Homelessness applications

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who are, or may become, homeless and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

On 3 April 2018 the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force. The Act places new duties on councils to prevent and relieve homelessness. If you are homeless or at risk of homelessness you may complain to the Ombudsman if you consider the council has not applied these new duties correctly when you asked for housing help.  However, we would not normally investigate if you can use your review and appeal rights to challenge the decision.

I am homeless or will become homeless soon and the council is not dealing with my application properly. Can the Ombudsman help me?

Yes, but the Ombudsman cannot overturn a decision made by a council on your homelessness application. For example, if the council has written to tell you that you are not homeless, or not in a priority need group, and it has no duty to find you somewhere to live, we would expect you to use the review and appeal procedure to challenge that decision.

We would also expect you to use the review and a[eal procedure for certain decisions including:

  • the council's decision to bring its prevention or relief duty to an end
  • the council's decision you have deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate

How do I complain?

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us. 

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact page or complete an online complaint form.

It is important that we can keep in contact if you have no permanent address and you move around. If you give us a mobile telephone number or email address that will make it much easier for us to keep in touch with you.

If you consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We have to decide whether the council has done something wrong in the way it handled your application and whether this has caused you a problem. Some of the issues we can look at are if the council:

  • does not let you make a homelessness application or fails to recognise that your request should be treated as a homelessness application
  • fails to make proper enquiries or makes unreasonable requests for you to provide evidence before it agrees to look at your application
  • does not ask Children's Services to help assess your needs if you are 16 or 17 years old and you make a homelessness application
  • breached the law that says the maximum time a family with children can stay in bed and breakfast accommodation with shared facilities is six weeks
  • does not give you information and advice on things such as preventing homelessness, your rights and the council's duties, and what help is available
  • does not agree a personalised housing plan with you, if you are homeless or threatened with homelessness and you approached the council on or after 3 April 2018
  • does not provide support to prevent you becoming homeless when you are threatened with homelessness (within 56 days if you approached the council on or after 3 April 2018, or 28 days if you approached the council before 3 April 2018)
  • takes far too long to deal with your application and reach a decision
  • wrongly closes your application or treats it as having been withdrawn
  • fails to provide you with temporary accommodation while it makes enquiries, if it has reason to believe you may be homeless and in priority need
  • places you in unsuitable temporary accommodation while it makes enquiries into your application, or fails to deal with repair problems in your temporary accommodation
  • loses, damages or destroys your personal belongings while they are in storage or fails to help you protect your possessions, and
  • fails to give you a written decision on your application and does not tell you about your legal right to ask for a review or an appeal.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds the council was at fault?

If we find that the council did something wrong in the way it handled your application, and that you were affected by this, we will ask the council to review the application and correct its mistakes. For example if the council:

  • did not make proper enquiries and so it misunderstood your true circumstances, we would ask it to take steps to put this right and to apologise to you, or
  • has taken too long to make enquiries and reach a decision on your homelessness application, we will ask it to complete its enquiries and issue a decision promptly. 

However, there will be times when a homeless person suffers real hardship because of a council’s mistake and the clock cannot be turned back to put this right. For example, we may find that someone was homeless and in priority need but the council did not arrange temporary accommodation, and so he or she had to sleep rough instead. In these circumstances, we are likely to ask the council to make a payment.

The facts will be different in each complaint and we consider each case carefully to decide on a remedy.

Sometimes we find that a council’s policy and procedures for dealing with homelessness applications are flawed or that officers have not been given proper training and guidance. We may recommend that the council reviews its procedures or arranges training for staff so that other homeless people do not go through the problems you have experienced.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr S left home when he was 17 years old following problems with his stepfather. He told the council he had been thrown out of the family home and was homeless. He was given a housing register application form to complete rather than a homelessness application form. The council did not enter this information on its housing computer system for two months. The council failed to identify that Mr S wanted to make a homelessness application. Mr S had to stay with different friends and move around frequently. By the time the council’s mistake came to light Mr S was 18 and so he was no longer in a priority need group. The council agreed to pay Mr S £2,000 and to review the service it provides to young people to ensure that they received proper housing assessments.
A council accepted that Mr X was homeless, but he complained that the council had failed to consider evidence proving he had dependent children who lived with him. The council decided Mr X was not in priority need because the children lived elsewhere. The council had placed Mr X and his children in temporary accommodation while it made enquiries into his homelessness application. But he was given notice to leave the temporary accommodation once the decision was made that he was not in priority need. Mr X then went to stay temporarily with a friend and his children returned to live with his former partner. Before sending his complaint to the Ombudsman, Mr X had already challenged the council’s decision that he was not in priority need by using the statutory review procedure. The original decision was upheld on review by a senior officer. In his decision letter the reviewing officer explained that Mr X had a right of appeal to the county court. We decided it was reasonable to expect Mr X, who had already instructed a solicitor to prepare an appeal, to use this legal remedy to challenge the decision, and so we did not accept his complaint for investigation.

Other sources of information

If you are in a crisis and you need immediate practical help or advice on your legal rights you can contact Shelter who run a free national telephone advice line (0808 800 4444) and have a network of housing aid centres across England – you can find out more at www.shelter.org.uk.

Law centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and independent housing advice centres may also be able to help you.

The Civil Legal Advice telephone number is 0345 345 4345.

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman provides a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result the Ombudsman aims to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

September 2018