Agenda item

Homelessness and Services for Families

This report updates the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee about the support for families in the Borough who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, including the performance of services, demand for services, delivery of support and improved outcomes for service users.


Councillor Southwood (Lead Member for Housing and Welfare Reform) introduced the item, which provided an update on the services delivered for homeless families during the pandemic. She advised the Committee that the service had adjusted to support homelessness during the pandemic. The ban on evictions ended in May 2021, which meant family homelessness had been a focus recently, and although there had not been a large increase in family homelessness yet, she felt the service needed to be constantly vigilant to any patterns or increases. She advised the Committee that the Council wanted to work with people before their need for homeless services occurred.


The Chair thanked Councillor Southwood for her introduction and invited the Committee to raise comments and questions, with the following issues raised:


The Committee commended the paper and felt it would be useful to circulate to all Councillors as it provided a good summary of the homelessness service.


The Committee queried how the service could improve communications with people who might find themselves very suddenly placed out of borough, which they advised could be very distressing. Councillor Southwood acknowledged that the nature of needing emergency accommodation and then having to live somewhere you did not know was challenging. The impact on children could mean that they did not make friends because they did not know if they would be going back to the same schools. Councillor Southwood advised that the Council always tried to minimise those numbers. The reasons behind being placed out of borough were largely around affordability for larger homes, which was part of the drive behind the number of Council homes being built in the Borough. The Committee were advised that when someone approached the service they were made aware from day 1 about the potential to be placed out of borough. The service focused on signposting to employment support, given the affordability challenges for those affected by the benefit cap, and supporting a family to find their own accommodation where possible. By law, a person could spend no more than 6 weeks in a Bed and Breakfast, by which time the Council needed to move them on to private sector accommodation that they could afford. With the whole of London competing for these types of properties, accommodation went at pace, and therefore this impacted on the notice period that the service could give for moves out of borough, although the family would have been made aware of the possibility for this from the outset.


Continuing to discuss the circumstances around emergency and out of borough accommodation, Laurence Coaker (Head of Housing Needs, Brent Council) advised that he worked closely with the Housing Supply Team to ensure the Council were building what was needed, with the aim to reduce the offers of out of Borough places. There was good news in relation to emergency accommodation, as the Temporary Accommodation block at Anansi House in Harlesden was due to be handed over in October 2021, which had 94 rooms for emergency provision and was Council owned. This meant the Council were no longer reliant on emergency B&B accommodation which resulted in out of borough placements when they were full.  Hakeem Osinaike (Operational Director of Housing, Brent Council) added that there was no other local authority doing more than Brent to resolve the housing crisis. The Cabinet had set a target to build 1,000 new homes by 2024 which the Council were doing, and the Council were on course to deliver 1,600 within that time frame. The Council had also recently sourced a £111m grant from the GLA which the Council would supplement with a further £3m to build 701 homes by 2029. He highlighted the Council were doing a lot to try to meet the demand with good quality, well managed and affordable accommodation.


The Chair queried how sensitive Housing Officers were in the community when dealing with those families who were at risk of homelessness or were homeless. Councillor Southwood highlighted that Laurence Coaker and his team were very mindful of how somebody felt when they had spoken with a Housing Officer. She advised that the Council did not always get this right but had focused this year on ensuring users engaging with the service were supported and made to feel listened to, and treated with respect and dignity.


The Committee asked about the support provided to families for filling out the required forms and ensuring they answered all required eligibility questions. Councillor Southwood advised that service users did need support filling in forms, and during the pandemic these types of forms had moved online. She felt that in some ways this had created a more tailored service as there had been more communication involved and the form used a clear set of questions, however the Council were very mindful of digitally excluded people, or whose first language was not English, or those who otherwise may not be able to fill out an online form without support. The homelessness team did support those people, and always maintained a physical presence at the Civic Centre, including throughout the pandemic, so that vulnerable people or those who could not use or access IT were able to receive face to face support from officers to fill in forms.


The Committee commended the new domestic abuse service, and queried the security of the grant funding for that service. Councillor Southwood expressed that they were very proud of the service, and were confident people experiencing domestic abuse within the borough had a strong service to come to. Laurence Coaker advised that the team referenced in the papers did grow very quickly, and the posts were permanent, substantive, and accounted for in the budget. The reference in the report to grant funding was for a support worker to go into the specialist accommodation secured for victims of domestic abuse. He forecast that the funding would be made available again so that it could remain a continuous service. In response to a query about elder abuse and whether there had been any changes in experience over the pandemic, Laurence Coaker agreed to look into this and provide that information to the Committee.


