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Undercover: Britain's Homeless Scandal: Channel 4 Dispatches

With councils across England and Wales struggling to meet the demand for emergency housing, Dispatches goes undercover to investigate the impact on homeless women attempting to get off the streets. The number of rough sleepers has risen for the sixth year in a row, of which women are a particularly exposed group.

Undercover filming puts local councils to the test, examining claims that they are unable to cope and are wrongly turning women away. In many instances, they are turned away without being properly assessed or able to make a homeless application - despite presenting with mental health issues, learning difficulties or fleeing domestic abuse.

  • Out of 15 approaches only 4 women were offered emergency accommodation, 11 were turned away.

Drawing on a survey, undertaken by Crisis, of 458 recent or current rough sleepers in England and Wales Dispatches unveils the following;

  • Nearly 1 in 4 female rough sleepers has been sexually assaulted in the past year
  • 3 in 10 female rough sleepers have experienced sexual violence at some point while homeless
  • Nearly 6 in 10 have been intimidated or threatened with violence in the past year (compared to 4 out of 10 male rough sleepers).

Government guidelines say, if you are vulnerable because you suffer from a mental illness; are fleeing domestic violence or you are pregnant, your situation should be assessed and you should be offered immediate emergency accommodation. But with huge cuts to housing budgets, charities have told us councils aren’t always meeting this obligation.

Rebecca Pritchard, Crisis, “Local Authorities do have a legal duty to provide accommodation for people who are what’s known as in priority need. But because they don’t have the resources……many of them are ending up almost like gatekeeping, finding reasons not to help people.”

Undercover investigation exposing the turning away of vulnerable women:

Dispatches enlisted the help of theatre company Cardboard citizens; all their actors have been homeless at some point. Three went undercover to investigate concerns raised about “gatekeeping” and the turning away of vulnerable women.

Sherrie lived in homeless hostels for two years

Jackie Long: What do you make of the fact it took them so long to find you somewhere permanent that you could call home.

Sherrie: I think it’s disgusting...it’s so dangerous out there and the sort of people you meet in hostels – and there are people you come across especially as a young girl, you’ve really got to hold your own.

J: Did you feel vulnerable?

S: Yeah I felt vulnerable.

Sherrie’s cover story is that she has clinical depression, homeless and facing a night on the streets, she asks Haringey Council for help; according to guidelines she should be considered for emergency accommodation.

Sherrie: I need to speak to someone; I need some form of emergency accommodation.

Haringey Council: Okay, councils don’t give that to everybody, so we’ll have to ask you some questions first. Okay, have you got any children that you’re homeless with?

S: No

HC: Any disabilities or serious illnesses?

S: Anxiety and depression

HC: Okay, under the housing law, they don’t class that as a serious illness… the only people that the council will assist with an emergency is somebody between 16 and 17, or somebody that is homeless with children or that is homeless with a severe life threatening illness or a disability.

S: So life threatening would be like somebody…

HC: Illness like cancer, AIDS or something like that.

S: But I’m just thinking about tonight, or the week?

HC: You’re not listening to what we’re telling you – we are the…this is the housing law.

S: So I could be on the street tonight?

HC: I don’t know, I- I’m just here to advise you what the council does, and what they don’t do.

Matt Downie, director of policy at homeless charity Crisis, upon watching the footage:

The issue of something having to be life-threatening is not true…The vulnerability that someone presents with – whether that be mental health problems or something else…the important question is how does that affect you…Whether or not that’s life-threatening is irrelevant. Simply saying that having a mental health problem rules you out is not correct. What you need to find out is the impact of that mental health condition on that person… that’s what a proper assessment’s all about; it’s understanding the back story, understanding the immediate need and what the implication of providing accommodation or not will really be.

Sherrie was told about paid shelters but was not offered emergency accommodation. She tested five other councils in London and Greater Manchester

Council 1 “Those medical needs don’t give the priority needs. So you would need to look for private accommodation.”

Council 2, “We won’t provide you accommodation for you today.”

Council 3, “We won’t have a legal duty to assist you.

S: Not even with my illness?

C: (Staff member shakes head) No.

S: So what about tonight then? What would happen tonight?

C: Nothing. Nothing at all.”

All five local authorities turned her away.

Haringey Council told Dispatches;

“Our response on this occasion fell below the high standards we would usually expect. While the reporter was offered information on shelters and hostels, she should also have been offered a follow-up appointment with a specialist advisor, and we are sorry that this didn’t happen. We will be giving additional training to our staff so that we can be confident that they are best placed to offer the most appropriate guidance to each individual.”

Support for women who have suffered from domestic violence

A third of all women sleeping rough say domestic violence is the reason they are on the streets. Women escaping domestic violence can stay in special single sex refuges, but in the past 6 years nearly 1 in 5 have closed which leaves many to rely on the council to provide them with safe accommodation.

Lisa is Dispatches’ second undercover reporter, she has experienced domestic violence. “you are living every day with fear and you just don’t know what each day is going to entail – and living on eggshells – it’s just a dire situation. Your nerves are wrecked.”

Lisa seeks help from Barnet Council, her cover story – having fled a violent partner and with nowhere to stay, she’s now homeless.

Government guidelines say she should doesn’t need proof she is a victim to be offered emergency accommodation.

Barnet: In terms of assistance, we can provide for domestic violence, we need to be able to get recommendations from the police or services that the places you were staying just basically to prove, just to substantiate … what you’re saying. Were you given any crime reference numbers from previous incidents or have you worked with any domestic violence services?

Lisa: No, every- I- no. He said, if I tell anybody, any authority that he would get- he would basically hurt me more.

