Homelessness and failure to cooperate: we need to talk about this

There’s an aspect of Welsh homelessness legislation that we’ve always been deeply uncomfortable with.

When the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 gave new powers to local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties if they decided that a household is ‘unreasonably failing to cooperate’, we and others predicted it would lead to highly vulnerable people being excluded from assistance.

But trends are now emerging in our casework which suggest that the effect of failure to cooperate is running even deeper, even working against Wales’ whole approach to prevention.

Let’s illustrate this. A few weeks ago, one of our caseworkers took a call from a council homelessness officer who said that they were investigating failure to cooperate in relation to a client of ours. The client was a private tenant who’d been threatened by her landlord and illegally evicted. The homelessness officer wanted to know whether she’d been in touch with us – saying that if she hadn’t, then the council would be looking to refuse to provide her and her family with temporary accommodation.

This, of course, rang immediate alarm bells for our caseworker. We confirmed to the council that the only reason our client hadn’t been in recent contact was because there hadn’t been any change in her situation, not because she was failing to cooperate. Thankfully, the council had a change of heart and agreed to accommodate her and her family.

This isn’t the only time we’ve been asked to inform against our clients in relation to failure to cooperate. It raises a number of worrying questions.

  1. How much resource are councils spending on investigating failure to cooperate? The Housing Act was supposed to signal a shift of resource away from investigations and towards helping people. But while intentionality has fallen to historically low levels, failure to cooperate has taken its place: since April 2016, rates of failure to cooperate have been eight times higher than rates of intentionality. Failure to cooperate is the outcome for 6.3 per cent of households owed a duty – a sizeable chunk of the 20 per cent who are currently dropping out of the system due to failure to cooperate, withdrawal of application or other reason. In short, failure to cooperate has become the new intentionality – the new reason not to help people.
  2. How aware of this are other providers? Do support workers realise that if they give information to the council about their clients’ engagement, they might be unwittingly jeopardising their rights to homelessness assistance?
  3. Some councils are clearly taking failure to cooperate extremely seriously. One urban authority is requiring applicants to keep a ‘reasonable steps diary’ to account for all the time they spend house-hunting. The Code of Guidance encourages councils to put in place a wide range of interventions – but with this narrow focus on failure to cooperate, lots of reasonable steps might actually work against people’s best interests. The more comprehensive the Personal Housing Plan, the more hurdles there are to catch people out. There’s a tension here at the heart of the legislation and it needs to be addressed.
  4. Finally, there’s a valid question to be asked about councils’ interpretation of ‘engagement’. The statutory Code of Guidance is not very specific about this. Are councils taking into account what the stress of homelessness does to a person’s ability to be fully on the case? Have they had training in trauma-informed practice? How sustained does ‘failure to cooperate’ have to get before a person has their rights removed?

More research is needed to understand what’s going on. In the meantime, perhaps the next review of the Code of Guidance can provide some clarity, and remind councils that support, not investigations, is the best use of resources.

Why is rough sleeping on the rise in Wales?

The latest rough sleeper figures for Wales are a shocking confirmation of what many of us have suspected for some time now.

Anyone walking the streets of our cities and towns can’t fail to notice how many people are bedding down in the open air, even on the coldest nights of the year.

Everyone is talking about it. But until now we haven’t had any national data to tell us how steep the rise is.

The figures published by Welsh Government this week from their annual monitoring exercise suggest that rough sleeping has gone up 30 per cent in the space of a year, from 240 to 313.

It’s a much steeper increase than England’s, which at 16 per cent still made national news.

And it confirms what many service providers in Wales have been saying: the Wallich’s outreach teams have recorded consistent rises in the number of rough sleepers in all the areas they cover, apart from Bridgend, over the last three years.

We’re also seeing many more rough sleepers at Shelter Cymru – 568 in the last year, which is an alarming 63 per cent higher than the year before.

So what’s going on? Why is it that, despite the successes of our new homelessness legislation, and despite the Welsh Government’s long-term aim to end the need to sleep rough, more and more people are still experiencing street homelessness?

Our inability to tackle this problem partly stems from the inadequacy of our monitoring data. We simply don’t know enough about the extent and nature of rough sleeping to be able to fix it.

