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

“He needs to show the council that his condition makes him more vulnerable if he becomes street homeless. He needs to say: ‘I am HIV positive and I am very unwell and I have nowhere to live.’ He needs to make that very clear to the council. They should give him emergency housing, but many public housing entities these days throw a lot of difficulties in the way,” the adviser said.

Changes to housing benefit payments appear to be part of the reason one woman and her five children are facing eviction. She cannot understand why she is in debt as she was under the impression that her rent was being paid in full by the housing benefit department, and no one has been able to tell her how much her debt amount to. She has started paying the money back, but this appears not to have been enough to stall the eviction process.

“If I lose the house, social services say the children are going to be taken into care. I have rung the agents numerous times. I’ve asked them to send a statement of what is outstanding,” she said. “My rent goes straight to the agency so I didn’t know what was being paid. I didn’t know they weren’t paying the rest until I had the possession order. I would have paid what I have to pay if I’d known I had to pay anything.”

Clare said the work is becoming increasingly difficult.

“It is clear from working the helplines that pretty much anyone can have a housing problem. You can go from being comfortably housed to being on the brink of eviction, just by losing a job or getting ill,” she said. “There is a shortage of housing and it is very, very expensive. People’s salaries are not going up. People are really, really struggling. It has become more difficult to get help because of changes to legal aid.”

The work can be distressing for advisers.

“You have calls from people on the brink of eviction, who really want to turn their circumstances around, but who don’t have the resources. For single people who have fallen on hard times, there is not much help. There isn’t any duty from the local council to house them. It is hard in London even to get space in a hostel. You may have to say to them ‘Unfortunately tonight you don’t have any option but to stay outside,’” Clare said.

A woman calls to try to understand whether she can help an acquaintance from South America, who has lived here for 10 years, and who has become homeless with her nine-year-old child. The two women attend the same church and the caller wonders if she can let her stay in her family home, or whether that is likely to worsen her longer-term chances of being housed by the local council.

“She is living in wildly unsuitable accommodation. They are staying in a one-bedroom flat, with a woman who has mental health issues, a long way from the girl’s school. The lady they are staying with desperately wants them to leave. It is a ridiculously unsuitable place for them,” the woman said.

It is a complicated situation, which requires the adviser, Nadeem Khan, to consult colleagues, but his advice is clear — that the caller can give her a room, and that the woman is entitled to better help from the public housing office. Her thanks is heartfelt at the end of the call, “That has probably been one of the most useful phone calls I have ever had,” she said.

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