57.Throughout our inquiry we have sought to understand the perspective of those who have had first-hand experiences of homelessness. To supplement our evidence sessions, we hosted an online forum on the Money Saving Expert website to invite people to share their stories, we visited the night shelter at The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, we toured the homeless services in Birmingham provided by the council and the charity St Basil’s, we met clients of the Children’s Society who had been homeless after being in care, and we invited three formerly homeless people to give evidence. While it was clear that each person we spoke to had had a very individual experience and had required tailored levels of support, some common themes emerged.
58.One of the clients of The Connection described how working with the charity had given him back the hope that he had lost on the streets. The Connection had provided him with the support he needed to overcome his drug addiction, arranged access to medical care, helped him gain employment and when we met him he had just moved into his new flat. In contrast however, we also heard evidence of services failing homeless people. Daisy-May Hudson and her family were made homeless and spent a year in temporary accommodation until they were offered a suitable home. In their film ‘Half Way’, the family describe their treatment by the local authority as dehumanising and alienating. Ms Hudson told us:
You just feel like you are in this completely isolating experience and the only person that you can speak to is someone on the phone, and really they are just rushing to get you off the phone anyway. There are a lot of things that can be done to help you feel human again at a time when all your sense of being has been taken away.
59.Homeless people can be made to feel that they were part of the problem rather than the victims of circumstance. Mateasa Grant told us about the lack of sympathy when she approached her council for help:
It demotivates you from the moment you walk in the building. My personal experience was when I first sat down and spoke with a stranger and exposed myself to them, I got laughed at in my face by more than one person in the same building. From there I am not really going to want to then expose myself furthermore and I am not going to really want to talk to anybody in that department about the experiences that I was going through, if I feel like I am just going to be subjected to laughter. It is a demotivating process.
60.Daisy-May Hudson told us that the “assumption that you have done something wrong before they even really know your case, particularly on your first day of being homeless, is really tough.” In her experience council staff:
do not understand that one sentence that is said to you over the phone or on a letter has such huge ramifications for your whole life and your family’s whole life. Maybe there needs to be more training in understanding the impact of their words or the impact of their decisions, because while they can leave their office and go home and go back to their house, we are waiting on every single thing that they are saying.
61.There is very little choice for homeless service users. We met with three young men who had been working with the Children’s Society and had been in care and then homeless at a young age. They described to us how they felt that their autonomy had been taken from them and that their concerns were not listened to. One told us that he was placed in a bail hostel alongside criminals and drug-takers when he had just turned 18. Another was repeatedly told that he should live with his mother even though he knew that that relationship had broken down irrevocably. When this proved to be the case, despite his protests and although he was then 18, he was then housed in another family.
62.Daisy-May Hudson told us that when her family were in temporary accommodation, her council offered them a flat which was two hours away from the school attended by her sister who was part-way through her GCSEs. It was also on an estate where there had recently been a fatal stabbing. When the family refused the allocation, they were told that in doing so they would make themselves intentionally homeless and the council would have no further duty to support them. The family sought a review of the decision and were “given a form with three lines to respond as to why the property is not suitable”. They submitted a large amount of evidence, including from the family doctor and the current school, as to why the allocation was not suitable but the council did not consider it sufficient. It was only when the family challenged the decision in the courts that the council agreed to look for alternative accommodation. Ms Hudson explained “What I have noticed is there is a recurring pattern that as soon as you try to dispute anything with the council, they will say you have made yourself intentionally homeless and they can just clear you off the list as quickly as possible”.
63.In 2013 the Gold Standard Programme was launched by DCLG with the intention of “supporting local authorities to improve their frontline housing services and increase opportunities for early intervention and prevention of homelessness”. The programme awards councils gold, silver or bronze status according to their progress in meeting certain challenges. However reports suggest that many councils have not actively engaged with the programme.
64.Ross Symonds, who spent five weeks homeless in Bristol, described the difficulty he had getting a meeting with support services:
You turn up and they would say, “There is nobody available today. Can you come back tomorrow?” You would arrange a time and then go back the next day, and they would go, “No, they cannot see you today. There is training,” or “something has happened”, or “something has overrun”. You would come back the next day and the same thing would happen and then you would get a text message. I must have walked 10 miles a day just on the streets … It was just hugely frustrating.
65.We received similar evidence from Oliver Hilbery from the Making Every Adult Matter coalition. He told us that it was not uncommon for homeless people to have “10, 12 or 15 case workers” and that services were designed as if those using them were not vulnerable and with a range of challenges and concerns including physical and mental health and substance addictions (vulnerable groups and those with multiple complex needs are discussed further in the next Chapter). We found that many homeless services expect users to fit around them rather than catering to the very specific and multiple needs of their client group. Mateasa Grant was told to use Google to find solutions to her homelessness despite being without access to the internet. The Hudson family were expected to be available for appointments at short notice despite work commitments. Ross Symonds spent his day walking from appointment to appointment and had to queue from 4pm to get a bed at a shelter that did not open until 7pm.
66.In Birmingham we saw a positive example of partnership working between the local authority and the charity St Basils. Together they have developed and implemented the Positive Pathways programme to tackle youth homelessness. They provide a range of prevention, accommodation and support services to give young homeless people and those at risk of homelessness the stability, skills and training they need to break the cycle of homelessness. We heard that young people are never told to ‘take it or leave it’ and that all options are discussed and considered jointly. The Positive Pathway model is being adopted by other local authority areas. According to research by Homeless Link, 64 per cent of English authorities either have or are developing a Pathway approach. The Government should take steps to encourage and facilitate the development of Positive Pathway schemes across the country.
67.As a Committee we are supportive of local authorities and the work they do. We understand the financial pressures they are under and the difficult choices they have to make. But treating someone as a human does not cost money. We have received too much evidence of councils and their staff treating homeless people in ways that are dismissive and at times discriminatory. This is unacceptable. The Government should review and reinforce the statutory Code of Practice to ensure it outlines clearly the levels of service that local authorities must provide and encourages regular training of staff to ensure a sympathetic and sensitive service. Services should put users first with a compassionate approach that gives individuals an element of choice and autonomy.
72 Q179 [Daisy-May Hudson]
73 Q180 [Mateasa Grant]
74 Q211 [Daisy-May Hudson]
75 Q193 [Daisy-May Hudson]
76 National Practitioner Support Service ()
77 “Town halls struggle with ‘bureaucratic’ homelessness scheme”, Inside Housing, 12 February 2015
79 Q132 [Oliver Hilbery]
81 Q198 [Daisy-May Hudson]
82 Q198 [Ross Symonds]
83 St Basils () para 1.1
84 St Basils () para 1.4
3 August 2016