The Government’s “Housing for All” plan commits to working towards the eradication of homelessness by 2030. Despite this, recent figures released by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage tell us that the number of homeless people in the State is again on the increase. Although support is notionally available to homeless persons under the Housing Act 1988 (“the 1988 Act”), FLAC continues to receive enquiries from individuals being denied emergency accommodation on dubious grounds.
Section 2 of the 1988 Act is the sole statutory basis for determining whether someone is homeless. If a person has no accommodation available which they could reasonably occupy and cannot provide for accommodation from their own resources, they are legally homeless.
The importance of the assessment in section 2 is that it allows a local authority to use section 10 of the 1988 Act to provide support to homeless persons, including making financial arrangements with approved bodies; providing direct financial assistance to the applicant; or renting accommodation on their behalf.
Worryingly, FLAC continues to encounter cases where local authorities rely on non-statutory measures, such as the “local connection” test, to refuse to assess people as homeless, thereby depriving them of support.
The use of the “local connection” test has been openly criticised by the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, who has given local authorities “clear directions” that it must not be a barrier to accessing emergency accommodation.
Despite the Minister’s directions, the use of non-statutory tests continues.
As we reported last year, FLAC’s Traveller Legal Service (“TLS”) assisted a Traveller family to secure emergency accommodation in circumstances where a local authority refused to assess them as homeless and required them to seek emergency accommodation from the local authority where they had previously received social housing support. Following the threat of judicial review proceedings, the local authority agreed to provide the family in question with emergency accommodation.
A year on, and despite clear directions from the Minister, we are still seeing the same barriers being put in the way of homeless families in their efforts to access shelter.
In September this year, the TLS was instructed by a young Traveller couple who had been sleeping in their car. They had applied for emergency accommodation but, as in our previous case, and despite the Minister’s unequivocal statements, were being required to seek emergency accommodation in the functional area of the local authority from which they had most recently received social housing support.
FLAC entered into correspondence with the local authority and challenged the lawfulness of its decisions to refuse assess our clients as homeless and provide them with emergency accommodation.
Following lengthy correspondence with their solicitors and the threat of judicial review proceedings, the local authority ultimately provided FLAC’s clients with emergency accommodation. However, this came almost 3 months after the couple’s application had first been refused.
As outlined above, the assessment for homelessness is a straightforward test, focussed on an individual’s current circumstances and resources, with no requirement that emergency accommodation be sought from a local authority which has previously provided social housing support. The position has been clarified by the Minister, who has openly criticised the application of the “local connection” test.
Unfortunately, many local authorities continue to disregard their statutory obligations in relation to the provision of emergency accommodation, and instead adopt their own criteria and means of assessment, including the application of the “local connection” test.
While FLAC has been able to assist its clients in asserting their rights, this option is not available in every case. In its current guise, the State’s scheme of civil legal aid does not explicitly cover housing law issues, and is insufficiently resourced to deal with emergency situations in a timely manner. This leaves extremely vulnerable people at the mercy of intransigent local authorities and forced to suffer the grave consequences of being deprived of basic shelter.
In FLAC’s analysis, as long as local authorities continue to rely on extra-legal tests in the allocation of emergency accommodation, input from lawyers, in the form of advice and representation, will be required. Accordingly, the reform, extension and appropriate resourcing of the scheme of civil legal should be understood as an important contributor to the Government’s commitment to the eradication of homelessness.