidelines designed to help local councils deal with the embarrassment of having homeless people living in their area but it is all window dressing. Theresa May's government claimed they will end homelessness by 2029, by which time most people currently sleeping rough will be dead, ergo, problem reduced.

Rule three: Know what you are entitled to and be prepared to fight hard to get it or you will end up with very little or nothing at all. Local Government housing officers, housing options teams and all those employed by councils to deal with homelessness in their area, are well trained to try everything they can to offer you the very least possible assistance they can get away with, preferably none, as this is the least expensive option for any Local Council.

Under current homelessness legislation it is common for local authorities to offer extremely limited support to people who do not meet priority need criteria, even if they are at immediate risk of sleeping rough.

Guardian 11 June 2016 Housing Options Officer: 'Homelessness options continues to be an expensive way to choose who deserves to have a roof over their head – a strange concept in the 21st century. But there’s a lack of political motivation to change the system. So consultants, solicitors, my colleagues and I will continue to make a living out of playing Russian roulette with the lives of vulnerable and destitute people.'

Even if you do meet current priority need criteria, housing officers will do everything in their power to offer you as little help as possible. If they do offer help, and you accept it, you are entering into a draconian regime who will hound you, bully you and threaten you. You will have the right to make decisions taken away from you, you have no right to express a need or opinion. You have to do what the housing options officer tells you to do or they will withdraw all help and support.

This seems to be the norm as this extract from St. Mungo's Community Housing Association on ending homelessness (Nowhere_safe_to_stay.pdf) illustrates. This article is some years old now but things have got worse not better since it was written:

'Most clients we interviewed told us that they felt worse when leaving a housing options service than they did when they arrived. This was often because they had not received the assistance to find accommodation that they had been hoping for… Several clients told us that they had also been upset by the way council advisors had talked to them and their lack of sensitivity.'

A lack of sensitivity pales in comparison to the rigid rule–obsessed approach by some local council officers:

An elderly couple were unable to move from a B&B into a Temporary Housing Unit in Northallerton because the woman was deemed too ill to be moved by her doctor. Alison Morton, The Housing Options Team Leader at Hambleton D.C. insisted they move and said in her opinion the woman would be better off in the housing unit and she made no attempt to talk to the woman's doctor. The woman had recently suffered Type 2 Respiratory failure but Alison Morton was completely uninterested in how ill the woman was, the fact was there was a housing unit available and she insisted that under the Housing Act the couple had to move in to it. The couple had no alternative but to withdraw their homeless claim and go it alone, which led to great financial, medical and psychological hardship.

You need to know two things before approaching any local authority for homeless help:
  1. How to deal with local council officers (LGO's);
  2. Exactly what you are entitled to and how to get it out of the council
You also need to understand that some LGO's revel in their bureaucratic power and there is just no way of locating just one ounce of compassion in them.

Dealing with LGO's

What makes them tick
Central government, or Parliament, is the policy maker in the UK while local government carries out the policies of central government and ensures their implementation. Local government is the lowest tier in the country's administration system, the link at street level. Local government employees are mainly called Local Government Officers (LGO's). A LGO is a low level bureaucrat. The role of the LGO is to carry out the policies of the Council. In housing options LGO's nearly always see themselves as enforcers of the rules. In doing so, they almost inevitably predestine how to act in advance of their encounter with particular homeless cases.

There is some discretion and flexibility built into the Housing Act legislation for dealing with the homeless but most LGO's do not exercise this flexibility because they are frightened of their superiors and definitely frightened of being seen to make a mistake. The easiest way to avoid being accused of being too soft, or of making a mistake, is to slavishly follow the letter of the law and this is what happens. Other reasons they slavishly follow the rules is lack of experience and that they are not particularly intelligent, entry into the job being an academic qualification of GCSEs at O and A or following a vocational route taking the Level 2 Certificate in Housing Practice.

