N Beresford presented the update on the implementation of the Homeless Reduction Act and asked the Committee for questions.
Cllr England said congratulations on this work, it’s really important, people in highly stressful situations that maybe they didn’t expect. Cllr England added that the report is percentages within percentages, so 80% of 60% were vulnerable people which means 48%, so about half of people coming through the doors are vulnerable. They are coming to us with a problem and we need you to help, the Homelessness Reduction Act has absolutely been a culture change and there has been more caseload, you are dealing with a lot so keep it going.
Cllr Pringle asked about the high proportion that are vulnerable does not translate into high needs for housing, clearly vulnerable people are very highly represented in that group, do they need assistance and early intervention before it gets to that stage. In particular you mentioned a number of agencies that are not joined up, does that include social services, education, CAMHS, NHS, etc. At what level is there responsibility for ensuring that these are joined up and these interventions are put in place before people actually get to this stage. N Beresford said that you were right, the level of vulnerability isn’t necessarily borne out in the vulnerability in relation to housing, so the vulnerability around complex behaviours, drug and alcohol misuse or mental health, is aside from any other vulnerability in relation to the client have fled domestic abuse or having a financial vulnerability or have been subject to exploitation, it’s very separate. There are a whole other traits that we are having to deal with. In relation to joined up, it’s all of those agencies that proves very challenging for us on a daily basis, there is a high proportion of our clients that are crossing all of those services at any one time, so when a client comes to make a homeless presentation there is a very high likelihood that they will have been a history of rent arrears, engaging with ASB team, have come across the Community Safety Unit or the Police, it’s a particular challenge. We have tried to engage with the agencies and we have worked quite hard to try to achieve that, the reason the Mental Health Sub Group was set up with the support of Cllr Tindall, was because we had difficulties in actually getting Adult Care Services and Community Mental Health to consistently attend our Homeless Forum and to this day they do not. We have excellent core support from the voluntary sector agencies, but trying to get other statutory agencies involved and engage is very challenging. A lot of that is due to resourcing and the challenges of managing a client base, because we have the same challenges here, in terms of managing increasing caseload with the same numbers of staff.
C Thomas added that we’ve only been in place since the beginning of the year but we’ve made some great inroads already through our connections with the CCG, we were able to include some requirements in the tender contract that went out to the services. For example they are required to engage with certain services and take a more flexible approach to the complex cases for who the natural system doesn’t work due to the nature of their needs. We’ve been able to influence that in the tender documents. We are working closely with HPFT to try and create a separate pathway for a particular cohort of that complex group, someone whose needs are so complex that the normal processes do not work and we are looking at different projects and models to reach that core group of people that we are seeing an increasing approach for.
C Hayford mentioned that the biggest challenge is that our partners believe that Housing is the cause of everything, so if someone is homeless rather than look at other issues, like mental health, finances, etc. they all look to us for help. At the moment there are 10 young people waiting in temporary accommodation where we don’t even know we can move them to, because general needs are not suitable as they can’t manage their own tenancies and there are no supported housing schemes to refer them to. Also when you contact other partners, they all say no it’s a housing problem. The other issue is where there is a duty to refer them to us and at the moment the only agency that’s referring them to us is Job Centre Plus, they all wait until it hits crisis and they just turn up on the day homeless or discharged from the hospital with mental health issues.
N Beresford said that the service is delivering a very good service currently, but when there are pressures we may have five emergencies turn up on the day requiring immediate temporary accommodation, if we could have been made aware of problems several weeks prior where they had interacted with some of those statutory and voluntary organisations who are not complying with the duty to refer, we could have helped before crisis point.
The Chairman asked what the solutions were. N Beresford replied that the Government are looking at whether they should set up Homeless Reduction Boards to try co-ordinate around managing that. N Beresford was unsure if that would help as these organisations have all known that for the last two years there is a duty to refer and those aren’t being done, which means there is a lot of firefighting and crisis management.
Cllr Oguchi mentioned the report says that 40% of approaches are made when the applicant is threatened with homelessness and that every time she had discussed homelessness with someone they always said that they have approached the Council as soon as they get the letter of eviction or telling them to vacate and the Council says they have to wait until they are actually homeless, this is what people think they have to do and what I’ve been told. Also if you are saying you do not get referrals Cllr Oguchi asked if these might be related. C Thomas confirmed this might be a hangover from the way things were before the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act. When the HRA came in it introduced three stages, the duty for local authorities to act when someone is threatened with homelessness, before this local authorities were expected to but it wasn’t a duty, a lot of local authorities waited until they had the bailiff warrant and at that point we will help because they are homeless. There are a thousand things that happen which could mean they weren’t homeless so a lot of local authorities would push back, from my time here and prior to the HRA we were never like that we never made anyone wait until a court order or a bailiff warrant, we started working with them once they got their notice, but that mentality you are describing is very the attitude of a lot of local authorities up and down the country.
N Beresford added that it is still a mentality with a lot of London boroughs because the implementation of the HRA has placed a significant additional burdens on local authorities and we are now seeing applicant to staff ratio are much higher. Also time in temporary accommodation has more than doubled. For local authorities that do not have access to their own stock, it places significant burdens in terms of the numbers they have in temporary accommodation, colleagues in other local authorities in Hertfordshire in comparison to our 120 families in temporary accommodation, which would be considered a fairly small homelessness problem. In Broxbourne they have got nearly 900 people in temporary accommodation. There is a significantly larger problem as you get closer to London and there are still local authorities who will say come back when you have the bailiff warrant or when you’ve been physically evicted, but for me that poses more of a challenge for Officers and trying to find emergency interim accommodation, we would far prefer to be engaging with someone well in advance of the notice being issued by their landlord. As soon as they start to experience problems in paying rent or harassment from the landlord we need to know at the earliest possible opportunity.
Cllr Pringle advised that following the comments made about the sparse attendance of other agencies at the Mental Health Sub-Group set up by Cllr Tindall and also the remarks made about statutory agencies not referring, essentially leaving you in a fire fighting situation, which is an ineffective way of using resources and if other sources cannot send people to the strategy meeting, because they are in that situation too. It would seem that the limited resources available are ineffectually used. Cllr Pringle suggested that if there is evidence that it is the lack of resource that is preventing the other statutory bodies from sending people to this meeting, that these invitees are written to with a clear reminder of the purpose of the meeting, what could be achieved and ask for the reason they haven’t been able to send people, if it is a resourcing issue, then surely that ought to be brought up at the level of those who resource them. We need to have accountability and understand the causes are of what appears to be complete inefficiency in tackling a very serious problem. N Beresford said it was a problem that occurs across all services, more often we’re being asked to do more with a lot less and there are often a number of meetings in diaries that clash and you can’t attend all of them, it’s not always possible to send representation, so we’ve been advised it’s resourcing or emergencies have come up on the day. We have engaged with senior managers at the key organisations, like the CCG, CMHT and Herts County, so that’s been raised directly at the Dacorum Strategic Network, chaired by out Chief Executive and The Leader, there have been conversations with CCG, which has led to establishing the Mental Health Working Group and direct contact with a commissioning officer, which has been invaluable, but it still hasn’t removed the problem with the lack of engagement at the Homelessness Forum. We tend to find the majority of attendees are either Council staff or our extended voluntary sector network, also the Police are very good at supporting the Homelessness Forum with the Community Safety Unit, and the people missing from the table are the ones representing health and vulnerable adults and children.
