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Councils accused of breaking the law by failing to provide suitable accommodation for homeless people

One homeless child suffering from bone cancer is now sleeping in his grandmother's dining room

Daniel Smee
Friday 25 March 2016 22:16 GMT
A 2013 report on B&Bs found that homeless people face threats of theft, blackmail and sexual exploitation from owners.
A 2013 report on B&Bs found that homeless people face threats of theft, blackmail and sexual exploitation from owners.

Councils are being accused of breaking the law by failing to provide suitable accommodation for homeless families.

In one case discovered by The Independent, a homeless child suffering from bone cancer, initially stuck in hospital because Camden council failed to provide suitable accommodation, is now sleeping in his grandmother’s dining room.

His father sleeps next to him on the floor. He is currently undergoing intensive chemotherapy and his doctors and other medical professionals have confirmed that accommodation offered by Camden council is not suitable.

His father said: “It’s an extremely difficult situation. I just want the best for my child. He keeps talking about killing himself, and the housing situation is really not helping.

“My son is in a wheelchair and Camden keep offering me accommodation that isn’t wheelchair accessible.”

Another homeless family with three children, placed by Newham council in mouldy, mice- and cockroach-infested, overcrowded accommodation outside of the area, faced being split up due the council’s own failings.

The father is a full-time carer for his disabled wife, who is wheelchair bound and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, pulmonary tuberculosis, severe asthma, and depression. The accommodation provided to them by Newham council is not wheelchair accessible. The travel time for the children to attend school is two-and-a-half hours each way.

Case study: Tragedy after move

Katie and her children were moved from Bromley to temporary accommodation in Southwark after she became homeless. Her son Matthew was prescribed the wrong inhaler by a new GP and died after having an asthma attack. Katie now suffers from depression and regular panic attacks. 

There is no future after losing your child,” Katie said. “You can’t comprehend the future because it’s too painful and all your plans, hopes, dreams just fly out the window. I just get up in the morning, find a way to get through the day, then go back to bed at night.”

In February 2013, a court order demanded Newham provide suitable accommodation to the family within eight weeks, but this was ignored by the local authority, leaving the director of housing in contempt of court and facing a possible prison sentence.

As the family languished in dangerous and unsuitable housing, the mother subsequently became suicidal, her mobility decreased, and she constantly struggled with chest infections and breathing difficulties.

In April 2014 the children were removed and placed in foster care by the local authority they were moved to, due to the father being overburdened in his role as primary carer, the childrens’ poor attendance at school, the childrens’ frequent illness and the poor condition of the family home. The children were then returned to their parents in April 2015, but again face being taken from their mother and father because of the condition of the property and the strain the family is under.

The family is now seeking to judicially review Newham council for breach of their legal duty to suitably house the family, and for ignoring 2013’s court order to rehouse them.

Councils are spending around £2m every day on bed and breakfast accommodation in the private sector, much of which is unsuitable and even dangerous. In London, councils spent over half a billion pounds (£667m) in the last financial year on bed and breakfast according to a report published in February and commissioned by London Councils, with £170m not funded by central government and paid for out of other council budgets.

The pressure on finding accommodation in the midst of a deepening housing crisis means that bed and breakfast providers are auctioning off rooms to councils. The Independent understands that, despite attempts made by London boroughs not to compete and outbid each other for accommodation, this is still happening.

As the February report states: “One [housing] officer commented on his rent negotiations with temporary accommodation providers: ‘They were pretty much phoning round and playing us [boroughs] all off each other, saying “x is offering £34 on that, will you offer £35?”’”

Regulation for bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families is practically non-existent, meaning poor conditions are common. The owners of B&Bs are frequently not background checked by councils, or proprietors use family members as directors, meaning that even those with a criminal history may be used by councils to house families.

A 2013 report on B&Bs found that homeless people face threats of theft, blackmail and sexual exploitation from owners.

London Councils are yet to respond. Newham and Camden councils could not be contacted for comment.

Case study: Pregnant and homeless

In 2013, Mary, who was eight-months pregnant when she had to move from London to Birmingham, lost her child after collapsing from exhaustion and stress caused by the re-location. The stress of being homeless and of moving 120 miles away had severely damaged her health.

Mary was kicked out of her mother’s flat when she became pregnant.

“I was 26 weeks the first time I went to the council and they said they couldn’t help me and asked me to leave,” Mary said. “I walked around Westfield shopping centre in Stratford until it closed and then I sat on the 25 night bus.

“The second night I went to the police and they referred me to a homeless shelter, but it was full. I went back the third day and I was told I’d be put in Birmingham. Being homeless and pregnant was so very hard. I went to my doctor and said I’ve had enough of living. I was so down.

“The second week after I’d been moved to Birmingham I was hospitalised for four days. I was dehydrated, my blood pressure was low, I had low potassium, low iron. I was on a drip. The doctors weren’t comfortable with me leaving the hospital. I hadn’t been eating or drinking properly; because of the stress I guess.”

Mary’s baby was due on 6 August 2013 but she miscarried in July. Soon after the baby died, a housing officer from her council called Mary to ask if she was speaking to any journalists.

Her current whereabouts could not be established. Her unborn child is buried in a graveyard in Birmingham.

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