When I speak to people who have been homeless about their experience of seeking help from their local council, they often describe feelings of utter frustration and despair. Too many people are not being served by the current legal framework which requires councils to offer accommodation to homeless households, but only in limited circumstances.
Take Julie (not her real name) who ended up in custody with a black eye and other injuries caused by domestic violence at the hands of her partner. She also had a number of health issues, including Hepatitis C, epilepsy and was on a methadone script. There was no way Julie wanted to return to her partner's home, which was being used as a crack house, and where she was at risk of violence.
St Mungo's helped Julie to put her case to her local council and highlighted her medical issues that made her even more vulnerable. The council refused to look at her case prior to her release and in the end they turned her down for emergency temporary accommodation on the basis that she could not be considered homeless.
Julie had never reported her partner's violence to the police and in the absence of an official record of the domestic violence, the council said it was safe for Julie to return to her partner's house. Julie had no choice but to go back to her violent partner. She relapsed, reoffended to support her drug use and returned to custody.
Julie's story is all too common. In 2014/15, 40 per cent of people sleeping rough in London for the first time, who were helped by No Second Night Out, had sought help with their homelessness from their council in the previous 12 months.
At the moment, if someone doesn't fit into the 'priority need' categories that determine who receives help with housing, they are unlikely to receive any effective help from their council to stop them sleeping rough. Instead, people are forced onto the street and have to wait to be found by an outreach worker who can help them into an emergency hub or other temporary accommodation, or sometimes straight into private rented housing.
This is an absurd situation, and not only is it inefficient, it's downright dangerous.
St Mungo's has been calling for improvements to the homelessness legislation through its Stop the Scandal campaign. Our recent investigation into rough sleeping and mental health found evidence that the current legislation is also seriously failing people who end up stuck sleeping rough because of their mental health problems.
This week a panel of experts, convened by Crisis, have published their proposal for improving the existing legislation. The changes would put a new prevention duty on local authorities to help anyone threatened with homelessness to stay in suitable accommodation. Help could come in the form of landlord mediation, support with benefit claims or managing debts, and should be provided at the earliest possible opportunity.
There would also be a duty on local authorities to provide emergency interim accommodation for those who have nowhere safe to stay, regardless of priority need criteria.
It's a sensible, detailed proposal, which builds on lessons from Wales where similar changes have already been introduced and maintains existing protections for homeless families and vulnerable individuals.
I want to see a change in the law to stop people with nowhere to live from being turned away to sleep on the streets. I want to see legislation that puts homelessness prevention first and puts an end to a system that results in more expensive interventions and even costs lives. And so I hope the expert panel's proposal is taken very seriously by government.
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