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Folkestone council under fire for treatment of homeless family

A Kent council has been heavily chastised by a government watchdog for its treatment of a homeless family - and for the way it dealt with the subsequent investigation.

An inquiry found Folkestone and Hythe District Council (FHDC) were slow to provide support to a couple with two small children who were facing eviction.

The family had asked the council for housing
The family had asked the council for housing

Because of the delayed response the family were left in "an uncertain situation" and were only offered help once they were actually homeless.

In addition, B&B accommodation that was provided to them was dirty, with the family finding 'bloodstains' on the bedding and a 'hypodermic needle' in the room.

Officers at the authority also left the husband "upset" after they quizzed him over his wife's right to live in the UK.

These details emerged in a report released today from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO), who looked into the way FHDC treated the family-of-four.

The same report also criticised the way the council responded to the investigation after it refused to answer questions and provide evidence, only doing so once LGSCO threatened it with a court summons.

Folkestone Civic Centre. Picture: Paul Amos
Folkestone Civic Centre. Picture: Paul Amos

The council is now being ordered to apologise to the family, pay them £100 and review its processes for handling requests for housing assistance so that it deals with cases based on both waiting time and urgency.

Michael King, from the ombudsman, said: "The statutory guidance is clear - people do not need to make a formal request for help to trigger the council’s duties towards them.

"In this case, had the council been more alert to the family’s call for help, they may have found accommodation sooner.

"As it is, they have been left uncertain whether they would have been offered unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation at all, had the council acted appropriately.

"At times during my investigation, the council has refused to respond to inquiries - and has even questioned our authority to investigate - leading us to threaten the council with a court summons to attend our offices before it provided evidence.

Michael King, from Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman
Michael King, from Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

"The council now needs to reflect on how it has dealt with both the complaint and its response to my inquiries and accept the simple and practical measures I have recommended to improve its service for homeless people in its area."

The unnamed family in question, which comprises of a man, his wife and their two children born in 2017 and 2018, were all living in a single room between 2015 and January 2019.

But on January 8 2019, the husband, named as Mr X, applied to FHDC for housing, stating he and his family would be homeless on January 15.

But the ombudsman’s inquiry found the council delayed helping the family for three weeks between January and February, despite repeated visits from Mr X to its offices in Castle Hill Avenue, Folkestone.

It also found FHDC failed to consider information the family provided, after guidance from a health visitor revealed their current accommodation wasn’t 'liveable'.

During one visit in February Mr X was told his application was “waiting to be looked at" and on another visit he became upset after he was asked questions about his wife’s right to reside in the UK.

Stock image
Stock image

In March the family were provided accommodation in a B&B, but left the premises after only 40 minutes after finding bloodstains on the bedding and a hypodermic needle.

In light of this, the council spoke to the landlord who said the room was clean and provided photographs of it.

But in April, the council wrote to Mr X explaining it had "ended its duty to provide him with accommodation" because it had offered Mr X accommodation at the B&B and it was satisfied “the offer of accommodation was both suitable and reasonable for you to accept”.

There was further correspondence between the two parties which continued until August of 2019.

But in summary, the LGSCO report states: "The council is at fault as it delayed providing help to Mr X with his housing situation.

"Because of this Mr X was left in an uncertain situation and cannot know whether his situation might have been improved if the council had offered him help sooner."

The report also reveals that during the inquiry FHDC accused Mr X of being abusive towards its staff, but no evidence was provided to support this.

The report notes: "The council says Mr X accused officers of being racist by asking for details of his wife’s eligibility.

"The council says this constitutes abusive behaviour and we should take this into account when considering the injustice caused to Mr X.

"Mr X was entitled to express his opinion of the officers’ behaviour and officers were entitled to refute that they were acting in this way.

"The council has not provided us with any evidence that Mr X was abusive."

In response to the report, a Folkestone and Hythe District Council spokeswoman said: "The council has investigated the matter, and does not accept certain recommendations of the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) service's report into Mr X's case.

"The criticism of the council in the LGO report relates to a 20-day period while Mr X's Housing Options Assessment was being processed.

"The Council had confirmed with Mr X's landlord that Mr X was able to remain at the accommodation which he had occupied for seven years, and with his family for two years.

"The relevant period (as determined by the LGO) ended on the date of a Housing Options Interview during which Mr X refused to cooperate with the council's officers in interview, to provide financial and personal information to support his application, was abusive and left the council offices without concluding the interview.

"The council investigated Mr X's allegations concerning the state of the accommodation offered to him (after the end of the relevant period) and confirmed that the claims were unfounded.

"These allegations had not been mentioned by Mr X at the time but were first raised in his subsequent complaint to the LGO.

"In the circumstances, the council does not accept that Mr X is entitled to an apology or any compensation.

"In light of the other recommendations of the LGO Report, the council has carried out a review of the front of house services pertaining to homelessness and the Council Housing Waiting List.

"The review's conclusions seek to ensure good quality coherent communication is in place so that if a client reports being threatened with homelessness (particularly if within 56 days), the client is referred to the Housing Options Service.

"In addition the council is drafting a further factsheet for our clients, which will be available both online and front of house, advising clients of the possible implications of not fully completing and working with us in a Housing Options assessment so that either a Homeless Prevention or Relief Plan can be put in place and implemented going forward, and of the need for reasonable conduct in interviews."

Read more: All the latest news from Folkestone

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