The Starting Point - The Prevention Unlawful Rejection of Applications
The starting point for understanding the law on homelessness is that the councils who administer the system of providing accommodation have only limited supplies of housing to meet the need. They also have limited numbers of staff for running the complex system and limited resources for training those staff and maintaining quality standards.
These pressures mean that the whole system gravitates towards what is known as "gate keeping". This is a process whereby the staff dealing with homelessness applicants look for reasons for not assisting them rather than trying to help them.
Gate keeping is inevitable and means that staff frequently cross the line and turn people away when they should not be doing so. This has led to the term gate keeping be used to refer to unlawful rejection of homelessness applications. It makes more sense to see the entire homelessness application process as being an exercise in gatekeeping. This is not actually as sinister as it seems. If there was no gatekeeping and everyone who asked the council for housing, regardless of whether they were entitled to it, was given accommodation there would soon be none left for the people who were entitled to it and the system would breakdown. The way in Part7 of the Housing Act is drawn up is to allow staff to filter out the most deserving homeless persons who apply and accommodate them whilst filtering out those who are considered not to be sufficient vulnerable or those who have made themselves intentionally homeless. This is lawful gatekeeping.
Most staff who work in local authority homeless persons units have come across people giving false information in support of an application and applicants who become abusive when challenged. This creates an environmentj where council staff are looking for an excuse to reject an application. It means that council staff will frequently go to far and many people will be unlawfully refused assistance and will need to challenge that refusal. The shortage of accommodation also means that people will often be offered accommodation which is not suitable for them and will need to challenge the decision to offer it to them.
The legislation which governs the process recognises the pressure on councils to reject applications or to offer any old accommodation to applicants even though it is not suitable for them. That recognition leads to a number of important duties being placed on councils including
- The duty to make inquiries into an applicant's circumstances. This prevents councils leaving it to applicants to prove their entitlement. An applicant cannot there be expected to prove that they have nowhere to live. If the council are not prepared to accept their account they need to be able to demonstrate that their inquiries have shown that he or she does have somewhere to live.
- The duty to provide temporary accommodation to applicants whom the council have reason to believe are homeless and in priority need pending the outcome of their application.
- The duty to provide the applicant with written notification of the outcome of their application. If the application is rejected by the council then the written notification of the decision must set out the reasons for this. This means that applicants cannot lawfully be turned away by council staff with verbal advice as to why they are not entitled to assistance. It is almost certain that without this requirement of a written decision many applicants who are entitled to assistance would wrongly be turned away.
- The duty to arrange for a more senior officer to carry out a review of a negative decision or a decision to offer accommodation to a successful applicant which the applicant does not consider to be suitable.