St Albans City Council (18 012 766)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 12 Feb 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms B complains about the Council’s lack of housing help when she approached the Council as homeless. Ms B says this has meant she is street homeless. The Council’s consideration of Ms B’s request was affected by fault. But, the injustice suffered by Ms B has been put right because the Council has tried to contact Ms B to look at her request for housing help again.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will refer to as Ms B, complains about the Council’s response to her request for housing help after she was made homeless. Ms B says the Council wrongly decided she was not homeless and did not provide her with accommodation. Ms B also says the Council did not issue her with a decision. Ms B, who suffers from severe depression, says she has been street homeless and has to sleep in her car and stay with friends. Ms B would like the Council to provide her with accommodation immediately and give proper consideration to her homelessness application.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered Ms B’s complaint and the information provided by her representative. I have also shared a draft version of this statement with Ms B’s representative and the Council, and have considered the comments I received in response.

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What I found

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. When a person applies to a council for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
    • to make enquiries;
    • to secure suitable accommodation for certain applicants pending the outcome of the enquiries;
    • to notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
  3. A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
  4. After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. This decision is made under section 184 of the Housing Act 1996 and is often referred to as a ‘section 184 decision’. If it is an adverse decision, the letter must fully explain the reasons.  All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so. (Housing Act 1996, section 184, from 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)
  5. The Homelessness Code of Guidance, which has been updated because of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, says:

11.3 Every person applying for assistance from a housing authority stating that they are or are going to be homeless will require an initial interview. If there is reason to believe that they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days the housing authority must carry out an assessment to determine if this is the case, and whether they are eligible for assistance. If the applicant is not eligible for assistance or if the authority is satisfied that they are not homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days, they must be given a written section 184 notification of the decision reached.

11.4 In some circumstances it will be possible to determine that an applicant is not threatened with homelessness at first approach, but in most cases further enquires will need to be carried out to find out more about their housing circumstances before being satisfied that they are not threatened with homelessness within 56 days. If the applicant believes they are threatened with homelessness and there is reason to believe that this is the case then further investigations will be required.

What happened

  1. Ms B approached the Council for housing help on 6 November 2018. Ms B had been staying with her mother but says her mother asked her to leave her home. The Council says a housing officer considered whether they had reason to believe Ms B was eligible, homeless and in priority need. The Council says the officer decided they had reason to believe Ms B was eligible. But, the Council says there was not any information provided which gave the Council reason to believe Ms B was homeless.
  2. The Council says it tried to make contact with Ms B’s mother several times on 6 November, and later on 16 November, but was unsuccessful. The Council added that Ms B had claimed to have contacted a night shelter, but this turned out to be false information. Ms B disputes this. Ms B says she told the Council she did not want to go to the night shelter and she did not say she was on the waiting list, as claimed by the Council.
  3. Ms B says since then she has been street homeless.
  4. Ms B’s representative contacted the Council to challenge its handling of Ms B’s request for housing help. The Council explained how it assessed Ms B’s request for housing help and why it did not provide accommodation for Ms B. The Council also confirmed that it had not made a section 184 decision.
  5. Ms B’s representative complained to the Ombudsman. The complaint has not completed the Council’s complaints procedure. But, we used our discretion to accept the complaint. This was because we did not consider it was reasonable to expect Ms B to complete the Council’s complaints procedure, due to her current housing situation.

Analysis

  1. I find the Council was at fault for the way it considered Ms B’s request for housing help.
  2. The Council had to decide whether there was reason to believe Ms B may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. The Council accepts this is a low threshold. But, in its correspondence with Ms B’s representative the Council said several times it did not have reason to believe Ms B was homeless. The information strongly suggests the Council applied the wrong legal test. This is because in order to undertake a detailed assessment and consider providing interim accommodation the Council only needed to consider whether Ms B may be homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  3. Also, I consider the Council was at fault for disputing Ms B’s claim she was homeless without any compelling information to the contrary. It was unfortunate the Council was unable to contact Ms B’s mother on the day Ms B approached the Council. But, I do not consider it was reasonable for the Council to use this as a reason to not accept Ms B may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. The evidence strongly suggests the Council did not give proper consideration to Ms B’s request for housing help.
  4. In addition, even if the Council was entitled to decide Ms B was not homeless on the day she approached the Council, it should have issued her with a section 184 decision. This would have given Ms B the opportunity to formally challenge the Council’s decision. The Council’s failure to provide Ms B with a section 184 decision is evidence of fault.
  5. In my draft decision dated 6 December I asked the Council to arrange an appointment with Ms B to interview her again to assess her request for housing help giving more detailed consideration to her claim to be homeless.
  6. In response, the Council provided further information about what it has done since Ms B complained to us. The Council also provided its records to support its comments. The Council’s records say:
    • On 30 November it contacted Ms B and her representative to arrange an interview to do an assessment and a Personalised Housing Plan with Ms B.
    • It arranged an appointment with Ms B for 14 December but she did not attend or contact the Council.
    • It closed Ms B’s case on 19 December because Ms B had not engaged with the Council’s correspondence.
    • It re-opened the case on 20 December and made an appointment with Ms B for 27 December. This appointment was later re-arranged for 2 January 2019.
    • Ms B did not attend the appointment on 2 January, so the Council closed the case. The Council told Ms B’s representative this decision.
  7. The evidence strongly suggests the Council has made reasonable efforts to reconsider Ms B’s request for housing help. But, Ms B has not attended the appointments it has arranged. My view is the injustice suffered by Ms B has been put right by the Council’s actions since Ms B complained to us.

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Final decision

  1. The Council’s consideration of Ms B’s request for housing help was affected by fault. But, the injustice suffered by Ms B has now been put right by the Council’s actions. So, I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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