Officially, the stats from the Welsh Government’s monitoring exercise aren’t comparable from one year to the next due to differences in the way the figures are gathered.

For Government statistics, this simply isn’t good enough. What we really need is a year-round monitoring regime, supplemented with more in-depth work to learn from people sleeping rough about what they need.

We’ve made great progress in preventing homelessness in Wales over the last few years. But while our legal reforms have meant more people being successfully helped than ever before, people who are living on the streets are still falling through the net.

Our casework suggests that the causes are complex. Austerity and benefits cuts have certainly been contributing factors, along with a severe lack of affordable housing.

We have very little Housing First accommodation in Wales, which is often a better option for people with long-term mental health and substance misuse problems.

There are also issues with some of our emergency accommodation. Our clients often tell us they are too scared of conditions in there, and would rather sleep on the street. This might be one reason why the Welsh Government’s monitoring exercise found that 24 per cent of bed spaces were empty on the night of the count.

Sometimes rough sleepers aren’t even given the option of emergency accommodation. We regularly see clients who are sleeping rough and have been told by their council that they aren’t vulnerable enough to be classed as priority need – despite Welsh Government guidance saying that people sleeping rough ‘are likely to be vulnerable due to the health and social implications of their situation’.

Finally, there are not enough services out there that work flexibly and non-judgementally enough for people who are street homeless. We need more services that understand rough sleepers’ needs and can help them with employment and skills; money and benefits advice; and help to access and sustain tenancies.

Many of these factors are challenging to address, and some of them can’t be done by Wales alone. But we do have some things in our favour: good working relationships between agencies, a commitment to cooperation, and a good level of momentum from the recent successes of the homelessness legislation.

We don’t have big budgets for expensive research exercises, but we do have a shared will and determination to work together to end the need to sleep rough.

The scale of the challenge ahead of us is clear.

The Living Home Standard: how does Wales measure up?

How many people in Wales today live in homes that give them what they need to live, rather than just get by?

When Shelter developed the Living Home Standard, in partnership with British Gas and Ipsos MORI, the aim was to establish a measure that was grounded firmly in what people believe a home needs to be.

Using the same principles as the Living Wage, the Living Home Standard establishes acceptable levels of affordability, decent conditions, stability, space and neighbourhood for the first time.

Our findings show that in Britain four out of ten people (43%) live in homes that by this metric are sub-standard. In Wales the figure is even higher: half of people surveyed (49%) live in homes which fail the Standard. In fact, according to the survey Wales has the second worst housing – alongside the East Midlands – after London.

The biggest reason why homes failed was high housing costs, with two in five people in Wales (39%) living in homes which fail on affordability, compared with 27% across Britain.

More than one in four (28%) in Wales live in homes which fail to meet the Standard because of poor conditions, compared with 18% GB-wide. And the homes of more than one in seven people in Wales (16%) fail due to instability, largely driven by renters who feel they don’t have enough control over how long they can live in their home. Across GB the figure is lower at 10%.

The survey sample size is representative at an all-Wales level but we’re not able to drill down further and look at what differences there are between tenures, for example. More work is needed to find out exactly who are living in substandard homes and where they are.

But in the meantime, these worrying results should be seen as a call to action for Wales to pull together and address the problems we’re facing. Make no mistake: the Welsh Government has good policies in the pipeline, including mandatory licensing for private landlords and agents, tenancy reform, ending the Right to Buy and a commitment to double current levels of affordable housebuilding.

The challenge is for all of us in Wales to ensure these policies achieve their ambitious aims.

Think evictions from Welsh social housing are always a last resort? Tell that to Nerys…

When Nerys’ abusive ex-partner was imprisoned, she and her son moved into a housing association tenancy with the hope of starting a new life. She had been nearly killed in a brutal attack that had left her with mental and physical health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which meant that, for the first time in her adult life, she was unable to work.

From the outset her housing benefit claim was bungled. She had six claim forms sent out to her in the first couple of weeks. ‘It was very confusing,’ said Nerys. ‘And then they sent me a letter telling me I’d been overpaid by £800. So I started off my new tenancy in arrears, through no fault of my own.’

It’s a common enough theme in Shelter Cymru casework – delays and mistakes with benefits applications are often a cause of arrears early in a new tenancy. It’s a situation that social landlords should be used to handling with skill and sensitivity.

