Homeless applicants for public housing have a right to expect more than unthinking and mechanistic responses from local authorities. In powerfully making that point, a judge described aspects of a council's handling of a young family's case as nothing short of dismal.
The case concerned a refugee mother of three children, aged between 11 and three, who were well settled in a school located in a London borough. When facing eviction through no fault of her own, she applied to the council for accommodation under the Housing Act 1996. The council acknowledged that she was homeless and entitled to assistance.
Thereafter, however, the council moved the family from hotel to hotel, all of which were between one and two and a half hours away from the children's school by public transport. None of them had laundry or cooking facilities and, during one four-month period, they were relocated no fewer than eight times.
The mother was eventually offered three-bedroom accommodation in Peterborough. When she rejected that offer because of its distance from the children's school, the council took the view that it had discharged its duty under the Act and that she was entitled to receive no further offers. The school's headmaster wrote to the council on the family's behalf but received no response.
After the mother lodged judicial review proceedings, the judge found that the council's communications with her during the early stages of her homelessness were entirely inadequate. It failed to take reasonable steps to identify or assess her potential housing needs or to determine what type of accommodation would be suitable for the family. There was no evidence that it made any inquiries as to the availability of accommodation closer to the children's school.
In making repeated offers of hotel accommodation without conducting appropriate reviews, the council's conduct was dismal. The mother's request to be accommodated closer to the children's school was, on the face of it, reasonable. However, she was merely instructed to relocate from one hotel to another, without further assessment or inquiry. In some instances, she was required to move under threat that the council's duty to house her under the Act would otherwise be terminated.
In upholding her claim, the judge found that hotel accommodation could not rationally have been considered suitable. In many cases, the hotels offered were an excessive distance from the children's school and the absence of food preparation facilities meant that the family had to subsist on expensive fast-food outlets as the mother's savings dwindled. The offer of accommodation in Peterborough was also irrational in that it would plainly have required the children to change schools during the academic year.
The judge acknowledged the pressure under which housing departments in London operate. However, the evidence disclosed an unthinking, mechanistic series of decisions on the council's part. It could be inferred that the family had been repeatedly moved to whatever happened to be the least expensive bed and breakfast facility that the council could secure from private providers.