Barnet: Do you have any friends to stay with at the moment? Maybe until Thursday, because on every Thursday morning what we have here is we have a domestic violence one stop shop….

Lisa: So you can’t do anything today?

Barnet: Not today

Lisa: I can’t go back to-

Barnet: The reason we couldn’t- wouldn’t be able to - and I’m not suggesting to - it’s why I’m asking do you have anyone you can stay with until Thursday?

Matt Downie, director of policy at homeless charity Crisis, upon watching the footage:

He seems to be saying they deal with domestic violence on Thursdays? I’m not sure that’s how the world works. I’m gobsmacked by the lack of empathy… if somebody doesn’t have the opportunity to make a proper assessment and give their story fully; you’ll never understand whether somebody is in a situation where they’re vulnerable enough to be owed some sort of housing.

Lisa was not offered emergency accommodation and was told to self-refer to a shelter. She tested three other councils. Two offered a temporary place to stay - which we didn’t take up. The third tuned her away.

Barnet Homes told Dispatches they take domestic violence extremely seriously, adding:

“We are sorry our service fell short of expectations in this case. In view of the information we have received on this particular case we will be providing further training across the team to make sure future cases are handled more sensitively.”

Charity Women’s Aid runs refuges for those fleeing violence – but says it can’t help everyone turned away by a council.

Mary Mason, Solace Women’s Aid;

The system isn’t working for women who are fleeing domestic violence. There’s a real lack of space so we probably have 10 requests for every one single space we have in our refuges.

Help for women with Learning Difficulties

Our third undercover reporter approaches another council. This time as someone with a learning disability just made homeless and facing a night sleeping rough. Arriving at 10am its 3 and half hours before she’s seen.

Despite her story suggesting she is vulnerable and entitled to emergency shelter that night, she’s turned away as they have no appointment slots left for an assessment. She sought help at another council who gave her an out of hour’s emergency number – they too were unable to help her and advised she went back to the housing office again the next day with documentation.

Council: Do you have any medical conditions?

Jo: I have learning difficulties…

Council The lady’s only got one more appointment after this and that’s it and it’s all booked. So nothing, unfortunately…

Jo: I came as quickly as I could

Man: I appreciate that. I appreciate that

Jo: I’ve been here I think since like I don’t know ten or eleven

Man: but those other appointments were already booked in…so unfortunately you won’t be seen today.

Jo: what do I do?

Man: in the meantime just have to try and make alternative arrangements.

Despite her story suggesting she is vulnerable and entitled to emergency shelter that night, she’s turned away.

Matt Downie, director of policy at homeless charity Crisis, upon watching the footage:

What you would expect here – and lots of good councils do this – is to take the person aside and do a proper assessment and application. She never got a chance to explain herself; she never got a chance to actually make a homelessness application…..what effectively they’re being told is that their option is to sleep rough.

After being turned away the reporter seeks help at a neighbouring council, she’s told that it’s too late but is given an out-of-hours emergency number, she is told to call them after 6pm for temporary accommodation for that evening.

Out of hour’s number: You have learning difficulties did you say?

Jo: Uh-hmm

Out of hour’s number: because to be honest, Joanna, I need to see your proof

Jo: Can you see me now?

Out of hour’s number: I can’t because the public offices are closed. We are the out of hour’s service. You have to go to the day office to produce all these documentation in order for them to class you as a medically vulnerable otherwise we can’t place you.

Pregnant woman allegedly told she is not a ‘priority need’ for accommodation

36 year old Sarah* has been homeless for 14 weeks, she has been sleeping rough in Kendal’s car park, she is nearly 6 months pregnant.

Councils should make homeless pregnant women a priority for emergency accommodation. But research by Dispatches suggests in some cases women are being turned away in London and Manchester.

Sarah: They told me I’m not a priority for being pregnant in the situation I’m in….until I’m eight months or baby’s born I’m not a priority to anybody.

Manchester City Council told us:

“We would always treat a pregnant woman presenting as homeless as priority regardless of the length of time she has been pregnant. We would never turn a pregnant woman away.”

They said in this case: “There is no record that the woman interviewed has contacted us, either presenting as homeless or seeking other assistance”.

A month after we filmed with Sarah she lost her baby.

Government pledges:

Our reporters tested councils with varying stories - that if probed would have suggested they were vulnerable and entitled to emergency shelter. However of the 15 occasions they presented themselves there were only 4 examples where they were offered help. The rest, including women fleeing domestic violence, would have had to spend a night sleeping rough.

Charities warn that with councils facing real world cuts of 40% since 2010 housing budgets are suffering. And in turn an increasing number of women are being prevented from registering homeless

Mary Mason, Solace Women’s Aid, “The housing officers often are creating a kind of barrier, so they’re trying to reduce the number of people who are coming through the system and therefore have become desensitized almost completely to the cases that are sitting there in front of them and they’re trying to back them away as much as possible.”

Councils will soon have extra duties to prevent homelessness as part of the government backed homelessness reduction bill The government say they will make a £48 million fund available to help cover the cost. But will this be enough? One estimate put the cost of the new changes to London councils alone at £161 million.

The Department for Communities and Local Government declined Dispatches’ request for an interview, in statement they said: “We know that one person without a home is one too many. That is why we’re investing £550 million during this parliament to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, including projects specifically for women including female-only shelters, emotional support and educational opportunities”

Undercover: Britain’s HOMELESS SCANDAL: Channel 4 Dispatches Mon 13th Feb, Channel 4, 8pm

Reporter: Jackie Long

Producer/Director: Luke Mendham

Executive Producer: Mike Lewis

Production Company: Nine Lives Media

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