The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained about the way the Council dealt with his homeless application in September 2018 and from April 2019. We found there were delays by the Council in interviewing Mr B to obtain full information about his circumstances. This delayed the provision of interim accommodation by approximately a month. The Council has agreed to pay Mr B £300 and to review its procedures.
- Mr B complains about the way Westminster City Council (the Council) dealt with his homelessness case. In particular he complains the Council:
- delayed unreasonably in deciding his homelessness application;
- delayed unreasonably in finding him suitable accommodation;
- has lost documents he provided to it;
- is not making enough effort to obtain important information from the police regarding his case;
- is not communicating with him properly; and
- lost the housing register application he made last September.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- If someone is homeless, or threatened with homelessness within 56 days, they can seek help from the housing authority. Where the person is actually homeless, the relief duty may apply. This means the Council has a duty to take reasonable steps to help the person secure accommodation that will be available for at least six months.
- This duty arises regardless of whether the applicant may be in priority need but does not extend to the authority actually having to secure accommodation (although it may choose to do so). The housing authority will need to carry out an assessment and work with the person to develop a personalised housing plan (PHP).
- The assessment should include:
- the circumstances that caused the applicant to become homeless or threatened with homelessness; and
- the housing needs of the applicant including, in particular, what accommodation would be suitable for the applicant; and
- the support that would be necessary for them, to have and sustain suitable accommodation.
- If a housing authority has “reason to believe” a person may be homeless, eligible, and in priority need then it must provide interim accommodation for them.
- A person may be in priority need if they are vulnerable for medical reasons or at risk of violence.
The Council’s homelessness service
- The Council’s single person homeless service is delivered in partnership with a third party organisation (the Organisation) which provides a separate service for rough sleepers. The Housing Solutions Team (HST) is located in the offices of the Organisation.
What I found
- Mr B became homeless in May 2018 after injuring himself and losing his job. He completed an online assessment on the Council’s website in September 2018. The Council says that a member of the customer services team telephoned him on 13 September 2018. Mr B said he had been sleeping rough for 12 weeks, after losing his job and home. The officer referred the case to the Housing Solutions Team as it was probable Mr B was eligible and homeless.
- The next record is on 8 October 2018 when a member of the Organisation contacted Mr B by telephone to arrange an initial assessment. The record says Mr B declined as he was working and could not take time off. He did not want an initial assessment and would continue working with a different organisation that helped rough sleepers to find accommodation. He would go back to the Organisation if he needed help in the future.
- Mr B says he first approached the Council in September 2018. He asked to apply for housing and also said he was homeless. He says he completed a housing register application form. He said the receptionist dealt with him and he was not interviewed. When he received a telephone call he said he asked what he should do but the person did not say to come in for an assessment.
- Mr B says he was placed in a shelter for 8 weeks by a different organisation. He was then back on the streets until April 2019 when he went back to the Organisation.
- The Council has no more records until 12 April 2019 when Mr B approached the Organisation as a rough sleeper. He had been sleeping in a hostel for some of the time. He explained again how he became homeless, that he was in receipt of benefits and was a UK citizen. He also said he had medical problems and provided some evidence of this. The record says that the person who interviewed Mr B spoke to another member of staff and they said there was not enough evidence to say he was in priority need.
- The Organisation provided a hostel bed on 3 May 2019 and made an appointment with a Council caseworker (CW) for 13 May 2019. The placement at the hostel was supposed to last for four weeks.
- On 13 May 2019 CW rang Mr B to rearrange his appointment. She could not get through. Mr B was interviewed by a staff member from the Organisation instead (SM). SM sent an email to CW after the interview explaining some events in Mr B’s past which meant he may be at risk of violence. SM had contacted the police but had not been able to get any information. SM also provided a completed medical assessment including details of his ongoing injury for which Mr B was awaiting surgery.
- The Council says it did not provide interim accommodation at this point because it was not satisfied that Mr B might be in priority need. On 23 May 2019 the Organisation tried to call CW but she was not available and did not want any email communication.
- On 4 June 2019 the Organisation telephoned CW to enquire about some possible accommodation for Mr B. CW said on the evidence she had, he was not in priority need but invited him to complete the medical forms for an assessment.
