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Bristol City Council (21 002 533)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 06 Dec 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council’s failure to provide proper assistance when Mr X approached as homeless in 2018 was fault. As a result, Mr X slept in his van for 21 months. The Council should apologise, pay Mr X £8,100, and take action to improve its services.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council failed to provide proper assistance when he approached as homeless in September 2018. He says the Council’s failure continued until June 2020.
  2. During this period, Mr X was sleeping in a van. He says this negatively affected his mental and physical health.

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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 considered the information Mr X and the Council provided.
  2. I considered relevant law and guidance, including the Housing Act 1996, as amended, and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities.
  3. I referred to the Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies, a copy of which can be found on our website.
  4. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Homeless law and guidance

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the Code) set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. If a council has ‘reason to believe’ someone may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must take a homelessness application and make inquiries. The threshold for taking an application is low. The person does not have to complete a specific form or approach a particular council department. (Housing Act 1996, section 184 and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 6.2 and 18.5) 
  3. Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. Councils should work with applicants to identify practical and reasonable steps for the council and the applicant to take to help the applicant keep or secure suitable accommodation. These steps should be tailored to the household, and follow from the findings of the assessment, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their personalised housing plan. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
  4. If councils are satisfied applicants are homeless and eligible for assistance, they must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation. This is called the relief duty. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
  5. 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)
  6. If, at the end of the relief duty, a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to secure that accommodation is available for their occupation. This is called the main housing duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
  7. After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. 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, Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)

What happened

  1. Mr X was advised by police to leave his home in early 2018. This was because of harassment and violence. Initially he was sofa surfing.
  2. In April 2018, Mr X applied to join the Council’s housing register. The Council accepted his application.
  3. In September 2018, Mr X approached the Council. He said that he was now sleeping in his van. The Council says it “triaged” Mr X and gave him information about local outreach services. It did not take an application, complete an assessment or make inquiries.
  4. Mr X returned to the Council in January 2020. He said he was still sleeping in his van. The Council completed an assessment but did not offer Mr X any interim accommodation or accept a duty to him.
  5. In June, a charity contacted the Council on Mr X’s behalf. The Council then offered Mr X interim accommodation.
  6. It accepted the relief duty in July. In September, the Council accepted it owed Mr X the main housing duty.
  7. The Council agreed to backdate Mr X’s priority on the housing register to September 2018 “as a gesture of goodwill”.
  8. Mr X moved into permanent accommodation in December 2020.

The Council’s complaint response

  1. Mr X complained to the Council about its handling of his homelessness.
  2. In its complaint response, the Council said:
    • Its records from September 2018 were incomplete but said it gave him general advice.
    • It would not have offered interim accommodation in September 2018 based on the information Mr X says he provided.
    • It should have offered him interim accommodation in January 2020.
  3. The Council said it backdated Mr X’s housing application to September 2018 “to reflect the inconvenience and obvious stress caused by our previous omissions.” It says this meant Mr X was rehoused much sooner than he otherwise would have been.
  4. The Council apologised and offered Mr X £500 in recognition of the fault it accepted.

My findings

  1. The Ombudsman does not usually investigate things that happened more than 12 months ago unless we think there is a good reason someone couldn’t have complained sooner. In this case, Mr X was homeless and sleeping in his van. Combined with his health needs, I consider this to be a good reason Mr X couldn’t have complained earlier. I have therefore investigated matters from 2018 onward.
  2. The Council says it would not have offered Mr X interim accommodation in September 2018, based on the information he says he provided.
  3. Councils must take a homeless application where it has reason to believe someone is homeless. The threshold for this is low. In this case, Mr X told the Council he was sleeping in his van. The Council should have taken a homeless application. Its failure to do so was fault.
  4. Had the Council properly assessed Mr X, it would have identified:
    • That Mr X had fled his previous accommodation because of harassment and violence, on advice of the police
    • That he had physical and mental health problems, including trauma from a violent assault
    • That he was homeless
  5. The Council should have accepted the relief duty to Mr X in September 2018. Its failure to do so was fault.
  6. On balance, I think it likely that had the Council done an assessment and made inquiries, it would have had reason to believe Mr X was in priority need. It would therefore have offered him interim accommodation. Its failure to do so was fault.
  7. As a result, Mr X continued to sleep in his van. This is a significant injustice to Mr X.
  8. In December 2018, the Council wrote to Mr X about his application for social housing. It referred to information he had provided about his circumstances. The Code of Guidance says Councils must be particularly alert to applications for social housing that are also homeless applications. In providing this information to the housing register, Mr X had made a homelessness application. The Council’s failure to treat it as such was fault.
  9. The Council had a further opportunity to help Mr X when he approached the Council in January 2020. By this point, his physical health had deteriorated significantly. The Council accepts that it should have offered Mr X interim accommodation at this point and that its failure to do so was fault.
  10. The Council did not offer Mr X interim accommodation until June 2020 and did not accept a relief duty until July. This is 21 months after Mr X approached as homeless. It appears that the Council only acted because Mr X got support from a charity, which wrote to the Council on Mr X’s behalf.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council backdated Mr X’s application for social housing to September 2018 and offered to pay him £500 in recognition of the injustice caused by the faults it accepted.
  2. In recommending remedies, the Ombudsman tries to put complainants back in the position they would have been in were it not for the fault. In this case, backdating Mr X’s application partially achieves this.
  3. The Council says it meant Mr X was offered permanent accommodation much sooner than he would otherwise have been. It says the usual wait is 12-18 months. This means, however, that had the Council accepted the relief duty in September 2018, as I have found it should have, then Mr X would likely have been permanently rehoused by March 2020. This is three months before the Council provided interim accommodation and 9 months before Mr X moved into permanent accommodation. This delay is a significant injustice to Mr X.
  4. Mr X was sleeping in his van for 21 months. This is a significant injustice. I do not consider that the Council’s offer of £500 is a suitable remedy. The Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies recommends a financial payment of £150 to £350 a month for time spent in unsuitable accommodation or homeless.
  5. In this case, where Mr X was sleeping in his van and considering the impact on his physical and mental health, I assess the injustice to be at the higher end of this scale. I have, however, taken into account the backdated application, and reduced the payment accordingly.
  6. Therefore, to remedy the injustice to Mr X from the faults I have identified, the Council has agreed to:
    • Apologise to Mr X in writing
    • Pay Mr X £300 for each month he spent homeless unnecessarily, for a total of £6,300.
    • Pay Mr X a further £200 a month for the delay in accessing permanent housing for a total of £1,800
  7. The Council should take this action within four weeks of my final decision.
  8. The Council should also take the following action to improve its services:
    • Remind relevant staff that an application to the housing register can also be a homeless application. Identify a suitable mechanism for staff to notify the appropriate team when this happens.
    • Ensure customer service and other public-facing staff are able properly to identify and deal with cases of homelessness or risk of homelessness. Provide training as needed.
  9. The Council should tell the Ombudsman about the action it has taken within three months of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council is at fault. The action I have recommended is a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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