‘Yeah, but no council treats rough sleepers legally, it’s just the way it is’– Senior Council Homelessness Officer.
These words came out of the mouth of someone who had worked in council homelessness services for decades – they knew exactly what they were were talking about. Their role gave them and their team the power to permit or deny housing to hundreds of vulnerable people every year, with little scrutiny into their conduct.
It’s not that their statement is wrong – reports of outrageous gatekeeping and perverse decisions abound across the country, and have done for many years – it is just the way it is. We heard of a case a few weeks ago where a victim of child abuse was told that unless she got her parents to sign a letter admitting that they had abused her, the council would not help.
And we’ve seen scores of cases locally of vulnerable people being failed in similar ways – where some frontline workers outright lie to vulnerable people to fob them off. We’ve heard frontline workers laugh in their teams as they ask ‘so who’s on gatekeeping duty today then?’, and boast about how they unlawfully denied housing to one person or other for some arbitrary reason.
But how does this still go on, given it is an open secret within the homelessness sector?
That’s a question worth grappling with, if ever there was one.
The Rotherham abuse scandal was a scandal because many professionals across various sectors knew that vulnerable children were being groomed for abuse for many years before any robust action was actually taken. As it happened, Risky Business, the charity which eventually got the authorities to do something about it all, took 16 years of reporting the abuse before the message got through. By then, at least 1400 children had become victim to life-destroying abuse. But the failure to act wasn’t malicious as such – it was the result of everyday, unremarkable failures.
Equally, Jimmy Savile’s abuse of hundreds of children over decades was made all the more scandalous because it was an open secret within the BBC and the higher echelons of power that he moved in. Few questioned it, and those who did were not prepared to expose it.
So are we really comparing council gatekeeping to the Jimmy Savile and Rotherham scandals?
Well, yes we are. We believe there there are many stark, undeniable similarities.
If we think of the Rotherham and Savile scandals, we realise that these are instances of huge damage being done to a very large number of people, damage that could have been massively reduced had more people stood up to it.
Think how much damage is done to someone by leaving them homeless or forcing them back into abusive homes. In a 10-year career of an average homelessness officer, it’s not unusual for them directly prevent literally hundreds of people from having somewhere safe to live. This includes people with serious mental health issues just discharged from inpatient units. This includes pregnant women fleeing abuse and their toddler who’s just seen their daddy break their mummy’s bones as she screamed in terror and pain.
So are we saying council homelessness officers are all sadistic monsters?
Well, no we are not.
The thing is, everything around gatekeeping is so civilized. It’s not like the homelessness officer is violently dragging each person out of their home and burning their belongings on the street. Instead, perverse homelessness decisions are politely given out, couched in obscure legal jargon and passive language like ‘even though you’ve been assessed as being at high risk of suicide, unfortunately you are not vulnerable enough for us to help you’ – so the results are the same – vulnerable people are left with no home, carrying all the worldy belongings they can manage in their two hands.
A few council homelessness officers do their work as best they can, often enduring admirably the pressures that are placed on them from above to gatekeep. But most officers absolutely know that what they’re doing is illegal and that it is causing immense damage to vulnerable people – a few even seem to enjoy it. But most officers don’t enjoy it – they’re not sadistic, they’re just ordinary people – and the damage they do is thoughtlessly carried out somewhere in the banality of their 9-5 routine.
The ordinary officers – the ones that probably do the most damage overall, are taught to accept unthinkingly that denying vulnerable people housing is somehow essential for ‘the greater good’. They see the act of gatekeeping the limited housing stock from ‘unworthy’ people as a sacrifice they have to dutifully make, without ever wondering whether their duty is instead to push the problem of limited housing stock back up the chain of command, rather than leaving it for the most vulnerable people in our society to deal with.
It seems to us that unless council bosses and politicians start seriously scrutinising the conduct of their officers, the harm that passes down for generations will continue, and until the other agencies working in the sector (who know well enough about the abuse that council homelessness teams are daily dishing out) challenge it, council bosses and politicians won’t start scrutinising anything. They’ll just assume homelessness is the result of some people choosing the lifestyle, and the cogs of injustice will keep spinning.
It’s possible that gatekeeping will one day be a national scandal dominating headlines as our government’s blatant failure to obey its own law is finally called out.
And if that scandal does hit the headlines, the question for all of us will be, were you part of it?