- On 5 June 2019 CW discussed the case with a manager and agreed he may be in priority need. On 14 June 2019 the Council provided him with self-contained interim accommodation.
- On 6 June 2019 Mr B complained to the Ombudsman. He was worried his hostel place would end and he had not heard anything from the Council.
- On 20 June 2019 The Council completed an assessment, accepted the Relief Duty towards him and issued a PHP. The Council agreed to refer him to two housing projects for private rented accommodation and referred Mr B to a housing project for accommodation. It required Mr B to provide some information.
- CW referred him for housing on 21 June 2019 and spoke to Mr B by telephone to explain the relief duty and what might happen when it ended. CW also confirmed that the Council could discharge its housing duty via housing in the private sector. One of the housing projects declined to accept the referral given the possible risk of violence to Mr B.
- CW also contacted the police to obtain information about the risk of violence. Mr B had provided a crime number but the police did not recognise it. Mr B says another police force was involved. These attempts to clarify the situation are ongoing.
- When Mr B first contacted the Council in September 2018, he was homeless and eligible for assistance. The Council took no further action until 8 October 2018 (over three weeks later) when it contacted Mr B again. This was too long. The Council should have carried out an assessment of Mr B’s situation much sooner, considered whether he was eligible for interim accommodation and whether it owed him any further duties.
- There is dispute over the content of the calls and the action taken: Mr B believed he had filled in a housing application but the Council’s records do not support this. Mr B said he requested further help but the Council says he declined assistance as he was in a hostel.
- I cannot reach a conclusion on the housing application as there is no evidence one was made. I also consider the Council should have communicated much more clearly with Mr B as to what his options were. The record of 13 September 2018 notes he is street homeless but did not consider whether he might be eligible for interim accommodation or explain what the process was. The note on 8 October 2018 confirmed he was in a hostel and therefore likely to be homeless but no further advice was given. I understand the Council considers Mr B declined any further assistance but it is not clear that Mr B was able to make an informed decision at that point.
- I cannot conclude that Mr B would have been housed sooner, but the delay and lack of clear information has caused Mr B uncertainty.
- Mr B approached the partner organisation for help on 12 April 2019, but he was not interviewed until 13 May 2019. This was too long. I understand the Council was very busy, but over four weeks is too long for a street homeless person to wait for further assistance.
- While there is a note that the Council considered priority need, there is no indication what it considered or whether it asked Mr B for any more information. I note that when Mr B was interviewed, he provided information crucial to the decision on priority need: that he was possibly at risk of violence. So, it is likely if he had been interviewed sooner, he would have been offered interim accommodation at an earlier point.
- There are no notes of the interview on 13 May 2019, just an email which the interviewer sent to the caseworker the same day. That was fault as there is no detailed record of what was discussed or considered.
- The caseworker delayed in acting on this information for over three weeks. Once she considered the information, she quickly decided Mr B was in priority need and arranged interim accommodation within two weeks She also accepted a relief duty towards Mr B and prepared a PHP. She had sufficient information to make this decision on the 13 May 2019 and the delay in doing so was fault which caused Mr B injustice, as it took longer for him to be offered interim accommodation.
- I understand Mr B was unhappy that the case worker did not interview him on 13 May 2019 and I agree the appointment should not have been changed at such short notice. However, another person did interview Mr B on that day. Although there were faults with the interview, identified above, I cannot conclude the change to the interviewer caused Mr B injustice.
- The Council has since 21 June 2019 tried to obtain information to assess the risk of violence to Mr B. This matter is ongoing. The relief duty has now expired but I do not have up to date information on the progress with Mr B’s case.
- I am also unclear whether the Council referred Mr B’s case for a medical assessment. He says he submitted forms several times, but the Council did not acknowledge this until 20 June 2019. However, I consider the finding of priority need was based primarily on the risk of violence.
- In recognition of the delays in dealing with Mr B’s case, which delayed him obtaining interim accommodation by approximately a month to six weeks, I asked the Council to:
- pay Mr B £300; and
- review its procedures to ensure all homeless applicants are interviewed promptly and that decisions about interim accommodation are made much more quickly.
- I consider this is a reasonable and fair way of resolving the complaint and I have completed my investigation on this basis
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman