• The work of hostel residents involved in the Homeless Action campaign has exposed critical failings in the housing assessment system spanning frontline services to Ministerial level
  • Misassessments mean that homeless cases aren’t being counted properly in official statistics and social housing is out of reach for homeless applicants
  • Government using ‘housing options’ initiative to promote insufficiently regulated private sector
  • Grassroots Homeless Action group are calling for new social housing to be purpose-built and targeted to end homelessness.

 

Homeless but not ‘homeless’?

Thomas Morrow is 21, homeless and has been living in hostel accommodation for a year, after the depression he had been suffering for years took a serious toll on his family relationships. After his move to a Larne hostel in November 2013, he contacted the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) to be assessed as a homeless applicant and join the waiting list for social housing.

He was assessed and subsequently awarded 20 housing points.

This means the Housing Executive had effectively rejected his homeless claim and assessed him below the basic 30-point minimum for being considered in ‘Housing Stress’.

In short, even though Thomas was homeless and required to live in a homeless hostel, the NIHE did not consider him homeless.

Of all the details of Thomas’s severe situation, the NIHE only awarded points because he was sharing all basic living facilities (kitchen, bathroom, toilet, living room) with more than 15 strangers.

A year later and despite having presented his case to the Chief Executive of NIHE in writing and in person, Thomas remains on 20 points, without any offers of social housing and no prospect of receiving any. In August he began working with Homeless Action, a project run by Simon Community NI and human rights organisation PPR. As a result he has begun campaigning to be allocated social housing, a fight which he had all but given up on.

“If I get a job, I’ll lose my Housing Benefit and have to pay over £100 per week just to stay in the hostel”

Recently, when he attended for reassessment, his housing officer maintained that he wasn’t due points for homelessness and suggested that Thomas try to register for Disability Living Allowance in order to receive more points.

Thomas is not optimistic about being able to access the private rented sector, either:

“If you’re in a hostel and you aren’t employed, Housing Benefit pays for your space but there’s no way you can afford to save up to rent somewhere. I get £114 Jobseeker’s Allowance a fortnight and £30 of that still goes to the hostel as a service charge. If I get a job, I’ll lose my Housing Benefit and have to pay over £100 per week just to stay in the hostel. I’ve very little work experience and wouldn’t earn anywhere near enough to pay for a hostel space and save up a deposit and first month’s rent.”

(Lack of) ‘Housing Options’

Between financial hardship and the Housing Executive’s denial of points, opportunities are extremely limited as Thomas seeks a permanent move out of hostel accommodation.

Perhaps that’s where Smartmove Housing, the government’s new ‘housing options’ initiative, could come to his aid. Here’s a screenshot from the scheme’s website:

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The idea behind the scheme is that people experiencing homelessness can ‘expand’ their ‘options’ and rent a private sector property by having their deposits and upfront rents paid on their behalf. The tenant then gradually repays those costs, along with subsequent rent, while participating landlords enjoy the free management service provided by Smartmove. To date, the scheme has been piloted in 12 areas using a limited number of properties owned by participating landlords and is now being evaluated for roll-out across Northern Ireland.

All very well, until you consider that in order to register as a prospective tenant, Smartmove requires you to remove yourself from the NIHE waiting list.

And here’s the problem.

Horror stories of experiences with private landlords abound. Many of the hostel residents we work with speak of poor conditions, poor maintenance responses, extremely high rents and short tenancies where residents are left homeless again after one year, etc. And when this comes about, you are starting all over again, off the housing waiting list and without any points. And invariably, back in a hostel.

Crucially, many human rights protections, which can be delivered through publically accountable social housing, are absent when it comes to the insufficiently regulated private sector. Yet government policies to tackle homelessness seem intent on promoting private sector solutions while rendering the social housing system increasingly pointless.

All of this begs an important question about the nature of these ‘housing options’: if the Housing Executive are putting social housing out of reach for the likes of Thomas by denying homeless points, and if his only other opportunity to move on from hostels requires de-registering from the waiting list, where exactly in this process do Thomas’ ‘housing options’ kick in?

Exception or the rule?

You may be wondering if the difficulties Thomas has faced in dealing with Larne Housing Executive are completely anomalous.

They aren’t.

Here are just two additional examples of cases in which people in different areas have received only 20 points despite being registered at a hostel address:

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In fact, four other Homeless Action activists sitting on 20 or less points for at least six months presented their case in writing to the NIHE Chief Executive in recent months. Thanks to their persistent campaigning, one has now been allocated social housing, two have received Full Duty Applicant status with 70 additional points and one is awaiting a response.

But why does it take such efforts to receive the priority homeless status that it seems so obvious should be afforded to people who are, after all, clearly ‘homeless’?

Homeless points explained

On October 9th a group of five hostel residents involved in the Homeless Action campaign met with one of their local Bangor MLAs, Peter Weir of the DUP.

