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Cambridge City Council (21 006 315)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 03 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the way the Council handled his homelessness application. The Council was not at fault.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained his homelessness application was not handled correctly by the Council. He said the Council:
    • ignored evidence he provided about his health conditions;
    • contacted other professionals without his consent;
    • staff were rude and did not communicate appropriately with him about his Personalised Housing Plan (PHP) and its offer of temporary accommodation; and
    • discriminated against him on grounds of his mental health and race.
  2. Mr X said the failings meant he was forced to live in his mother’s garage from August 2020 to March 2021, which negatively affected his mental health. He said he had panic attacks, attempted suicide twice, and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. As a result of his anxiety about the homelessness application, he was not able to eat or sleep properly.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  3. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
  4. 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 provided and discussed the complaint with him;
    • the information provided by the Council; and
    • relevant law and guidance, as set out below.
  2. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and guidance

Homelessness

  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 the council has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
    • to make enquiries to determine if it owes a housing duty;
    • 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. If the Council has reason to believe an applicant may be eligible for assistance, homeless and has a priority need, the Council will be under an immediate duty under section 188 to ensure suitable accommodation is available for them, whilst it makes its enquiries. Applicants with serious health conditions may be in priority need.
  4. Where a council is satisfied a person is homeless and eligible for support, it has a duty to take reasonable steps to help the person secure accommodation that will be available for at least six months. This is the relief duty and applies for 56 days.
  5. By the time the relief duty ends, the Council should have completed its enquiries and should then inform the applicant whether it owes them the main housing duty. If it decides it does not owe the main housing duty it should clearly explain its reasons and provide information about the applicant’s rights of review and appeal.
  6. It will owe the applicant the main housing duty if it accepts the applicant is:
    • homeless;
    • eligible for assistance;
    • in priority need; and
    • unintentionally homeless.
  7. Councils must provide information and advice free of charge to anyone in their district on:
    • preventing homelessness;
    • securing accommodation when homeless;
    • the rights of people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness;
    • the duties of the council;
    • any help that is available from the council or anyone else, for people in the council’s district who are homeless or may become homeless (whether or not they are threatened with homelessness), and
    • how to access that help.

Equality Act 2010

  1. The Equality Act 2010 protects the rights of individuals and suports equality of opportunity for all. It offers protection, in employment, education, the provision of goods and services, housing, transport and the carrying out of public functions.
  2. The Equality Act makes it unlawful for organisations carrying out public functions to discriminate on any of the nine listed protected characteristics. The Public Sector Equality Duty also sets out duties for such organisations to follow to stop discrimination. The ‘protected characteristics’ referred to in the Act are:
  • age,
  • disability,
  • gender reassignment,
  • marriage and civil partnership,
  • pregnancy and maternity,
  • race,
  • religion or belief,
  • sex, and
  • sexual orientation.
     
  1. The reasonable adjustment duty is set out in the Equality Act 2010 and applies to any body that carries out a public function. Its aim is that, as far as reasonably possible, people who have disabilities should have the same standard of service as non-disabled people.
  2. Service providers have to consider removing or preventing obstacles to people with disabilities accessing their service. If the adjustments are reasonable, they must make them.
  3. The duty is ‘anticipatory’. This means service providers cannot wait until a disabled person wants to use their services, but must think in advance about what disabled people with a range of impairments might reasonably need.

What happened

  1. This decision statement sets out the key events and is not intended to be a full account of everything that happened.

Background

  1. Mr X first contacted the Council for assistance in June 2020. The Council accepted a relief duty. It did not consider he was in priority need but provided accommodation in a local hotel under an initiative called ‘Everyone In’. This was a Government initiative to help rough sleepers to self-isolate and to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Mr X was evicted from the hotel in August 2020, following which he lived in his mother’s garage or on the streets, until March 2021.
  2. Mr X said he needed self-contained accommodation because of his mental health difficulties. He refused all offers of accommodation where he would have to share kitchen or bathroom facilities. He did not engage with services to assist him finding suitable accommodation and the case was eventually closed as a result.
  3. Mr X made further homelessness applications between August 2020 and March 2021 but did not provide evidence of his mental health difficulties. The Council therefore decided there had not been a material change of circumstances and did not accept a fresh application. However, it continued to offer advice and assistance about finding settled accommodation.

