“If you don’t pay your rent, we’re going to look at every penny you spend and see whether you’re intentionally homeless…” How contempt for homeless people really plays

Posted on November 30, 2017 courtesy of Francis Ryan

This is the third article in a series with a housing officer who talks about the realities of providing housing services at councils in austerity across London and Greater London councils.* There’s a transcript from the interview at the end of this post.

In this article, the officer talks about two issues that should enrage everyone:

1) the grossly unfair intentional homelessness decisions that some councils make

2) the contempt for benefit claimants and homeless people that drives some intentional homelessness decisions and some frontline officers generally. I and others have certainly seen that in the past few years.

The officer in this article says that some housing officers have completely bought into the government line that benefit claimants are scroungers and deadbeats. This won’t be news to some people, but it needs pointing out for those who don’t realise. Some officers are very fair and helpful (I’ve certainly seen that), but some are not. In austerity, government disdain for benefit claimants can trickle down to officers who are supposed to be providing support services for benefit claimants. Trickle down may not work too well when it comes to sharing wealth with everyone, but it works very well indeed when it comes to sharing disdain.

Says the officer:

“Individual [council] managers will be pushing this [finding people intentionally homeless]. [They’ll be] saying, “let’s look at this… they’re [tenants] expected to pay this [rent] shortfall now. This is why we have benefit caps and LHA rates.”

“They have this idea that these people are sort of scrounging cunts – they should be paying their shortfall and if they don’t, we need to find them intentionally homeless…”

and:

“Since 2010, you’ve got all the benefit porn on TV – this whole idea of unemployment and benefit claimants being scroungers and getting the blame for having to bail the bankers out… and that is coming into housing as well.”

Some of the “bullshit” intentional homelessness decisions that this officer has overturned at the review stage include an intentional homelessness finding against a woman who left a flat and the local area to get away from a man who’d raped her, and an intentional homelessness decision made in the case of a woman who was evicted for rent arrears after her abusive husband left and stopped paying rent.

Intentional homelessness decisions can have nasty repercussions. When a council decides that people have made themselves homeless intentionally, the council doesn’t help those people sort their homelessness problems out long term. It holds those people responsible for their homelessness.

I realise that’s a simple take, but simple is fine in this context. That is how people on the rough end experience intentional homelessness. I realise that the Homelessness Reduction Act should improve support to an extent, but I’m not talking about acts, or the rules that staff should follow in this post. I’m talking about the ways people can behave at a point in history when whole societies are encouraged to write benefit claimants off. I’m talking about officer mindsets in austerity. I’m talking about the contempt behind some decisions – the institutional contempt which can permeate minds and organisations at a time when political derision of claimants is rife.

The officer in this article says that this institutional contempt is notable in councils where there aren’t many local law centres or local welfare rights advisers to hold councils to account for housing and intentional homelessness decisions which are unfair and plain wrong.

Says the officer:

“[There was one council in Greater London] – when I went there to work, the council was getting away with murder.

Then… some solicitor joined the local Citizens’ Advice… she was shit hot. They [the council] didn’t know what hit them.

[The CAB] were getting [people coming in with bad] homelessness decisions [made by the council]. The solicitor was going back [to the council] and going, “what the hell are you doing?…I’m going to JR [Judicial Review] you and take you to court if you don’t do something.”

They [the council] were just like running around like their arses were on fire going, “we don’t know what to do now.”

“[The council saw these challenges to its poor housing decisions] like a total affront – like, “this is disgusting. Why should people be allowed to be covered by the law..?” [The council] saw it as like [the solicitor’s] fault… “Who does she think she is, upholding the law…?”

The officer also says that some staff can be needlessly picky when they check through people’s bank statements to decide whether or not people can afford a rent shortfall. Officers even sometimes quibble about the amount people spend on food.

This officer says that some staff will say that people could cut their food costs if they used foodbanks:

“I’ve heard people [in the office] say this – “they don’t need to spend money on food, they can go to a foodbank…”

At one council office, officers were encouraged to tell people with rent shortfalls to buy cheaper food:

“We were told to tell people they could cut their spending by getting a really cheap weekly shop at some supermarkets like Lidl,” and stuff like this.

…it’s penny pinching….it is like this whole attitude around austerity – you are on benefits, you are expected to be cutting back, you are expected to be living on nothing…and if you don’t pay your rent, we’re going to look at every fucking penny you spend and see whether you’re intentionally homeless…

It really isn’t legal and I can’t see a review officer upholding it, to be honest…”

You get the picture.

————–

Here are longer transcript excerpts from the interview with the officer [paragraphs are not in order of interview].

I did not ask councils for statements this time (I did in the earlier articles with this officer) because so few of them answer and I am sick of that. Any council which wants to make a statement on this article can leave a comment:

On welfare reform, benefit and LHA caps, rent shortfalls and people falling into rent arrears and eviction:

“Since you’ve got the benefit caps and the LHA rates, or the rents are going higher than LHA rates, so the gaps [shortfalls between housing benefit and full rents] get bigger and bigger. So you get loads of people getting evicted because of arrears..

