Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Goldfish Guide to Avoiding Homelessness

A few too many worthy posts in a row perhaps, but still. I have never been homeless, but having spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the safety net, I am all too aware of how wide the holes are and how very easy it could be for a person to fall through, especially someone with mental health or cognitive impairments. You don’t have to make very many mistakes to find yourself in serious trouble.

Somehow, I cannot imagine that many people reading this will find this information helpful for themselves. However, none of us know when we might have a friend in need. Homeless people are not some underclass who came from somewhere else entirely; they come from amongst us, they are people just like us who have fallen on hard times, made bad decisions or simply found themselves unable, for whatever reason, to ask for the help they need. I know at least one reader who has been down and out in London and Paris, or uh, possibly somewhere less romantic.

One of the most important things we can do for our friends and family members, in this context and many others, is to simply let them know that we are there if they need us. We may assume they know, but sometimes people need telling, especially at Christmas. (please use the paper bags provided)

Most of this advice is stuff I happen to know or to have learnt from my experience. If anyone has anything to add, please add it. Inevitably, this is about the systems we have in the UK, with a bias towards disability issues.

Responding to a crisis.

I guess people most become homeless because there is a sudden chance which they have been unprepared for. So that’s the first step in avoiding homeless; be prepared! If you think you are going to have to leave your current home, for whatever reason, then start acting now.

It is possible to apply for Council Housing as a homeless person up to twenty-eight days before youw ill be without a home. Remember, being without a home is just that – doesn’t matter if you are not yet living on the streets. If you apply for Council Housing as homeless, then they will provide for you in some way, shape or form, even if this means putting you up in a guest house or B&B for a short time.

There are other circumstances where a disabled person is put on the priority list for housing, such as someone whose current residence is physically inaccessible. Also young people whose health conditions make it very difficult for them to live in their current situation; for example, a person who needs rest and peace struggling to live in a chaotic family home. Naturally, having a home, even an inadequate one, makes you less of a priority than someone without a home.

Council housing can be very good for disabled people on low incomes, although luck has a lot to do with it. Some people are fortunate enough to be able to move into a place and have it adapted more or less to their particular needs. Not always.

There is also a Tenancy Support scheme for council tenants, where someone can come, have a chat and help out with basic things like finding furniture, managing bills and rent. Basically to help people to cope living in their home and to avoid those situations where they might become homeless. To find out about this I suggest that you Google "tenancy support" along with the name of your local authority (usually the borough or city council).

Advice about the Rent

Your rent is the most important expense after food. I know this sounds obvious, but I have seen folks in crisis who regard the landlord as their friend but are entirely intimidated by the threatening letter from utility companies. In other situations, folks regard the landlord as an impersonal figure so wealthy that they’d hardly notice a non-paying tenant. No such luck.

In a situation of such crisis that you have to make the choice, utility companies can wait; they may cut you off, they may eventually take you to the small claims court, but there will still be a roof over your head. Chances are that your landlord is relying more heavily on your rent for paying their own bills than any other company you owe money to. Your failure to pay is going to stir up all sorts of shit for them. Should you be evicted, you may not only find yourself homeless, but you will not walk away with shining references for your next landlord.

If you are ever in any difficulty paying any bill, it is essential to remain in communication with the individual or company you owe money to. People - including big companies - can be really very sympathetic and can help you find ways of managing payments, or postponing payments while a particular crisis is overcome.

If you have a condition which makes money and written information difficult to understand or cope with, then this is care need, as real as any physical need a person might have. You should speak to the Citizen's Advice Bureau or the National Centre for Independent Living.

Renting from a Private Landlord

Obviously, council housing restrict the locations that you can live. If you are hard-up, it is also possible to rent from a private landlord and receive Housing Benefit, which will cover all or most of the cost of your rent.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a private landlord is that the landlord is a human being. If you work on this basis, you are more likely to get on finding a place to live as well as renting a property.

Both flats we have rented stated No DSS in their advertisements; i.e. they did not want people like us, who are dependant on state benefits. This is because the Housing Benefits system is so inefficient that benefit claimants are likely to struggle to pay the rent, regardless of good intentions and money management. The first one also stated they wanted a mature couple and I was still in my teens. This is because younger tenants are more likely to make a noise and trash the place than older people.

However, all the landlord really wants or needs is reassurance. This reassurance can usually be achieved through a combination of charm and hard currency. If you can produce references, the deposit and a month’s rent in advance, you can live pretty much wherever you like.

Always treat your landlord with respect; even if they are a very rich wheelchair-user called Potter. At the same time, you have a business arrangement and you are paying them even if the government foots the bill, so don't stick for unsatisfactory treatment. However, you find conditions intolerable, always best find somewhere else to live rather than allow relations to break down to a point where you need to leave in a hurry. Which reminds me, must send mine a Christmas Card.

