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Council to pay £8k after man it failed to identify as homeless spent 21 months in van

A homeless man, who suffered physical and mental health problems, slept in a van for 21 months after Bristol City Council failed to provide proper assistance, an investigation from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

Following the investigation, Bristol City Council has agreed to pay just over £8,000 in compensation.

The man, referred to as 'Mr X' in the report, approached the council in September 2018 for assistance after he fled his home due to harassment and violence on advice from the police.

He applied to join the council's housing register in April 2018. At this time he was staying on people's sofas, but when the local authority finally contacted him, he was sleeping in his van.

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The council told the Ombudsman it "triaged" the man and gave him information about local outreach services. It did not take an application, complete an assessment or make inquiries.

Eventually, 16 months later, an assessment was conducted, but the council did not offer any interim accommodation or accept a duty to him.

When a charity contacted the council on the man's behalf, he was offered accommodation. A month later, it accepted the relief duty and eventually accepted it owed the man the main housing duty.

It was agreed that his priority on the housing register should be backdated to the date he first approached the council, September 2018.

He moved into accommodation in December 2020.

Responding to the Ombudsman investigation, Bristol said the man would not have received interim accommodation based on the information he initially provided.

The council added that it backdated the man's housing application "to reflect the inconvenience and obvious stress caused by our previous omissions". This meant he was rehoused much sooner than he otherwise would have been, the council told the Ombudsman.

Councils must take a homeless application where it has reason to believe someone is homeless. The threshold for this is low, the Ombudsman said.

He added: "In this case, Mr X told the council he was sleeping in his van. The council should have taken a homeless application. Its failure to do so was fault."

If Bristol had properly assessed the man, it would have found that he had physical and mental health problems, was fleeing his previous accommodation because of harassment and violence, and was homeless, the Ombudsman found.

"On balance, I think it likely that had the council done an assessment and made inquiries, it would have had reason to believe Mr X was in priority need. It would therefore have offered him interim accommodation. Its failure to do so was fault," the Ombudsman added.

The Ombudsman found that the man's continued need to sleep in a van, which led to a substantial deterioration of his physical health, was "significant injustice".

Fault was found with how the council failed to treat his application in December 2018 as a homelessness application.

In addition, the investigation found fault in how the council failed to offer him interim accommodation when he approached them in early 2020.

Following the investigation, the Ombudsman said that he did not consider the council's offer of £500 a suitable remedy, given the 21-month period in which the man was sleeping in his van.

Bristol agreed to the Ombudsman's recommendation to pay £300 for each month he spent homeless unnecessarily, for a total of £6,300, and a further £200 a month for the delay in accessing permanent housing for a total of £1,800.

It also agreed to improve practices around handling and identifying homelessness applications.

A council spokesperson said: “We value the feedback received from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and take its recommendations seriously at all times. We accept the findings of this investigation and acknowledge that we failed to take a homelessness application in this case, which was active between 2018 and 2020. Since this happened, we have changed our processes, and now have Housing Advisors working alongside the Outreach service who ensure that we comply with our legal duties and offer a better, more joined up service."

The actions recommended by the Ombudsman are being progressed and we apologise to the complainant for any distress caused.”

Adam Carey

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