Lambeth council is systematically contriving to stop people in housing need get emergency accommodation, campaigners have charged.
Members of Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) say that the council’s housing department operates a “gatekeeping” system to prevent people getting a “housing assessment”, which is a statutory right.
They are calling on the council and, in particular, the council cabinet member for housing, Matthew Bennett, to put a stop to the practice.
A council spokesman said: “Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth have contacted us several times regarding a small number of cases.
“We have investigated these and provided full responses to them on multiple occasions.”
He said: “We thoroughly assess all homelessness applications and deal with them appropriately.
“There is ever-increasing demand for accommodation of all kinds in Lambeth and we work hard to direct to available resources those who are most in need.
“In accordance with the Housing Act 1996, our allocation scheme gives preference to applicants judged to be in the most need. Applicants are kept fully informed of the level of their priority throughout.
“Accusations of ‘gatekeeping’ are both unhelpful and unfounded.”
Campaigners say that the experiences of two people with severe housing problems illustrate how gatekeeping works.
Ruth (not her real name) was living with her daughters in one privately rented room in a shared house in Stockwell.
HASL says that her circumstances meant she was legally “homeless”.
After approaching the council a number of times for help with housing, she approached HASL.
Because Ruth’s first language is not English, she had first sought advice from an organisation based in Westminster, which had advised her to approach Lambeth council – the borough in which she was living.
But, says HASL, Lambeth housing staff told her she should apply for help in Westminster because that is where she had asked for advice.
While being denied help by Lambeth, Ruth, who is partially sighted, was also assaulted in the shared house her family lived in.
When she visited Lambeth housing department again because of the assault, HASL says she was told that nothing could be done until she had reported the assault to the police.
Campaigners who took up her case said that the council’s housing appeals department was “in chaos” with formal requests for a review of decisions in Ruth’s case going unanswered.
The council at last agreed to find her emergency accommodation in Lewisham – meaning a two-hour-each-way commute back to Lambeth for a child at school.
“I’m still waiting for an answer,” she says. “Every day I am. My daughters are too – desperately waiting to move back to Lambeth because they have many activities in the borough they can’t go to any more and it makes them so upset.
“I don’t know how to calm them down – it makes me feel terrible. When they do exams and they arrive late to school because of the long journey, it makes them feel so bad. How much longer will I have to wait?”
The campaigners’ second example is a young single woman with severe health problems, Jane (also not her real name), who has lived in Lambeth all her life.
She had kept off the street by squatting and sofa-surfing and applied to Lambeth council for housing in March 2016.
HASL said she went to Lambeth council’s housing department where she requested a homeless application and was told by the receptionist that she had been booked in for one.
She attended this meeting and was told that a homeless application would be opened for her. Later, when Jane questioned what had happened to her case, she was told that it was never a homeless application but had in fact been “housing assessment for a single person”.
But after the original meeting she had submitted further documents and been reassured that the process was for a homeless application.
“We find it particularly sinister that a housing officer would behave in this way,” says HASL – “pretending the whole time that an application was being processed knowing that it was not.” It said staff had “blatantly lied to us”, and had done so in other cases.
The campaigners say that it was only after a member of their group who is a lawyer drew up a letter warning the council that its action could be subject to judicial review that Jane was told she would get a homelessness assessment.
But, in what the campaigners describe as a “spiteful” and “petty” action, the Lambeth housing department said there was a problem with paperwork and refused to review Jane’s situation. The campaigners say that the problem was not drawn to anyone’s attention until it was almost too late but that, even then, it had not been sorted.
Members of HASL, who try to accompany people seeking emergency housing, say they have witnessed other homeless people being turned away and that such behaviour is “systemic”.
One member of staff had told an applicant that they could “see” merely by looking at someone that they were not in priority housing need.
HASL said: “We want accountability from the council and this means a resolution of these cases, and guarantees that this never happens in future.
“With rising homelessness in the borough and across London, it is more important than ever that homeless people are given the help they are entitled to and treated with respect.
“I felt extremely demoralised by my experience,” said Jane. “Dealing with homelessness and the homelessness application process is difficult enough – finding out that the housing officer never bothered to start the application despite his reassurances and his legal obligation to, makes things even worse.
“This wasn’t a case of human error – him forgetting to process it, because I emailed and visited the housing office about the case, and each time he reassured me it was being processed.
“They have made me endure homelessness for an unnecessary extra two months. The homelessness is worsening my medical conditions, as is the stress caused by the council.
They make it such a struggle that you want to give up, which of course, is entirely their plan.
“I also feel furious at the multiple lies told to my face to deny me my rightful access to housing. I feel thankful that I’ve got the support and solidarity of my housing action group so I’m not going through this alone.”
In September last year Lambeth council’s cabinet agreed to approve retrospectively decisions that had already taken by officers to contract out appeals against homelessness decisions.
In April 2016, the cabinet had agreed to pay RMG Ltd, a housing services provider, a fixed fee to undertake such reviews.
But, before then, to deal with “capacity issues” and a backlog of 250 appeals, officers had used RMG on an “ad hoc” basis. Appeals had been taking, on average, 240 days to complete when, by law, they should have taken no more than 56.
The council later realised that this approach was not lawful.
The cabinet meeting heard that the backlog of appeals fell by 70% after RMG took over the appeals entirely in April last year.