Housing Benefit

The Housing Benefit system is the most inefficient and confusing wings of the UK Benefits system. Yes, it is worse than Disability Living Allowance. The first problem is that putting in a fresh claim can mean a wait of months before you get any help, or even know what their decision is. Naturally, you cannot ask a landlord to wait for months without rent while you are living in their property. And this is why landlords do not want to deal with people on benefits - pragmatism, not class prejudice. This must also be a major contributing factor to homelessness.

My advice is:

1. Be prepared for a wait in claiming benefits. That is, beg, borrow or steal the money you need to pay the rent up until the claim comes through. It might not be very long at all; local authorities vary in efficiency as well as the workloads they are dealing with.

2. Apply for Income Support if you are not already on it or if you don't already know that you are not elligible. This can mean automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit and speeds the whole process up.

3. Be prepared by getting all the paperwork you might need together and ready for handing in to them. In some cases, they want everything; one severely unwell friend was rejected her Housing Benefit because she could not prove her possession of a single premium bond (worth £1).

4. If in any doubt about the forms, consult a knowledgeable friend, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or similar agency for help filling out the forms. They provide an invaluable service.

5. Housing Benefit might vary between local authorities, because it is calculated relative to local rental prices. Many councils have on-line benefits calculators to see if and how much you might be entitled to. Here are some examples from Manchester and Glasgow. Google "housing benefit" and your local authority (again, usually city or borough council) for more information

6. As soon as you know that you are moving and where, put in a claim. You can start your claim up to 13 weeks before the date that you move. This gives you a head start on any delay there is in the decision-making process.

7. If you are bad at handling money, opt to have the rent paid directly to your landlord. This way the money needn't touch your own bank account.

8. If you are not awarded full rent and are struggling to make up the difference, apply for Discretionary Housing Benefit. In this you have to specify various details of your incomings, outgoings and debts. They ask for a great deal of evidence for this, receipts and so on and even demand to know how much you spend on shoes in any given week. The process can be quite intimidating.

But when we were in this position (long story; irony in the system) we simply sent the form back more or less blank with an accompanying letter to explaining our precise situation of crisis and were awarded the benefit accordingly.

At the end of the day, the Housing Executive want to avoid making people homeless or forcing people into serious hardship. It is the system, not the individuals working for them which are at fault (although you get good and bad everywhere).

It can be hard work having not much money. I also advise all people in work to stay in work and to try to stay healthy. And to try to avoid debt. Which is perhaps another post, but I won't bore you with that just now.

I have a feeling all of this is very obvious, so if anyone has anything to add please do so.


BloggingMone said...

You said that paying for one's rent is the most important expense after food. An increasing number of people can only afford paying the rent if they cut down the expenses on food radically, often leading to malnurishment (is that an English word??!) or illness because of low quality food. In Hamburg we have something called The Hamburg Dining Table, an organisation run by volunteers collecting food from stores and restaurants, which often is of very high quality, but cannot be sold anymore, because of the very tight rules shops and restaurants have to follow. It started very small, but now has become a very big organisation with more than 100 volunteers. Here is a link, which unfortunately is available in German only. There are places all over the city, where people can collect the food. A lot of people say that they would not be able to survive without it. It has been running for years in Hamburg and other cities have already established similar organisations. For those who do have problems in making their living: ask if such a service is available. For all others: think about setting up a similar service!

Anonymous said...

wow...i guess i'm not shocked, but i am saddened that it's legal to specify that a landlord does not want to work with renters who are on assistance.

Anonymous said...

We have similar program in US called Food Link that provides good, but not top quality fresh foods, and some over surplus from area farmers.

People who are 'economically challenged' hop from food program to food program, so they have enough cash to pay the other bills...

Mary said...

Two things:

"It is the system, not the individuals working for them which are at fault."

Sometimes. However in several cases I personally know of in this town, including my own, the system provided us but the individuals working for them failed to apply the rules properly. Which leads me to the second thing, Make sure you know the system inside out.

I'm not saying you should shout or strop at the council staff. But read all the information you can and challenge them on every point. In my own case, I had to argue with one person who was accusing me of benefits fraud; one person who failed to apply a rule which means that if you unexpectedly find you cannot afford to continue living in your home, the council must pay full rent for several weeks, even above the "personal allowance", while you try to find somewhere cheaper; another person who didn't take into account my DLA award-status and argued right up to the point when I showed her their own rules about disabled people; and of course the lovely girl who put me on the list for accessible housing (still nothing 18 months on) and suggested that the best thing I could do to get a ground-floor flat would be to have a baby.

As for a Housing/DLA comparison, I'd say the Housing systems are more inefficient but the DLA forms are more demoralising.