Sun, Dec 29, 2013 - Page 9 News List

UK call center struggles with homelessness

Female callers commonly say abandonment has left them unable to pay the rent and workers at a national helpline often struggle to provide a solution

By Amelia Gentleman  /  The Guardian

“I don’t care where I go. They can put me in a dirty, disgusting room somewhere,” the woman says.

The adviser promises to get her some legal aid-funded advice.

The phone calls come through relentlessly, and advisers barely have a minute to write notes on each call before they have to move on to the next one. A woman with a 20-month-old son calls, her voice wobbling with the strain as she tries to explain her situation over the noise of a baby intermittently crying. She has been asked to leave the flat she is renting by Jan. 4. She thinks the landlord’s decision is probably connected to the fact that her child’s father neglected to pay the rent after he walked out on them. The landlord is so annoyed over the debt that she has refused to deal with a heating problem, and they have had no hot water for three weeks. An adviser gives clear advice on what her rights are and explains where she can go to get more support.

Another woman in a similar situation calls to say that bailiffs are due because her ex-partner stopped paying the mortgage when he left her and their eight-year-old son three months ago.

“I don’t want to be evicted until we find somewhere else to live,” she said, anxiety cracking her voice. “If I don’t resolve this issue, my daughter and I are going to be homeless.”

Helpline adviser Nadeem Khan counsels a woman, who is holding a noisy baby close to the phone, on how to extract herself from a joint tenancy with her husband, who has also walked out on her and who, it has emerged, had not been paying the rent previously, so he has left her saddled with huge rent debt, which she is not able to pay, and which may trigger her eviction.

Official homelessness figures released early this month showed that 2,100 homeless families in Britain were living in emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation — the highest number in a decade. The total number of families living in all forms of temporary accommodation rose by 5 percent in the previous year. There was a sharp increase in the number of people formally accepted as homeless in London.

A quarter of calls come from London, a reflection of the extreme housing prices in the capital.

“If you are an ordinary person in London, you don’t even need to have a particular problem to find housing difficult — you just have to be looking for somewhere to live,” helpline team leader Liz Clare said.

The Shelter housing advice helpline is staffed 365 days a year.

Another adviser, Anna Newton, said after four years working here, she can judge the level of distress instantly by the caller’s voice.

“Sometimes people don’t realize the seriousness of the situation they are in, they think there must be some safety net, and sometimes there just isn’t any,” she said. “The calls are often very harrowing.”

This year she has found it more challenging to direct people toward experts outside the charity, partly because of legal aid reductions.

“Legal aid is much more limited — there is no longer legal aid for benefit claims. We signpost the Citizens Advice, but they are oversubscribed too,” she said.

A woman calls on behalf of a friend who is HIV-positive and homeless, to establish whether his medical condition is likely to make him eligible for extra support. The adviser explains that the man must be prepared to make a persuasive and powerful case to the council housing officers.

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