Current homelessness application

  1. I have investigated Mr X’s current homelessness application. He made this application on 15 March 2021 and provided various supporting documents, including a letter from his probation officer and a letter from his GP about his mental health difficulties. Mr X said he could not share accommodation due to an incident when he was in prison and that his GP supported that position. He also told the Council he needed stable accommodation to meet his bail conditions.
  2. Council records indicate it considered the fresh evidence about Mr X’s mental health amounted to a change of circumstances and it accepted the homelessness application. Mr X completed a vulnerability questionnaire and the Council accepted he may be in priority need. On 18 March 2021 it offered him emergency accommodation. Mr X refused this because it was shared accommodation, which he said made it unsuitable.
  3. Council records show it considered shared accommodation was suitable for Mr X because it did not have, at that stage, evidence to show that Mr X was not able to share facilities due to his mental health difficulties. It spoke Mr X’s solicitor, who said the court was likely to agree the accommodation was suitable from the point of view of his bail conditions. In addition, the Council noted Mr X had shared facilities in the hotel the previous year and had not raised concerns about that at the time.
  4. On 29 March 2021, the Council offered him a one bedroomed flat, which Mr X accepted. Mr X said the Council did not explain the paperwork. However, he understood he could be evicted at one month’s notice and the accommodation would only last for 56 days. He said this made it unsuitable because it did not work with his bail conditions, which required him to have a stable address.
  5. The Council’s letter offering the accommodation explained it was temporary whilst it made enquiries about his homelessness application and provided appropriate general information about the arrangement.
  6. On the same day, the Council accepted a relief duty and sent a separate letter explaining that. This letter said the relief duty would last for 56 days, following which the Council would decide if it owed him the main housing duty. The Council sent a personalised housing plan (PHP) with that letter. This explained the steps the Council would take to help Mr X find settled accommodation and the steps it expected Mr X to take.
  7. The PHP said Mr X should look for shared accommodation, which Mr X did not consider was appropriate for him. The Council explained this was because of benefit rules, which meant the maximum he could claim for housing costs as part of his Universal Credit was the Local Housing Allowance (LHA). For single people under the age of 35 the entitlement was limited to a room in shared accommodation, unless any exceptions applied. The exceptions did not apply at the time the PHP was issued. However, the Council advised Mr X in the PHP that if he claimed, and was awarded, a Personal Independence Payment (PIP), he may then be entitled to the one bedroom rate for LHA. The local Citizen’s Advice Bureau assisted Mr X with a PIP application.
  8. Mr X remained unhappy about looking for shared accommodation and did not do so. Council records showed it explained the position to him by telephone and in writing, but he did not accept its advice.
  9. The Council made enquiries with the probation service to establish how Mr X’s mental health impacted him, including whether this meant he could not live in shared accommodation. It also made enquiries with the probation service about the reasons Mr X left his previous settled accommodation, a supported living project for ex-offenders to help them move onto more independent living, as well as contacting the organisation that provided the accommodation. It used contact details for probation officers that Mr X provided. Its records show Mr X asked the Council to talk to the probation service and asked probation officers to share information with the Council.
  10. In early May, Mr X asked the Council not to communicate again with two former probation officers, which the Council noted and agreed to. Its records confirm it did not speak to those individuals after Mr X withdrew his consent.
  11. The Council also made enquiries with Mr X’s GP and with a specialist mental health service that carried out a mental health assessment whilst it was making its enquiries about the homelessness application. Mr X had given general consent for the Council to do this, and it was necessary for it to do so to establish whether Mr X was in priority need.
  12. In early May, in response to multiple contacts to various officers, the Council asked Mr X to restrict his communications to the housing officer handling his case and their manager, because they were in the best position to assist him.
  13. In mid May 2021 the Council told Mr X the relief duty was ending, and it was now considering if it owed him the main housing duty. It later referred to extending the relief duty, which was because it was waiting for a mental health assessment and was exploring the reasons Mr X left the supported living accommodation.
  14. On 30 July 2021 wrote to Mr X to say it was minded to decide that:
    • he was homeless;
    • eligible for assistance; and
    • in priority need; but that
    • he had made himself homeless.
  15. It set out its reasons in detail and gave Mr X seven days to comment. It later extended this to allow time for Mr X to instruct a solicitor to respond on his behalf.
  16. On 9 September 2021, the Council issued its final decision. This was broadly the same as set out in the “minded to” letter but included additional points in response to the comments made by Mr X’s solicitor. It explained Mr X had a right to ask for a review. Mr X has requested a review, which was due to be decided in January 2022. Mr X has remained in the interim accommodation pending the outcome of the review.

Complaints handling

  1. Mr X complained about the Council’s handling of his application. In particular that:
    • he was initially offered shared accommodation, which was not appropriate;
    • he was asked to look for shared accommodation in the PHP;
    • his communication with the Council was restricted; and
    • the Council had not taken his mental health difficulties seriously.
  2. Initially, the housing officer’s line manager spoke to Mr X and responded in writing to his concerns. The Council then responded formally at stage 1 and stage 2 of its complaints procedure. The Council provided a comprehensive response to the issues Mr X raised and there was no delay in it doing so.