Nerys, however, found a less than sympathetic response: ‘Even though I explained my financial situation a number of times, there was never any sense that they wanted to find ways to help me keep my tenancy. There was never any solution or way forward offered to me, at least none that I could possibly afford.

‘I couldn’t manage the repayments they were insisting on. I told them that I would be able to pay as soon as my benefits situation was sorted out but they didn’t seem to accept that.

‘By now I was very low, I felt trapped and helpless. I probably didn’t help myself much around this time, but I felt that no-one was listening to me. I was so depressed and worried about my son and I ending up on the street that I shut down, withdrew, stopped engaging with them. Eventually my arrears built up to nearly £2,000.’

At no point, said Nerys, did her landlord offer her any support to manage her situation.

‘They took me to court over the arrears and arranged for me to pay back £20 a week. I pointed out that there was no way I could afford that until my benefits situation had been sorted out, but it didn’t make any difference to them.’

Nerys’ story is unfortunately not an exception. A new study published today warns of worrying inconsistencies between Welsh social landlords’ approaches to eviction prevention. While there are many examples of landlords working proactively to identify eviction triggers and put early support in place, the study also found multiple examples of poor practice.

A reliance on Notices Seeking Possession as a ‘stick’ to encourage engagement could often have the opposite effect, the stress sending tenants further into withdrawal. Referrals to homelessness services were erratic: of the tenants involved in the study, more than half (55%) didn’t access Housing Solutions services either before or after their eviction.

Last year around 914 households were evicted from Welsh social housing, including around 512 children. The study estimates that dealing with the consequences of evictions costs around £24.3 million a year to the Welsh economy. But what’s more worrying still is the human cost: more than three in four of the people interviewed (77%) were still homeless six months after their eviction.

The rent arrears pre-action protocol is meant to ensure that landlords don’t take tenants to court until basic prevention steps have already been taken. Some landlords have gone even further, putting their own policies in place that go above and beyond the protocol. However, the study suggested that some landlords may not even be following the basic minimum in a consistent way, and even then, the courts don’t always take account of it.

One proposed solution is to scrap the current protocol and replace it with a set of pre-action requirements, similar to those in place in Scotland. Landlords would have to show the court evidence that they’d taken reasonable steps to follow the requirements – which might include interventions such as money advice, help with benefits applications, a support needs assessment, referral to Housing Solutions and independent housing advice.

Many landlords will already be taking these steps as standard practice – but when it comes to something as vital as losing a home, a patchy approach just isn’t good enough.

For Nerys, the stress of the court action made her health problems worse and affected her son’s wellbeing too.

‘I’d like to say that I would have tried not to withdraw, as I did when things were at their worst, but the truth is I was already depressed and exhausted by the time I got the NoSP, and when they just keep saying the same thing over and over, offering no solutions – when you’re depressed anyway, just piling the pressure on makes it worse. You sort of shut down.

‘I was already suffering mental ill health due to my previous experiences and the threat of my son and I ending up on the street just made my condition worse. If I hadn’t had that extra pressure, I might not have become quite so ill, and it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get back on my feet.

‘The stress was dreadful, just dreadful, and I know my son suffered from it too. You try to keep these things from the children as best you can, but they can sense when something is really wrong, they see you with a permanent worried look on your face and it affects them.’

Thankfully, in the end she managed to avoid eviction thanks to a Shelter Cymru support service that she had been referred to, not by her landlord but by the council. Her support worker helped her to apply for Personal Independence Payments and successfully negotiated with the landlord to reduce her unaffordable repayment plan.

‘My support worker was brilliant,’ said Nerys. ‘He worked with me every step of the way and eventually I was awarded PIP, backdated 18 months.’

With her financial situation now sorted Nerys and her son are looking to a secure future.

‘Obviously, this has put me in a much better situation going forward. I now have no arrears, I’m paid up a month in advance and I pay my rent by direct debit.

‘What I would have liked is if there was someone who could have sat down with me, like my support worker did, and work out what was going wrong with my finances and how to sort them out. They didn’t seem to believe that I was trying my best to negotiate this really complicated benefits situation.

‘Talking to friends and family, these benefit problems are really common, it happens to nearly everyone at some stage, and they can lead to a lot of trouble.’