It takes a level of flair and intelligence to apply the rule of law, a police officer will do this using caution or warning rather than arresting every wrong doer. A housing options officer does not exhibit the same degree of finesse and intelligent application in interpreting the housing act because they are intellectually and often emotionally insecure so they put up defences, one of their defence mechanisms being rigidity, which also accounts for their often hostile attitude. This rigid interpretation of the law can also be because the housing officer doesn't really understand the law and is certainly incapable of interpreting the spirit of the law. The housing options team are also very influenced by the attitude of line management and the local councillors. Senior management in the local council are in turn influenced by the attitude of the current government towards homelessness, which accounts for the current lack of help for homeless people and those in poverty. Prevalent is the attitude that the homeless are scroungers and losers who should be given the bare minimum help and support and that poor people are work shy and lazy. What is important to government is that the homeless statistics for the local councils reduces annually so this is reflected in government statistics making it look as if Parliament has a working solution to poverty and homelessness.

To become a line manager in a housing options team is a matter of repeating the same work experience day in and day out over a number of years until length of service and a vacancy leads to promotion. So LGO's are not particularly well qualified for the job of interacting with people who are vulnerable. There are no set requirements for the job of LGO, but some local authorities ask for at least 4 GCSEs or equivalent. For some roles a LGO needs a degree or specific qualifications like town planning, urban design or historic building conservation, unfortunately LGO's in housing options are not required to have any further education, which means you are dealing with someone who is at the same cognitive level as the average school leaver who hasn't excelled at school and who knows little of the world.

LGO's can have other job titles, such as, Housing Options Advisor, Housing Officer, Benefits Officer, etc., which more closely defines their role. LGO's all see themselves as authority figures. The authority of LGO's working in the Housing Options Team comes from a set of rules, a mandate given to them by central government. These are the laws passed in Parliament dealing with homelessness that outline the duty of care by local government.

When a homeless person approaches a council's housing option team for help they become part of a process designed to intimidate and demoralize. The housing option team typically do not care if you are traumatized, unwell or embarrassed by your situation, they will quickly see any of these states of mind as a weakness in you that they can exploit.

Seeking help is not met with understanding and kindness, it is met with officialdom and bureaucracy at its worst. You are now part of the "system" and the system can do what it likes with you. You now have to do as you are told and if you object, refuse or even question the housing options officer you are likely to leave the council building not only with no help, but with the threat of all further help being withdrawn. LGO's take control of you by using the threat of withdrawing all help if you do not comply with everything they instruct you to do. You will hear this threat used often throughout your dealings with the local council's housing option team.

Darkness at Noon
Housing officers also control you by not communicating what they are doing and explaining what happens next at each stage of your homeless application. By keeping you guessing they instil in you a state of worry and uncertainty, they are seemingly trained to do this because such behaviour does not come naturally unless dealing with a sociopath, and it is a cynical use of assumed power and a crude but effective way of exerting control over you. Another ploy they use is to talk over you and not give you a chance to say anything; they do not listen to what you are saying anyway, as in their world anything you have to say is automatically irrelevant.

Why do the LGO's act this way? It is all a game of power and control, their success is measured by not spending their budget and suppressing the truth about the number of poor and homeless in their area. These actions reduce the homeless statistics in the local authority's area. These are the statistics passed up the chain to central government; there is no independent evaluation of this data and thus central government can place whatever spin they like on the figures.

By making out a homeless person is intentionally homeless the person is taken off the homeless register, which makes the stats look even better. It doesn't matter if rough sleepers are denied help for whatever reason and the local council returns them to the streets because no one is counting them anyway, so no one is checking if the number of homeless is going up, staying the same, or going down. The local council will always work the figure to make it look as if they have an effective policy for assisting the homeless. If a council overspends on the homeless budget or if the number of homeless is proven to have increased, the elected councillors running the local authority are seen to be failing. You have just become a political pawn in a game run by local self–important people. Those who are elected by the general public have an Achilles heel, those employed in the council are less vulnerable but can still be dealt with, more about that later.

Is a Labour Council more likely to help the homeless than a Conservative Council? In a word, no. It doesn't matter what political leaning the local council has, the attitude towards homelessness remains the same.