My findings

Homelessness application

  1. We are not an appeal body. It is not my role to say whether the Council’s decisions were correct. I have considered its decision-making process. Unless there was fault in the decision-making process, I cannot comment on the decision reached.
  2. In this case, Mr X had the right to ask for a review of the Council’s decisions about whether it owed him a main housing duty, and subsequently the right to appeal to the County Court on a point of law. We would only investigate the way the Council reached its decision in those circumstances where it was not reasonable to expect Mr X to exercise those rights.
  3. I have seen the Council’s decision letters and am satisfied it gave him appropriate information about his rights of review and appeal. In addition, since I am aware Mr X had the assistance of a solicitor, at least in relation to the latest application, I consider it was reasonable for him to exercise his rights of review and appeal. During the investigation, I became aware he had exercised his right to a review. Therefore, I will not comment further on the Council’s decision that it did not owe Mr X the main housing duty because he had made himself homeless.

Considering Mr X’s mental health

  1. Council records show that it considered the initial evidence Mr X provided about his mental health difficulties and decided he may be in priority need. In light of this, it accepted it had a duty to provide interim accommodation.
  2. When offering shared accommodation on 18 March 2021, the Council considered what Mr X told it about his mental health difficulties, and the evidence he provided to support his homelessness application. It decided the accommodation was suitable and it explained its reasons. Although Mr X did not want shared accommodation, I am satisfied there was no fault in the way the Council considered this.
  3. The Council could have discharged its duty to provide interim accommodation on the basis he had refused a suitable offer of accommodation, but it did not do so. It offered him a self-contained flat on 29 March 2021, which he accepted.
  4. The Council wrote to Mr X to explain the basis for that accommodation. It did not say it was only available for 56 days and there is no evidence that the court found it did not satisfy his bail conditions.
  5. Council records show it took full account of the evidence of Mr X’s mental health difficulties, including new evidence that was produced whilst it was making enquiries. As a result, it decided Mr X was in priority need.
  6. I found no fault in the way the Council considered Mr X’s mental health.

Contacting professionals without consent

  1. There is no evidence the Council contacted professionals without Mr X’s consent. When making the application, Mr X gave general consent for the Council to make appropriate enquiries. It was necessary for it to contact mental health professionals, the probation service and the organisation that provided the supported living Mr X left in 2019 to determine the application. When Mr X asked it not to speak to two specific probation officers, the Council noted this and did not do contact them again. The Council was not at fault.

Staff being rude and restricted communications

  1. Records do not show that staff were rude, although I note that, on a number of occasions, they ended calls because Mr X was shouting at them and refusing to listen. They explained to him that this would happen if he continued to shout at them. On each occasion they responded to his queries or concerns in writing.
  2. The Council did try to restrict his communications. This was because Mr X had been emailing and calling the Council many times each day and trying to speak to other officers if the housing officer handling his case was not immediately available. The Council asked him to contact two officers only: his housing officer and their line manager. It explained this was because they were familiar with his case and best placed to help him. This was an appropriate step for the Council to take and it explained its reasons. It was not at fault.

Inappropriate contact - PHP

  1. The PHP set out the steps the Council and Mr X should take to resolve his housing situation. This included requiring Mr X to seek shared accommodation in the private rented sector. The Council explained why it was asking him to do that. It set out its reasons in the PHP, in various letters and explained it in telephone calls. It also responded to his complaint about this. Whilst I appreciate Mr X did not want shared accommodation and refused to take any steps to look for it, there was no fault in the Council’s actions.

Complaints handling

  1. The Council responded in full to the concerns Mr X raised and did not delay in doing so. There was no fault in its complaints handling.

Equality Act 2010

  1. Council records show it made reasonable adjustments, in light of Mr X’s mental health issues, in that it allowed him additional time to take the steps set out in the PHP and did not end its duty to provide emergency accommodation when Mr X refused the shared accommodation, as it would have been legally entitled to do. Records also show that it did try to address the various questions Mr X asked and to explain things to him in simple terms.
  2. Its records show it considered Mr X’s mental health difficulties and his race when making its decisions. It specifically considered whether his faith meant that shared accommodation was not suitable and explained why it considered that sharing facilities would not prevent him from practising his faith. I have seen no evidence of discrimination and am satisfied the Council had due regard to its duties under the Equality Act 2010.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have not found evidence of fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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