Claims that policy is leaving rough sleepers out in the cold
Local connection ties homeless charities’ hands
The first question many homeless people face when applying for help is something akin to ‘you aren’t from round here are you?’
Increasingly local authorities are insisting upfront that homeless people have a local connection, before doing anything else. It is a trend causing several homelessness charities concern.
They worry that the needs of this virtually invisible group are often being placed at the back of a long line of priorities by many councils.
The existing process to get rough sleepers off the street and back on their feet certainly appears complex and haphazard.
The government’s strategy to reduce rough sleeping is currently under review with a revised strategy due for release at the end of the year.
Steve McKeown, senior development officer at Shelter’s street homeless project, said: ‘More and more, what we’re seeing is that local authorities are applying the local connection test at a very early stage of homelessness investigations.
‘The decision about homelessness is meant to be made before local connection is actually considered.’
He added: ‘If a person is homeless, eligible for assistance, in priority need and not deemed to be intentionally homeless then there is a duty for long-term accommodation, the duty is decided before local connection.’
Another problem is that many charities are petrified of speaking out against councils with ineffective homelessness policies for fear of losing their funding.
One London homelessness charity chief executive said he believed his local council was jumping straight to the local connection policy at its front desk so it did not have to assess rough sleepers. This helped the authority keep its homelessness figures down. ‘My argument is it’s a human right for anyone who is vulnerable and homeless to be assessed,’ he said.
A Blackpool charity said the actual number of street homeless in the town was at least four times that of the official headcount, which was six. A member of staff said: ‘You can’t imagine how much things have changed in the past four years with the local connection [policy].
‘If we take people directly, then we have to refer them back to housing. If they don’t qualify then we won’t be funded by the council.’ He said if rough sleepers were from outside the area, ‘the local council will give them a train voucher back, saying, “look, we’ll give you this train pass and you can return to where you came from”.
‘Our hands are tied. I don’t agree with the policy. If you moved west by 200 yards, someone wouldn’t qualify.’
Often, charities reported, while waiting to produce evidence of their need or connection, the rough sleeper has to continue sleeping out, further exposing themselves to risk and exacerbating any vulnerability. Or they are arrested for vagrancy and detained, while vital assessments may be missed.
However, Mr McKeown said there is a duty to provide interim accommodation while an assessment is being made. This is triggered once the local authority establishes the applicant ‘is homeless and eligible for assistance and there’s reason to believe they’re in priority need [priority need does not have to be proven at this stage]’.
‘The local authority should provide interim accommodation. The interim duty kicks in before the local connection should even be decided.’
He said the interim duty had always been set at a low threshold and comes before questions about whether the applicant is intentionally homeless or has a local connection are even considered.
Even if an applicant is able to prove a local connection, the obstacles don’t end there. The criteria to determine if someone is a priority case are also fraught with difficulties and open to interpretation.
A worker at a Leeds homelessness charity said: ‘The priority need is a big issue. We’ve worked with people who are fleeing violence but don’t have evidence so they then get put in standard needs, which means they won’t be found emergency accommodation’.
‘Without getting into the emergency accommodation pool it’s very difficult to get accommodation.’
A spokesperson for the Communities and Local Government department said that the Housing Act 1996 allowed councils to take an individual’s local connection into account when deciding ‘who gets priority for social housing’.
‘People can establish a local connection with an area because they work there, because they live there, or have done in the past, because they have family living there, or because of some other special reason,’ she said.
‘People accepted as homeless and in priority need who do not have a local connection with the district where they apply for help may be referred to another authority where they do have a local connection.’
Matthew Delarue, community leader of Emmaus Brighton & Hove homelessness charity, believed there were up to 50 rough sleepers in Brighton, ‘which is quite different from the government’s figures’. Brighton & Hove Council said there were 10.
Mr Delarue said Brighton’s homeless problem was ‘really severe’. Two winters ago, three rough sleepers died from hypothermia. ‘That shouldn’t be happening,’ he maintained.
In general, he said, ‘there’s a denial that homelessness is a problem’. ‘It’s not a very glamorous [cause],’ he said.
A spokesperson for the council said it had reduced rough sleeping in the city by 82 per cent since 2001.
She said the council operated a reconnections policy to reduce the number of rough sleepers but would ‘ensure that rough sleepers referred to other areas have accommodation and support available to them when they arrive, thus preventing rough sleeping in these areas’.