The landlords are saying, “I’m just going to evict this person, because it is not affordable for them any more.” They [the tenants] are not intentionally homeless because of that. That’s not their fault.

If [the landlord] is saying, “there’s arrears and this person hasn’t paid… they’re meant to be paying £30 topup a week on top of their housing benefit and they haven’t, then obviously you have to look through all the figures and how much housing benefit they get – how much they’re spending, how much their income is, how much they’re forking out and whether or not that £30 a week was affordable or not. Basically… if you’re on say £73 a week ESA [sic – JSA] – and you’ve got to pay out £30 a week of that on rent and you’ve got to pay out on your council tax, your gas and blah blah…that’s not going to be affordable, is it.

>>

[An example of an incorrect intentional homeless decision] There was a woman in [borough name removed]. [She was in] private rented accommodation. Her husband was working and he was paying the rent out of his wages, because he was earning enough. Then, there was a domestic violence incident. There was an injunction and [he was] told to leave.

He goes and she makes a claim for housing benefit, because she can’t pay the rent. Housing Benefit didn’t pay anything. Housing Benefit said that her husband should be paying the rent even though he was gone and there was domestic violence and all that – so he should be paying the rent. The rent never got paid. She gets evicted and somebody made an intentionally homeless decision on it.

So [as the review officer], I made some enquiries – which was brilliant [not]. You try to ring up [the housing benefit department at this particular council]. You can’t speak to anybody. You have to email. This housing benefit officer emailed me back with his name.

So I ring up saying, “can I speak to this guy,” and they say, “No, they don’t have phones in Housing Benefit.” I was like, “what – no phones at all?” and they’re like, “Nah, you can’t speak to anyone. You have to email them.” It’s like – really?

Anyway – I spoke to them and got the story. It turned out she’s made a claim for housing benefit. [The council is] like, “why can’t the husband pay the rent?”

I’m like, “because he’s left. I don’t know where he is and he’s had an injunction against him because of domestic violence.”

Apparently, the housing benefit officer said, “oh yeah. That’s what everybody says,” and just kind of refused to agree the housing benefit claim.

It’s complete bullshit. Even the social workers I talked to at [this council] said, “yeah, we was involved.” Children’s services was involved, because they always get involved in domestic violence issues with children…

I said, “well – Housing Benefit seems to think that everybody just tries this.” They were like – “this is disgusting.” So – you make a couple of phone calls and you realise that the whole intentional homeless thing is just a load of bollocks. All they are doing is not..understanding the housing benefit decision… the housing benefit officer is an idiot. They’re just going, “well, the housing benefit officer decided that you’re not entitled to housing benefit, so I’m just going to agree with that.”

Homelessness officers – you get some fucking idiots in there, yeah, but they’re masterminds compared to some of the people in Housing Benefit. Some of these cases are just mad…

I had one case in [another borough]. This woman was living in [another part of the country]. She’d been raped. She moved to another part of the region. Then a couple of years later, she was out and she saw this guy who raped her. There was no police prosecution or anything.

She sees this guy again and he sort of recognised her and made comments and stuff like this so obviously she’s scared. So, she comes down to [a Greater London borough] because she’s got friends living there.

Somebody made her intentionally homeless. I said, “why? She got raped and all this.” They are like, “well, I overheard her friend say, “yeah, you’ll be all right. You’ll come down here and you’ll live near me.”

And I was like – “well, wouldn’t you [say that]? You know – your friend’s been raped and she’s scared that this rapist is living near her. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, go and live far away from me,” would you? You would say, “come over here and live near me.”

People just don’t get this. They [officers] just jump on this and say, “see – that just means that [the homeless person] just tried to leave the place,” and “it’s all contrived.”

They’re looking at these people who come in as homeless as sort of subhuman – “you’re all shit. You don’t deserve to live near friends or family or whatever…it’s not your right.”

It’s like the Haile in Waltham Forest case. Basically, this case law – this woman was living in a hostel, like a single person’s hostel, like a YMCA sort of place. She got pregnant and you weren’t allowed to have babies in the hostel and so she would have been evicted.

So, she left the hostel and went to the council.

Waltham Forest said, “you’re intentionally homeless, because you didn’t have to leave that hostel. You left of your own accord. You could have stayed for a lot longer.”

It went to court and they said, “no, she can’t be intentionally homeless, because it was pretty obvious that the accommodation wouldn’t be available to her once she’d had the baby.”

…and this threw everybody into a panic as well, because before then, a lot of councils were making decisions on this. You get an eviction notice and people leave accommodation after a section 21 or whatever. Then, they find they should have stayed there until the eviction notice – but if you note the landlord was actually selling the property, then the property would never be available. You can’t really say they’re intentionally homeless.

