An older woman was left in temporary accommodation that was ‘at best shabby, dirty and in disrepair,’ miles away from her GP and social networks because Rother District Council had no temporary accommodation across the whole borough, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigation has found.
The woman was placed in the hotel accommodation in a neighbouring borough, 14 miles away from her former home and GP, after her landlord sought repossession of her privately-rented home.
During her time living in the hotel room, the Ombudsman’s investigation heard the woman made regular complaints about the poor state of the accommodation, but the council never told her of her right to appeal its suitability. Nor did it treat her complaints as an appeal.
The Ombudsman also found fault with the council for not treating her complaint about it cancelling her housing benefit in error as an appeal. It left her to foot a four-figure bill – when it decided on very little evidence she had swapped rooms with her adult son.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:
“The issues we have seen with councils’ capacity to cope with the growing homelessness problem are spreading from London to the wider south east and beyond. This case is an example of what can happen when councils fail to plan, and the impact this has on local people.
“The recommendations we have made are designed to improve services not just for this woman, but for other people faced with homelessness in the Rother area.
“We welcome the fact that, following our investigation, the council has now agreed to our recommendations.”
The woman, who was 68, in poor health and had mobility problems, told the council she was being evicted by her landlord in March 2016. Contrary to Government guidance, housing officers recommended she waited until she was evicted by bailiffs, leaving her with a £350 court bill. The woman also claimed she was told to approach a neighbouring authority for housing, even though she had no claim for help from that authority.
She was eventually placed in accommodation in a different neighbouring borough in July 2016. As soon as she moved in she complained about the room’s disrepair, claiming it “squalid, filthy and damp,” that the toilet was “caked in faeces” and the room was infested with bedbugs and cockroaches. She struggled to climb the four flights of stairs needed to get to her room.
Although the council wrote to the woman explaining the room had changed from emergency to temporary accommodation when it accepted its housing duty to her, it did not explain her right to a review of the accommodation.
The woman’s adult son was placed in a different room in the same hotel when they were evicted from the family home. The hotel told the council the woman had swapped rooms with her son. The council stopped her housing benefit, despite the fact the woman regularly and vehemently denied the accusations.
She was never given the opportunity to dispute her situation at a Tribunal, and was left with an invoice of around £1,000 to pay for her accommodation when she left.
During the course of the investigation, officers told the Ombudsman the council had no temporary accommodation in its area, and regularly placed people in nearby Hastings, Eastbourne and further afield in Kent.
While the council has since made modest efforts to identify temporary accommodation in its area, it has nowhere near enough to meet demand. This continuing failure to have any temporary accommodation within the Rother area is fault.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to improve local public, and adult social care, services.
In this case, the Ombudsman has recommended the council provides an unreserved apology and pay the woman £1,250 in recognition of the injustice, and settle any costs awarded against her resulting from her landlord taking possession action.
It should also take whatever action it needs to ensure a dispute about non-payment of housing benefit at the temporary accommodation can be heard by the Tribunal Service. Or else the council should arrange for the immediate write-off of any debt owing from her stay in that accommodation.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve a council’s processes for the wider public. In this case the council should make improvements to its housing service when dealing with enquiries from households facing eviction from private tenancies; and give urgent attention to providing a supply of temporary accommodation in its area, as it currently only provides temporary accommodation out of its area.
It should ensure that homeless households know of their right to request a review and appeal temporary accommodation they consider unsuitable. And it should make sure it properly considers all expressions of dissatisfaction with housing benefit decisions.
Article date: 14 March 2018