Power base of LGO's
An authority figure can only expect to have their orders obeyed if they have the means to enforce them. Housing officers use the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. In this code is a paragraph called: Intentional homelessness. Under this clause, a local government officer can refuse to offer any help. It is a draconian sting in the tail of what otherwise passed as good parliamentary legislation and was introduced by a Parliament whose members were not interested in helping the homeless despite their loud claims to the contrary. This clause was added because the law makers saw the homeless as a trouble making bunch of down and outs who needed to be treated harshly to get them to do anything to improve their own situation.

If you are homeless and have nothing, it is harsh to be told that you have to accept whatever is offered and do as a housing officer tells you, in their timing not yours, without questioning their decisions made on your behalf, and if you don't, you are making yourself deliberately homeless, thus yourself ending the local authority's duty of care towards you. The local authority has the duty to find you suitable and affordable housing and to make a plan with you to help you to move forward. All housing officers try hard to avoid this full duty as it is costly to the local authority. They work for the local authority, not for you. This paragraph is the let–out clause for local councils and they use it in two ways;
  1. Ideally, to refuse any help and save money.

  2. As a threat to make sure homeless applicants do as they are told and accept sub–standard housing, a subject I will be returning to later in this article.

Standing up to authority
Being able to stand up to authority doesn’t hinge on bravery or courage, confidence or stubbornness. The processes and regions of the brain essential for rejecting ideas from authority figures are areas that are only just being studied. Some people can easily stand up to authority and others just can't at any cost. But everyone can learn and better their chances. If like me you find it easy to stand up to authority you are quite likely to be labelled as difficult. The skill is knowing when to stand up to authority and how to do it, rather than being tempted to stand up to authority just because you don't appreciate being bossed around by a total stranger who is pissing you off. It helps if you have respect for the person in authority. I would have much more respect for a Police Officer than I would for a Local Council Officer and there in lies the rub! I admire the police for the work they do and respect them for their professionalism. I don't feel the same way about local council employees. If you choose to stand up to a LGO you need to evaluate if the effort is worth it, what it is you are fighting for and if it is achievable. You also need to know how are you going to achieve it. You must weigh up the risk and the reward.

Knowing when to stand up to authority

This is all a matter of choosing your timing well. First of all hear them out, listen carefully to what they have to say. Never interrupt to make your point, wait for a natural pause in a conversation and then have your say. It is a good rule of thumb not to stand up for yourself until well into the meeting, try to move the mood of the meeting away from an authority figure lecturing you and get it round to being more of a dialogue, a discussion between equals.

Use sentences like:
"I see your point, however…"

"That's true, but seen from my side…"

Try to elicit opinion:
"Don't you think…?"

"What would you do in my position?"

Knowing how to stand up to authority.

Never try to get sympathy, this will fall on deaf ears and be seen as a sign of weakness. However, it is good practice that you try to build up a good rapport with the authority figure, even though they will try to resist this. Give positive reinforcement. Do this by demonstrating your understanding of what they are saying, agree with them when you can and disagree only when you have to. Being honest about what you are feeling is the best policy, but do not criticize. Do not raise your voice, however angry you feel. Never be rude or insulting and under no circumstances appear threatening however provoked you may feel. All Council staff are nervous of becoming the victims of violence from disgruntled clients, especially those working in "welfare," and they will call the police if they feel even slightly at risk. Again, it is a matter of good judgment but there may come a time when you have to be forceful in expressing yourself, "Are you telling me that this is the best you can do for me?" Try empathizing before asking for something, "I realize that it is limited what you can do for me, but perhaps you know of a private landlord who may consider renting to me?"

Power–base and empowerment
You need to develop a power base of your own so you can make legitimate challenges to the LGO's treatment of you. Knowledge is power and if you are to succeed in a request for homeless help from the local authority or to get State financial assistance you need to know your rights. What you are entitled to and why. You need to know what documents a housing officer will demand to see and you must have everything necessary with you. You need to be able to counter every argument against your case. If you get good at this the LGO's will try new ploys that are difficult for you to argue against, such as declaring that they do not have the budget to help you. This is a common ploy used by housing options and you need to be prepared to counter it. At all times you have to remain ice cold and rational, do not let emotions run away with you however desperate you are because this is what you are dealing with:

A client was physically removed from a housing options office by the police after throwing himself on the floor and begging for help. (source St Mungos.)