We had another case like this – where people left after the section 21 notice expired. The council said, “well, you could have stayed until the eviction notice and so you’re intentionally homeless.”

When it came to me as a review, I spoke to them [the family]. I said, “didn’t anybody tell you that you could stay until the eviction notice?” They said, “no nobody told us that.”

There’s no notes that anybody told them that, nothing specific. It’s like okay – well, you’re not intentionally homeless then, are you. They [council officers] expected somebody just to know that.”

>>

“…but a lot of these [council officers], they’re just obsessed with intentional homelessness…

When you’re doing a case like this, you generally start by doing an income and expenditure form – so you’re asking how much [the tenant] is receiving and how much money they’re taking in, how much money they’re spending and all different things…

…and it’s like the obvious one [that officers pick on] is, “Oh, they’ve got Sky TV. They don’t need that. They’re paying £20 a week on Sky TV, or a mobile phone, so they don’t need that.” They [officers] don’t think… when you start reviewing cases and you go over all this, it’s a bit unfair to say somebody can’t have a mobile phone, or Sky TV…

…the thing is that [people] have contracts for these things. You sign up for Virgin Media or something… you’ve got like a year-long contract, so you sign off for this and after a couple of months, your housing benefit gets reduced, or your rent goes up, or you lose your job, or you have less [work] hours or something, and it suddenly becomes less affordable. You’ve still got a year’s contract to pay on this Virgin Media. Same with mobile phones. If you signed up for some contract, then you’ve still got to pay it. If you don’t, then you can get in more trouble.

>>

“I’ve heard people [in the office] say this – “they [tenants in arrears] don’t need to spend money on food. They can go to a foodbank…” I’ve seen that coming up – people saying they [tenants who are struggling to pay rent] could go to a foodbank [to cut costs], or they could turn the heating off and use more blankets or something…”

It is bullshit… this is why review officers will kick it back. You know [that homeless people] have been through a horrible, stressful time… they’ve lost one house and they’ve been told, “you’re intentionally homeless,” so when it gets to the review stage and you’re actually looking at the law, you can’t really say, “you can actually go to a foodbank to get your food.” What food is in the foodbank? How do you know what’s there? When is it open? You go there and there might only be dog food there.

We were told to tell people they could cut their spending by getting a really cheap weekly shop at some supermarkets like Lidl, and stuff like this.

…it’s penny pinching….it is like this whole attitude around austerity – you are on benefits, you are expected to be cutting back, you are expected to be living on nothing…and if you don’t pay your rent, we’re going to look at every fucking penny you spend and see whether you’re intentionally homeless…

It really isn’t legal and I can’t see a review officer upholding it, to be honest…

>> You get loads of agency temps like it…[who are passionate about finding people intentionally homeless].

They seem to think…that it [finding people intentionally homeless] makes them good at their job – like “I’m a hired gun, so I can come in and make intentionally homeless decisions.”

There was [a temp] I worked with who was obsessed with intentional homelessness. All you could hear every day was, “this person is IH, this person is IH, I’m making this person IH…” The level of excitement that come with it…[but] half the cases were being chucked back at [this temp] when it got to the review stage.

Then [the temp would say] “why are they not upholding it [the intentional homelessness decisions] with the reviews? Why are they throwing the review cases back?”

Well – it’s because your decisions are shit. That’s why.

I don’t know [what happens] with cases where people haven’t found a solicitor [to appeal an intentional homelessness decision]. Not every area in London has a load of solicitors that are taking on more work.

If I see people, I tell them to go to a solicitor at least and get them to deal with it…but [not everyone will know to how to challenge a council decision]. An ordinary person being told that they’re intentionally homeless is just going to think – What do I do now?

When you’re looking at intentional homelessness… what you find, every council I’ve worked in is there is staff that are absolutely obsessed with it. This is the thing with intentional homelessness. It’s not like the council have a policy where they really want to find people intentionally homeless, or anything. They don’t want to house people generally, so anything that doesn’t involve housing somebody is good for them, but it is generally different members of staff [who make intentional homelessness decisions] and they are obsessed with it… especially if they’re evangelical Christians [laughs] but it’s true…

Someone I worked with in [a Greater London council] – everyone who came into the council [to make a homelessness application], this officer is like, “they’re intentionally homeless, they’re intentionally homeless, they’re intentionally homeless.” I ended up taking on a load of their cases, because they were so behind in their cases, because they were so intent on finding everybody intentionally homeless…

They don’t even want to look at the other elements of [someone’s housing problems]. A lot of it is just about rent arrears. Probably about seven out of ten possible intentional homelessness cases… comes down to rent arrears…

You can’t find somebody intentionally homeless if the property wasn’t going to continue to be available… they would have been homeless anyway, even if they paid the rent and everything. So it is completely irrelevant.

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