In terms of the people who used or were at risk of needing to use the service, the Committee queried whether there were any trends in demographics or particular communities that were overrepresented. Laurence Coaker advised that they did have data on demographics and had done an equality impact assessment looking at the demographics of the people who applied to the service and received help from the service. The Committee were advised that the people applying to the service, in terms of age, sex and ethnicity, matched the profile of the cohort who were assisted. The driving force behind those making applications was affordability and evictions as a result of rent arrears, therefore people applying and receiving the service were more likely to be on low incomes and / or affected by the overall benefits cap. It was also acknowledged that a single homeless person had much more chance of finding accommodation than a larger family. The Committee requested further information on which communities were overrepresented within the service, and what the service was doing to engage with those communities.


The Committee highlighted paragraphs 3.9 and 3.10 of the report, which showed a drop in applications. They queried whether this was a result of the pandemic or because other agencies stepped in to help such as Church Groups. Laurence Coaker advised that the report concerned family homelessness and the statistics did not reflect single homelessness, so the reduction was due to the pandemic. The 8% reduction reflected the years between 2019-20 and 2020-21 which was a result of the ban on evictions during Covid-19, and the data for 2021-22 only covered April 2021 – July 2021.


The Committee queried the role of Capital Letters in assisting the Council to provide Housing. Laurence Coaker advised that Capital Letters played a huge role in securing alternative private sector accommodation, but could not prevent people being evicted from their current private rented accommodation. They supplied new accommodation to stop people having to go into emergency B & B accommodation or Temporary Accommodation. In terms of how well equipped Housing Officers were to find accommodation that a family could afford, Laurence Coaker advised that the Council encouraged people to find their own accommodation so that they could choose where they would live in and in turn be more invested in it, but where they were unable to find their own accommodation Capital Letters provided a safety net of between 30-40 units per month which officers could offer to them. He advised that officers supported people using the service heavily, talking them through their affordability and the areas they could go within that affordability, including who they could talk to for securing a property. The Council’s Housing Officers also helped negotiate with landlords, helped towards deposits where necessary, and gave landlords an incentive to give families an extended tenancy.


Regarding tenancy sustainment, Councillor Southwood advised that one of the areas the service focused on was the number of people who, after 2 years of being placed in private rented sector accommodation, had come back to the Council as homeless. The statistics currently did not reflect any concern in that area but it was something the service were constantly vigilant of. Laurence Coaker added that Capital Letter provided a sustainment service, so after a family had signed up with Capital Letters they would stay in contact with them until they were settled.


The Committee advised that there were a number of good private landlords who could fill the gap for housing. Laurence Coaker agreed and advised the Committee that Brent had one of the largest private sector landlord forums with over 600 representatives, and that this was promoted vigorously alongside Capital Letters, who were now the main agent for London procurement and were invited to the forum on a quarterly basis.


The Committee queried how the service monitored the standards of accommodation offered. Councillor Southwood advised that in respect of standards the Council may be able to do more if the government permitted licensing across the Borough, but the team who looked after standards of accommodation had now resumed their visits into properties to review standards of accommodation. She asked members to keep reporting where they thought there might be a HMO not of the standard it should be.


The Committee ended their questions by asking how Councillor Southwood used feedback she had received to form her thinking as a Cabinet Lead to design the service for residents. Councillor Southwood advised that when she received emails from councillors regarding their casework she would look into the themes around that particular case, and if there had been similar issues within a short timescale that would be something she would raise with Laurence Coaker and his team. Sometimes emails related to a one-off issue but other times it may point to a part of the process that could be improved.

The Chair drew the item to a close and invited the Committee to make recommendations, with the following RESOLVED:

i)              For a further update on community engagement for this service to be provided at the 14 March 2022 Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee meeting.

A number of information requests were also raised during the meeting, recorded as follows:


i)              For officers to provide the Committee with information on the cases of disabled and / or elder abuse, including how many are affected, their demographics and the support the Council offers.


ii)             For officers to provide the Committee with further information on the people who are using the service and also at risk of using the service in the future, including demographics and overrepresented cohorts. To also provide details of the personalised/targeted support for these groups and the engagement undertaken.


iii)           For officers to circulate the paper presented to Committee to the wider group of councillors.


iv)           For officers to provide the Committee with further information on Capital Letters and the support offered to those seeking housing in the Private Rented Sector.


Supporting documents: