To the housing frontline again – where a Greater London council officer I interview tells me about another senseless intentional homelessness threat (you can read earlier interviews with that officer about intentional homelessness cases here).
The officer gives this story as another example of the shambles in council homelessness departments in austerity. Staff shortages, extreme caseloads and a mass of application forms and paperwork created by personal housing plans mean that officers in under-resourced housing offices can too easily lose the thread.
The officer talks about a recent case where a Greater London council threatened to find a woman intentionally homeless. The council made this threat even though the council itself was completely responsible for the woman’s homelessness. The council denied the woman housing benefit for 12 months, because it failed to keep proper track of the woman’s supporting paperwork and evidence. She was ultimately evicted for rent arrears. Brilliant.
The officer was responsible for reviewing the woman’s case.
The woman worked as a cleaner. The officer said that she “worked all hours,” to make ends meet. She still didn’t earn much. She claimed housing benefit to help pay her rent.
Just over a year ago, the woman changed jobs. She let her council know about this change.
That’s when the problems began.
For reasons that the woman never understood, the council shut down her housing benefit claim completely. The council wouldn’t restart her claim, or even set up a new one quickly.
Instead, officers subjected her to a year of a common torture. They demanded that the woman prove her housing benefit entitlement from the very beginning. They kept asking her to send paperwork that she’d already sent. Officers seemed to have terrible trouble recording or recognising this evidence. They kept going back to the woman for more.
The officer says this is par for the course – a comment which won’t be news to anyone who has repeatedly sent paperwork and medical evidence to a council or the DWP, only for it to disappear. There’s a mass of paperwork and not enough people to keep on top of it. Different officers pick up evidence on different days. Officers and agency staff come and go all the time. Readers of this site will know that it’s full of interviews with people whose sick notes got lost, or whose emails were never answered, or whose personal files were mixed up with someone else’s. You can imagine what some of these back offices look like.
Officers in this case kept demanding that the woman supply her tenancy agreement – a document which the council had a record of for her previous housing benefit claim. They asked for this document several times, so the woman brought it in again.
The council demanded a back supply of bank statements, too.
The council also wanted to see the woman’s new wage slips. “Fair enough,” you may think. A council needs to see wage slips to if it’s going to calculate a housing benefit entitlement.
The problem was that the council took issue with the wage slips. Officers decided that they didn’t like the look of them.
It seemed that they thought that the slips were too basic. They weren’t convinced that the woman’s new cleaning job was a “real” job – a “real job” being a job with a well-known company that produces payment advices on letterhead with a recognised logo.
You hear this sort of thing a lot. People work as cleaners, or carers, or in admin for small companies that authorities don’t know, recognise, or rate. Councils demand proof of earnings from people who need to claim housing costs, or homelessness help. Then, councils cast doubts on the paperwork and say they’re not sure the employer exists.
Often, these employers do exist. The problem is that they can be shonky – particularly when it comes to HR. Their systems are poor. Their paperwork is basic. Their practices are dodgy. By comparison, people who work for big, recognised companies don’t know they’re born.
I wrote recently about a young homeless mother who had a hard time convincing her council that she was on maternity leave. Her boss refused to write a letter to confirm her leave. He didn’t want to write the letter, because he didn’t want to draw the council’s attention to himself. That was because he was in trouble with another council department about standards in the business he ran. He was giving the council a wide berth.
So, there’s all that going on at this end of the scene. The person who is trying to get council help is the one that suffers, of course. The officer in this story says that the council’s demands for paper evidence from the woman who’d changed her cleaning job continued for a whole year. A YEAR. The woman didn’t receive a penny in housing benefit in that time.
The upshot was, of course, that she lost her flat. She was evicted for rent arrears.
That’s when the woman turned up at the council’s homelessness office to ask for housing help. That was when she was told she would probably be found intentionally homeless, because she’d been evicted for rent arrears.
And so on and so on – and on and on and on.
Resources, you know – or lack of them. The officer in this story says that in one London council they’ve worked in, homelessness cases in recent times have languished in inboxes for eight months and more, because there aren’t enough officers to take them forward – to find permanent housing for people who’ve been parked in temporary flats and emergency housing and all the rest.
Questions and emails go unanswered. People can go for months without hearing from a council officer. The officer says that the homelessness reduction act can only improve this part of things if money is found to hire a lot more homelessness and housing officers.
Anyway. That’s where vital frontline services are at while politics divert all attention and resources to Brexit. Nothing works. Nothing even makes sense. It’d be a joke, except that homelessness isn’t. You can imagine how thrilled I was to read this week that £100m had been blown on consultants for Brexit. What a great investment that’s been. Suppose that just continues until everything’s gone.