You need to clearly understand what legal duty a local authority has to help you if you are homeless. This legal duty depends upon an assessment of your situation.

Duty of care owed by a local authority

In England, local authorities have legal duties to homeless people under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 as amended by the Homelessness Act 2002. There are five hurdles which a homeless person must overcome in order to qualify as statutory homeless. If an applicant only meets the first three of these tests Councils still have a duty to provide interim accommodation. However an applicant must satisfy all five for a Council to have to give an applicant "reasonable preference" on the social housing register. Even if a person passes these five tests councils have the ability to use the private rented sector to end their duty to a homeless person. Most councils these days do not have social housing, they pass homeless people on to private landlords, however, the council is expected to assist in finding long term accommodation that is both suitable and affordable. The council's definition of suitable and affordable may differ from yours.

The five tests are:
  1. Is the applicant homeless or threatened with homelessness?

  2. Is the applicant eligible for assistance?

  3. Is the applicant priority need?

  4. Is the applicant intentionally homeless?

  5. Does the applicant have a local connection? (If you don't have a local connection anywhere the council you apply to must help.)

People who pass these tests are regarded as "Statutory Homeless." Statutory homelessness is where local authorities have defined a household as homeless within the terms of the homelessness legislation. Where they are found to be in priority need and not intentionally homeless then local authorities will have a duty to offer accommodation. This can include families with dependent children, pregnant women, the elderly and adults who are assessed as vulnerable.

Given the costs of providing temporary accommodation, which is usually in low cost B&B's, and the limited amount of social housing in the United Kingdom, some Councils have been criticized for attempting to circumvent their duties under the law, a process which has been termed "gatekeeping". The term "Non-statutory homelessness" covers people who are considered by the local authority to be not eligible for assistance, not in priority need or "intentionally homeless". Non-statutory (sometimes inaccurately called ‘single’) homelessness is either where households or individuals are not found to be eligible, do not fall within the definition of priority need or who are deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless' or have not gone through the legal application for housing.

Individuals and families who fall outside of the definition of statutory homelessness include:
  • Single people and couples who have no dependent children and do not fall into the statutory definition of vulnerable;

  • families with older children who are no longer dependent.

Many people living on the street, in hostels and other forms of temporary accommodation will fall into the category of non-statutory homeless. Consequently, many agencies in the voluntary sector tend to support those who are non statutory or single homeless. However, the division between the two groups is becoming increasingly blurred.

Statutory Homelessness Tests
All local authorities in England have a legal duty to provide 24–hour advice to homeless people, or those who are at risk of becoming homeless within 28 days.

A local authority must accept an application for assistance from a person seeking homelessness assistance if they have reason to believe that the person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. They are then duty bound to make inquiries into that person's circumstances in order to decide whether a legal duty to provide accommodation and assistance is owed. "Interim accommodation" must be provided to those that may be eligible for permanent assistance pending a final decision. If the local authority decides that a person is homeless but does not fall into a priority need category, then a lesser duty shall be owed which does not extend to the provision of temporary accommodation.

If the authority decides that a person is homeless and fits priority need but became homeless intentionally then the authority must ensure that accommodation is available for such a period as will give the person reasonable time to find long term accommodation, which can extend to provision of temporary accommodation. A ploy used by some Councils is to inform applicants that because they are ruled as being intentionally homeless, then the Council does not have a duty of care to the person and does not have to help them. Understanding one's rights under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 as amended by the Homelessness Act 2002 can mean the difference between leaving a meeting with a housing advisory service with help and leaving with nothing. If nothing else, the local authority is, in all the above cases, lawfully obliged to offer advice and assistance.

Intentional homelessness
Under 191(1) and 196(1) of the Housing Act 1996, "a person becomes homeless intentionally or threatened with homelessness intentionally, if:

  1. A person becomes homeless intentionally if he deliberately does or fails to do anything in consequence of which he ceases to occupy accommodation which is available for his occupation and which it would have been reasonable for him to continue to occupy

  2. For the purposes of subsection (1) an act or omission in good faith on the part of a person who was unaware of any relevant fact shall not be treated as deliberate.

