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.

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

Yes in some circumstances. We can consider your complaint if you have told a council you are homeless or threatened with homelessness, and you think it has made a mistake in dealing with your application and this is the reason you have not found alternative accommodation, or it has caused you other problems.

We 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 usually expect you to use the review and appeal procedure to challenge that decision.

We would also expect you to use the review and appeal 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
  • the steps the council will take to help you, which itlists in your personalised housing plan

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. 

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process

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, or does not review that plan when things change
  • does not provide support to prevent you becoming homeless when you are threatened with homelessness, or to help you find accommodation if you are already homeless
  • 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 interim accommodation while it makes enquiries, if it has reason to believe you may be homeless and in priority need
  • places you in unsuitable interim 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 B experienced a spinal cord injury and spent some time in hospital. Mr B told the council that his home would no longer be suitable for him, as he would now need a wheelchair, and he would therefore be homeless when the hospital discharged him. The council delayed making enquiries and told Mr B he would have to visit its offices, travelling from hospital, for it to take a homelessness application. This caused Mr B significant inconvenience and discomfort. The council took two months to make a decision about what duty it owed to him, causing Mr B uncertainty, and it told him it owed the wrong duty because it did not recognise he was already homeless. The council delayed arranging emergency temporary accommodation for Mr B, so he had to stay in hospital longer than necessary. When it arranged temporary accommodation, it was not suitable for Mr B as a wheelchair-user and he experienced significant loss of dignity. The council did not find him alternative accommodation until it found him a permanent home four months later. The council agreed to apologise and pay Mr B £2,150. It also agreed to review Mr B’s case and make changes to procedures and staff training to reduce the chances of the same faults happening again.
Miss B and her partner were given notice to leave their private rented property. They told the council they would become homeless, and it wrote a personalised housing plan for them and gave them advice. Miss B then separated from her partner and left the private rented property with her son before the notice ran out. The council updated her personalised housing plan and told her it now owed her a different duty (the ‘relief duty’) because she had become homeless. However, it then did not take steps to help Miss B secure accommodation, so it did not meet that duty. It put all the responsibility on Miss B to find her own accommodation, and she ended up asking another council to help her. We decided Miss X had suffered distress and uncertainty. The council agreed to apologise, pay Miss B £400 and create an action plan to show how it would make sure it did not repeat the same errors.

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.

We provide 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 we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

June 2023

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