During the meeting, the group told their stories: how they had come to live in a hostel, how being forced to share temporary accommodation had impacted on their daily lives, health and wellbeing. Perhaps most importantly, they talked about the many barriers impeding their efforts to find a home and enjoy their right to housing. Like Thomas, they had experienced difficulties dealing with the Housing Executive, the body with statutory responsibility for responding to homelessness in Northern Ireland.

After hearing about the residents’ experiences, Mr Weir returned to Stormont and tabled a number of questions to be answered by the Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey MLA. They included the following:

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Mr Weir asked the Minister to “detail the points awarded to Housing Executive applicants as a result of living in hostel accommodation.”

Minister Storey’s answer to the question about points for those in hostels, which appeared on the Assembly website in November, stated that “the information requested is published and can be found on page 28 of the Housing Selection Scheme document on the Housing Executive’s website”.

It is here that you can find a table summarising the different circumstances which all social housing applicants will receive points for.

The points which should be awarded in homeless cases are shown in Section 2:

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A more comprehensive answer would have explained that an applicant can only receive either Full Duty Applicant (FDA) points or Other Homeless points, not both.

FDA points are awarded when the applicant is considered to have ‘priority need for accommodation’ based on the Housing Order 1988. In 2013-14, 51% of the 18,862 ‘households’ (i.e. individuals and families) declaring homelessness were given FDA status with 70 points.

Interim Accommodation points are only awarded in FDA cases where the applicant has already spent six months in temporary accommodation. They are also the only one of the three which is awarded exclusively “as a result of living in hostel accommodation”. The other categories can include any form of homelessness, such as rough sleeping or sofa-surfing.

For those who aren’t FDA i.e. homeless but somehow non-priority according to legislation, the Minister could have pointed back to page 11 of the Housing Selection Scheme, which explains that under rule 24, ‘Other Homeless’ cases include those where:

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So anyone who is homeless and “could not be reasonably be expected to seek suitable, alternative accommodation” should swiftly receive 50 points for being ‘Other Homeless’, along with points according to other circumstances.

“It’s up to the Housing Executive to determine whether someone is homeless intentionally and, again, the experience of hostel residents shows they often get it wrong”

Of course, this applies to the vast majority forced to spend even one night in cramped, stressful and supposedly ‘temporary’ hostel accommodation. Given the factors which contribute to homelessness – including poverty, unemployment, physical and mental ill-health, addiction, isolation – if you are in a hostel then there is no ‘suitable, alternative accommodation’. People living in hostels often face a stark choice between waiting for social housing for months or years, or simply accepting that nothing can be done to solve their housing crisis.

Exceptions to this ‘Other Homeless’ rule are those who have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, by knowingly doing something to lose a home they could have reasonably remained in. It’s up to the Housing Executive to determine whether someone is homeless intentionally and, again, the experience of hostel residents shows they often get it wrong.

The Minister’s answer gets almost nowhere in terms of detailing what points should go to hostel residents. Anyone looking at the table he refers to could be forgiven for thinking that 20 ‘Interim Accommodation’ points are all that should result such a situation. Home in on the details and it soon becomes clear that there is no justification for denying at least 50 homeless points to Thomas and his fellow activists.

Homeless point (mis-) applied

The Housing Executive’s misassessment in these cases bizarrely and wrongly implies that people living in hostels are not homeless, or even in ‘Housing Stress’.

This means that many homeless people are not receiving all the housing points they are entitled to, which leads them to give up on social housing and turn to the private sector. Statistically, it means the true extent of homelessness is being hidden, as the number of people registered as homeless in Northern Ireland is minimised.

It also seems that the Minister for Social Development cannot reliably inform us of how many points should result from living in hostel accommodation.

What, therefore, are the chances that marginalised and vulnerable people living in hostels and hoping to realise their right to housing will be able to find out where they stand?

Homeless Action Charter

For Thomas and hundreds of other hostel residents who have spoken out through the Homeless Action initiative, the predicament is clear. Decades of governmental failure to respond to growing housing need has produced a situation where social housing is in crisis and the safest bet for those in power is to whittle ‘housing options’ down to private renting only. Anyone attempting to persuade the many thousands facing homeless in Northern Ireland every year that the private sector can end homelessness will have their work cut out. Putting the most vulnerable people at the mercy of the most unregulated part of our housing sector is not providing ‘options’. It is an acknowledgment that as a society we are abandoning a critical social ‘safety net’ which protects people.

The Homeless Action Charter outlines changes recommended by those who are homeless to the Northern Ireland Executive. They are modest recommendations – small steps to addressing a massive problem – and based in international human rights standards. One of them is calling for all new social housing schemes to include ring-fenced units specifically for the purpose of ending homelessness. Now it needs to be implemented.

Michael Moore | PPR |