  3. A person shall be treated as becoming homeless intentionally if— (a) he enters into an arrangement under which he is required to cease to occupy accommodation which it would have been reasonable for him to continue to occupy, and
    (b) the purpose of the arrangement is to enable him to become entitled to assistance under this Part, and there is no other good reason why he is homeless.

  4. A person who is given advice or assistance under section 197 (duty where other suitable alternative accommodation available), but fails to secure suitable accommodation in circumstances in which it was reasonably to be expected that he would do so, shall, if he makes a further application under this Part, be treated as having become homeless intentionally.
An act or omission made in good faith by someone who was unaware of any relevant fact must not be treated as deliberate.

If the applicant qualifies under the five criteria (that they are not ineligible for housing, such as a person subject to immigration control; that the applicant is statutorily homeless or threatened with homelessness; that they are of 'priority need'; that the applicant is not intentionally homeless; and that the applicant has a local connection) then the local authority has a legal duty to provide accommodation for the applicant, those living with them, and any other person who it is reasonable to reside with them. However, if the applicant does not have a local connection with the district of the authority then they may be referred to another local authority with which they have a local connection (unless it is likely that the applicant would suffer violence or threats of violence in that other area). If a person does not have any local connection then the first Council they apply to for help must offer assistance. But without a local connection there is no chance of social housing only help renting in the private housing sector.

How a Local Authority Defines Homelessness
A person does not have to be roofless to qualify legally as being homeless. They may be in possession of accommodation which is not reasonably tenable for a person to occupy by virtue of its affordability, condition, location, if it is not available to all members of the household, or because an occupant is at risk of violence or threats of violence which are likely to be carried out.

Certain categories of persons from abroad (including British citizens who have lived abroad for some time) may be ineligible for assistance under the legislation.

One of the main issues here is possession of a national insurance number, without which a council may refuse to help or if they do assess a homeless application they will request the applicant to reimburse the council fully for all costs involved in their application if they cannot claim the money back from the housing benefits department. If you are a British citizen who has lived abroad for some time and need help it is advisable to first seek help from the local Citizen's Advise Bureau or get help from a lawyer through one of the homeless charities like Shelter.

British Citizens who have lived abroad may have to pass the Habitual Residence Test before they can qualify for Council help in securing accommodation for the homeless. Each case is considered individually. In some cases British Citizens will become habitually resident immediately on their return, but in others it could be longer. In determining how long, the relevant authority will consider facts such as:

  • Where the person lives or has been living since returning;

  • Where they have family or friends;

  • The reasons why they have come to live in the area;

  • Where they intend to live in future

  • Whether they own a property in the UK;

  • If their possessions mostly in the UK;

  • If they are registered with a GP and dentist and have set up a bank account;

However this list is not exhaustive and the authority may consider other facts to be relevant. To contest a habitual residence test decision, you should firstly ask for a 'mandatory reconsideration' which can then be escalated on to a formal appeal if required. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to assist you with this process.

Priority need
People have a priority need for being provided with temporary housing (and given a 'reasonable preference' for permanent accommodation on the Council's Housing Register) if any of the following apply:
  • They are pregnant;

  • they have dependent children;

  • they are homeless because of an emergency such as a flood or a fire;

  • they are aged 16 or 17 (except certain care leavers [orphans, etc.] who remain the responsibility of social services);

  • they are care leavers aged 18–20 (if looked after, accommodated or fostered while aged 16–17)

They are vulnerable due to:
  • Old age;

  • a physical or mental illness;

  • a handicap or physical disability;

  • other special reason (such as a person at risk of exploitation);

They are vulnerable as a result of:
  • having been in care (regardless of age);

  • fleeing violence or threats of violence;

  • service in one of the armed forces;

  • having served a custodial sentence or having been remanded in custody.

Local connection
Someone may have a local connection with a local council area if they fulfil any of the following:
  1. They live in the area now or have done in the recent past,

  2. they work in the area, or

  3. they have close family in the area.
It is possible to have a local connection with more than one area.

Read Part Three Next Month:
  • The private rental sector
  • Are you better off sleeping rough?