Cllr England asked who are the top 3 biggest referrers that you would like to see an improvement in behaviour and do you think increasing familiarity with the HRA will achieve that and how much of an understanding of the context that they are working in do you feel that you have, do you know what their day is like. N Beresford said that the only referrer relating to the duty to refer is the Job Centre. This is the only agency we have had a referral from since the implementation of the Homeless Reduction Act, so every statutory agency that exists has a duty to refer and if they come into contact with somebody who they believe is at risk of homelessness or is imminently threatened with homelessness, then they are responsible to refer to the local authority, be it a Health Visitor, the Police and generally the Police do not do a paper referral, they will bring them to the Forum in person, all agencies have an increased responsibility. We have the Citizens Advice Bureau in the ground floor of this building and we’ve not had a referral from them as an organisation, this has been raised with them on a number of occasions. There has been no improvement or detailed response. In terms of resourcing they are under the same pressures that all of us are, all agencies are fully aware of the HRA, we’ve been talking to Members and agencies for more than two years now. Central Government have been talking with agencies through high level networks and liaison groups for a number of years and it’s required all agencies to review their processes in terms of tackling working with homeless people. Families First work very closely with our Tenancy Sustainment and Housing Teams and they are in the process of recruiting a homeless prevention officer to work directly within the service and the families they support. There is some recognition that agencies clearly need to get better at supporting and joining up services. N Beresford confirmed she was unsure what the answer is, because we continue to have these conversations and where we make connections with people, like Cllr Tindall who was able to put us in contact with the Commissioning team, then we use the contacts and have conversations. That has led to some improvements but there are still significant improvements that need to be made.
Cllr England asked if Officers think that there must be people who are in a position where they could make an early referral but you are not able to identify who they are because when they come to you, it’s not always that easy to find out where they’ve been before. N Beresford confirmed there are people that could make an early referral. In some cases it’s several agencies that client may have touched, CAB, CMHT, ACS, Hospitals and GP Surgeries or the client will present with a letter from the CMHT, and the letter appears that the solution to all those issues is a roof over this persons head, but actually what we need is that ongoing engagement. Just a roof over that persons head isn’t going to ensure that the person sustains their tenancy for the foreseeable future. The number of clients are growing where we are working with through our tenancy sustainment team who have ongoing issues that make it difficult for them to sustain the tenancy.
Cllr England queried whether the other agencies see housing as a simple fix, whereas actually you need the engagement with them in order to explain that housing is anything but a simple fix, because you’ve got tenancy sustainment to think about. N Beresford confirmed it definitely was. The primary concern is placing somebody into a property whether it be temporary tenancy or a permanent tenancy where that person may not have capacity, where their behaviour may impact negatively on themselves or their neighbours or if they’ll be at risk to themselves or others. Our position is around making sure that we appropriately safeguard that individual as well as others. We have a statutory responsibility so we are unable to say no, we can’t place this client into temporary accommodation, we have to act and then we have to make sure the support comes in around them. That often means we could have a client sitting in temporary accommodation for some time, whilst we engage with those agencies and try to get a capacity assessment. We have a client we are working with who’s been bed blocking at mental health hospital for over six weeks, because we are being told he just needs a roof over his head, his family are telling us that he’s a danger to himself and we would like a risk assessment and capacity assessment to confirm that this person is capable of making decisions and able to access accommodation and understand the kind of conversations we need to have with them, but we can’t progress it.
Cllr England asked the Chairman if we have the power or influence or the reach to ask some of these organisations to come and talk to us here. The Chair confirmed that we definitely could and it will be discussed outside of the Committee.
Cllr Adeleke said that it was a very worrying picture that’s been painted and he doesn’t think it’s acceptable to think it is your problem, it should be all our problem and he asked the Portfolio Holder which of these agencies we are funding and what can be done to improve the problem. Cllr Griffiths confirmed that we fund the CAB and government provides an allowance for Universal Credit. The CAB gets some money from the Council but she is not aware of Housing funding any of those agencies but asking them to attend Scrutiny Committee is a very good idea, it’s already been mentioned that the Chief Executive and Leader have already had discussion with their equivalent level at the other organisations, let’s hope they accept the invitation because as a public sector they have a duty to attend if they are called by Overview and Scrutiny.