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Kent teen left to live in tent during Covid crisis

A Kent teenager was left to sofa surf and live in a tent for almost two months by Medway Council during the COVID-19 pandemic after his family was left homeless, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The Ombudsman found the council missed at least five opportunities to house the teenager and his mother during the summer of 2020, but instead they were left to sleep rough.

When the mother first approached the council, it decided it had no duty to house her and her 16-year-old son under its homelessness obligations. However, it did place the family in temporary accommodation because of its child protection duties.

The family became homeless in the middle of July 2020 when the children’s services department asked them to leave their temporary accommodation. In making the family homeless, the council failed to consider government guidance in force during the lockdown, which asked landlords to work with renters who may experience hardship as a result of the pandemic.

When they left the temporary accommodation, the family had nowhere to go. The teenager called the council saying he and his mother were sleeping in a tent. 

The mother continued to contact the council throughout July. She filled in a change of circumstances form at the beginning of August explaining she and her son had been on the streets for a few weeks. There is no record of the council taking any action upon receipt of the form.

At the beginning of September, the mother contacted the council with the help of Shelter to say she and her son had been street homeless since 13 July. The council told the mother it would not provide her with temporary accommodation, and she should find her own private rented accommodation.

The mother contacted the Ombudsman on 8 September. The investigator asked the council to make an urgent review of the case. The family were moved to bed and breakfast on 11 September. During the investigation, the council offered them a two-bedroomed property.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“Our investigations into issues occurring during the pandemic have to balance the difficult circumstances and the speed at which laws were changing, against what should have reasonably happened.

“Despite these challenging circumstances, the council in this case failed in its duties to a vulnerable teenager who was sleeping rough, and it missed numerous opportunities to ensure he was safe.

“I do, however, welcome the swift action the council took when we alerted it to the family’s situation, and hope the training it has agreed to provide to relevant staff should ensure cases such as this do not happen in future.

“From what we’ve seen so far, the issues in this case are not indicative of how councils generally responded to public concerns during COVID-19. But we decided this case contained sufficient learning that others could take on board. Some of the problems in the case mirror issues we were seeing before the pandemic, but which have been amplified by the impact of COVID-19.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has agreed to apologise to the teenager and his mother, and pay them £1,500 each to reflect the distress and hardship they were caused. It will also pay the mother an additional £200 to reflect the fact she was not listened to when she reported being street homeless on a number of occasions.

The council has also agreed to decide whether the teenager is owed any duty or service under the Children Act and provide that service, and it should also consider if it owes him any duty under the Housing Act. It will also decide whether the mother is owed the full housing duty and issue her with a written decision on her homelessness application.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to provide refresher training for staff in its housing department to ensure they understand their duties under the Housing Act.

Article date: 23 April 2021