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Masthead Local Govt - Housing

Council rapped after homeless family left to live in hotel rooms for three years

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has sharply criticised a city council after a family, including children with disabilities, shared a single hotel room for more than three years because the local authority did not treat their housing and homelessness applications properly.

The LGO claimed that a number of council departments at Bristol City Council were aware of the family’s problems, including Children’s Services, but nothing was done about their housing situation until the Ombudsman got involved.

The family, which includes two children with visual impairments, first called on Bristol for help in 2014 when they were evicted from their private tenancy flat.

The two older children were being schooled in their hotel room, and at one point staff at a hotel raised concerns about the children. Children’s Services became involved, but their situation was not referred to the housing department, the LGO said.

The father regularly tried to register for housing, but the council failed to accept these applications, “even after he told the council they had a new baby with disabilities”, the Ombudsman added.

The family found private lets on a number of occasions, and asked the council for help with a deposit. “But they lost the properties because the council took too long to look at their applications.”

Following an investigation, the Ombudsman criticised a number of aspects of the council’s handling of the family’s housing situation:

  • In 2014 the council reopened an application originally made to it in 2005 – the council then neither closed this application nor assessed it as an active application. “This meant the family could not complete an online application as the council still had an application open for them.”
  • Bristol failed to inform the family about the open application, so the father was not able to ask the council to reassess it.

The city council said it would not have used its discretion to house the family as it had previously found them intentionally homeless. However, the family had an urgent need to be housed and the council could and should have considered this, the LGO argued.

The Ombudsman’s investigation also criticised the council’s use at the time of a ‘pre-application checker’ for its online housing application, which prevented people from registering if they met certain criteria. “This was unlawful, and prevented people using their right to apply for a review of their housing application decision. The council no longer has this checker.”

The LGO said Bristol’s Children’s Services were also found to be at fault for failing to carry out a full assessment of the children’s situation sooner, and for failing to address the accommodation needs of the children.

Bristol has now housed the family and agreed to wipe off the whole contribution the father agreed to make for storage costs, in recognition of the trouble and distress its actions caused when it stopped paying for storage.

The LGO has also called on the city council to:

  • pay the father £8,400 for the delay
  • pay a further £600 for the time, trouble, frustration and distress it has caused
  • confirm in future “it will follow the law and not automatically end its duty to store the belongings of people it has found intentionally homeless”.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said: “During our investigation, the council followed our recommendation and registered a housing application from the family. That they found a home within two months of being on the register suggests just how desperate the family’s situation was.

“I’m pleased the council has now agreed to some of our recommendations and would urge it to accept the rest of them. The recommendation we have made to improve services should prevent this sort of thing happening to other families in the city.”

In a joint statement, Cllr Paul Smith, Cabinet Member for Homes and Communities at Bristol, and Cllr Helen Godwin, Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Families, said: “We would like to apologise for any hurt caused to the family and for any failures that led to them living in unsuitable conditions for such a long time.

“While we recognise that the situation was unacceptable for a family with young children, we do believe that we tried to do our best for the family on a number of occasions. This includes making discretionary housing payments available on two occasions, to help the family find private rented sector accommodation."

The councillors said that in March 2017 the local authority took a new homelessness application and accepted the family’s application for social housing. In June 2017 the family were allocated a three bedroom council house.

“The welfare of families is a priority for the council and safeguarding the health and wellbeing of vulnerable young people is something we take very seriously. We recognise however that on this occasion we did not live up to our usual high standards," Cllr Smith and Cllr Godwin said.

“This has been a particularly unusual case due to the length of time since the application and the difficulties in being able to make meaningful contact with the family."

They added that the council would be complying with all recommendations set out in the report, and had already addressed most of the issues raised and "learned some valuable lessons from this case".

The councillors claimed that working relationships between departments within the council, external partners and agencies had  vastly improved, but added that they recognised that further work was needed to ensure that there was a joined up approach to delivering services.

A range of actions are to be set out in an action plan that will be implemented and overseen by the Head of Housing Options and as recommended, the report will now be fully considered by Cabinet.


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