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We need to urge local authorities to uphold their duty of care

I SPOKE to a woman recently who had become homeless through no fault of her own. She had lived with her partner and children and life had been very hard for them all. They were wrongfully evicted from their home by a private landlord and are currently fighting against this decision with the help of Shelter and other organisations.

After sofa surfing for a while with their children they reached out to their local authority for help. They had little knowledge of their legal rights and were struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. They simply wanted somewhere warm and safe for them all to sleep.

Upon approaching their local housing options department, the family were told in no uncertain terms that the local authority had no legal obligation to house the parents but just had a duty of care towards the children. As a result, their children were taken into care and they are now street homeless.
They did not know that the local council did in fact have a duty of care towards both the parents and children and had also ignored the fact that they had not made themselves intentionally homeless, a term that appears to get used far too often by local councils.

I wondered if this was an unusual case, but it appears to be a decision that local housing departments are making far too often.

I documented this case on my blog and, while doing so, I noted that fellow blogger Kate Belgrave had also came across similar cases in different locations. Single parents and families being made homeless for various reasons — namely, rent arrears due to delay in benefit payments, rent arrears due to private landlords increasing rent, the loss of a job, the bedroom tax and other assorted benefit-related debts.

None of these families makes a conscious decision to become homeless. Indeed, the opposite applies, they try to cling onto their homes knowing that the chances of being able to find another is very low.

The definition of becoming intentionally homeless is “the person deliberately does or fails to do anything in consequence of which the person ceases to occupy accommodation.”

The fact that an ever-increasing amount of families are being made homeless upon that basis, makes it clear that this definition needs completely revising.

We are now seeing an ever-increasing number of homeless families evicted from their homes due to reasons that were out of their control. They couldn't stop their landlords from putting their rent up. Nor could they tell the benefits agency to pay their rent with greater urgency and nor could they stop the benefit cap.

Recently, I have noticed a large number of fostering adverts online and in local newspapers. Meanwhile, children who had been living with good parents are taken away and put into the care system because they are told that their local councils have no duty of care towards the parents of these children. Why is this happening though? It's a costly decision to make, both financially and emotionally.

The cost of keeping a child in the care system varies from £2,100 per week if placed in residential care to £447 per week if a child is placed in foster care. Compare this with the more substantial cost of placing a family in temporary accommodation. Are the needs of both child and parent being ignored in the guise of a cost-cutting exercise?

The suffering of these families continues. Many children live with the possibility of never being able to live with their parents again because they can't find affordable accommodation, while their parents continue to sofa-surf or live on the streets hoping that one day they might be reunited with their children.

We cannot forget the harmful effects that tearing a child away from a loving parent has on the child. A foster carer or a children's unit can't provide the same love and security that a parent can.

Children are often moved from home to home until they reach the age of 18 when they are left to fend for themselves. Surely it would be kinder and more cost-effective for a local authority to keep a child with their family, albeit in temporary accommodation, rather than to deal with the ramifications of life in the care system. The cost might be higher, but this should never become a cost-cutting exercise.

We need to urge local authorities to uphold their duty of care towards both parent and child. Homelessness is often a complicated issue, but there is never an excuse for not doing this.

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