Probably the most important form of assistance the state offers to those in need is the provision of housing. Even in a market where rents are not inflated far above any sensible norm (like the one in Britain today), rent is likely to be the largest part of one’s cost of living. However, it can also be the most expensive social benefit to provide, for the same reason. Social housing in the UK is a mess, a cluster of absurdities, inefficiencies and Catch-22s, but I’m going to try and make sense of it for you anyway.
Lets start with council housing. Once upon a time, every district council had numerous residential properties, wholly owned by the local government, which poorer members of the community could rent at an affordable rate, and without fear of summary eviction. Nowadays, most of those properties have been sold-off, either to the tenants themselves (at well below market rate, and with the council forbidden to reinvest the money in new council housing) or to for-profit developers, and not replaced. In most areas, the shortest waiting time for a one-bedroom council flat is several years. Although lots of new homes are being built, almost none of them are social or affordable housing. While laws do exist requiring developers to make a portion of each new development affordable, they are as full of loopholes as a Swiss cheese, so the requirements are routinely ignored.
Thanks to this shortage, there are a number of tricks employed by councils to keep people from even getting on the waiting list at all. The main one is the “local connection.” In theory, this exists to prevent people (‘cos we are all such wicked scroungers) from applying for a cheap council house in an expensive area, and thus escaping their own poverty-stricken ghetto. But in practice, it is just used as one more way to protect council budgets. For instance, did you know that if you are actually homeless, you cannot apply for a council flat? To apply for council housing, you must have an address within the local area. The only people allowed to apply for a home are those who already have one. If you are actually homeless, you have to go through a whole other procedure, which I’ll come to shortly.
Each council can make up its own definition for “local connection”, and it’s entirely possible to have no local connection anywhere. If you’ve moved between a few nearby boroughs (say, in a major city where there are many local councils), but not spent more than a year or two in any single one, you are probably held to have no connection to any of them: a common definition of “local connection” is for you to have lived in the area continuously for the last three years.
So, council housing is probably out: even if you do qualify for the list, you’ll need to wait years. What about a private landlord? The state will give you housing benefit to cover your rent, won’t it? Well, yes-and-no. Firstly, no private landlord will accept you as a tenant if you receive housing benefit – you can only use it if you already have a tenancy, and you can’t actually apply for housing benefit unless you already have a tenancy agreement or “proof of obligation to pay rent.” Besides, housing benefit doesn’t cover your deposit or advance rent, and if you could afford those, you probably wouldn’t need housing benefit anyway. Secondly, housing benefit doesn’t actually cover market rent. Each area sets a maximum amount of housing benefit (“Local Housing Allowance”) which is supposedly equal to the average market rent, but is usually actually significantly lower. And if you should happen to be a single adult under the age of 35, they base the cap not on a one-bedroom flat, but on a room in a shared residence.* And don’t forget all the other byzantine regulations like the bedroom tax and benefits cap.
In any event, to qualify for housing benefit at all, you usually first have to be in receipt of some central government benefit, which as I have discussed previously, is no mean achievement. If you should lose your DWP benefits (your jobseekers allowance, for instance) which it is very easy to do, the local council will be informed, and they will assume (since you are still alive) that you must have something to live off, and therefore don’t need housing benefit anymore. You must immediately provide some proof of this income, and demonstrate that it is still not high enough for you to pay your rent. If you have no income, you are pretty screwed, since you can’t provide evidence of something that doesn’t exist (so as I’ve said before, if you go to a food bank, you need to get some documentary evidence of this fact – maybe a selfie of you holding a can of beans in a church.)
So, you can’t get a council flat, you can get a private flat, you are basically out on the streets, or in imminent danger of being out on the streets. What do you do? You make a “homelessness application” to your local council, who will do everything they can to deny it. Your first problem is that you must provide “proof of homelessness.” In practice, this needs to be a court-ordered eviction notice or bailiff’s warrant. A mere Notice To Quit from your landlord is insufficient – if you received one of these, and were foolish enough to actually vacate the property as requested, you will be classed as “voluntarily homeless” and as such not eligible for assistance. No, if your landlord wants you out, you must dig in your heels and stay until they turn up to serve you with an actual court order, which you absolutely must not lose (say, when the bailiffs are dumping your possessions on the street.) Oh, and don’t bother going to your council for assistance before things have to to that stage – they will most likely dismiss you and tell you to come back when you’ve had a visit from the bailiffs. If you do find yourself homeless and without documentary evidence of this fact, the quickest way to get assistance is to sleep rough and get noticed by a council social worker. If you can find what route they take with their clipboards of a night, and arrange to be there in a sleeping bag, for at least two nights running, you’ve a good chance of getting into emergency housing. On the other hand, if you aren’t actually street homeless, but just sleeping on a different person’s floor every night, you are likely to be a lower priority, and will likely be told to keep doing that as long as you can.
I haven’t mentioned the most pernicious aspect of making an application for homelessness assistance. You are only eligible for such assistance if you are more likely to be adversely affected by being homeless than an “ordinary homeless person.” This test (called the Pereira Test) is, as you might imagine, not terribly well-defined, and is a great way for councils to reduce demand on their housing services. If you are just going to be made the normal amount of ill, cold, and miserable by living on the streets, you won’t get any help. If you don’t have (or can’t prove you have) some medical or other condition that makes you especially vulnerable (“in priority need”), then your council can refuse to assist you. That’s assuming they aren’t one (like the London Borough of Westminster) which uses laws against vagrancy to just sweep all the rough sleepers into a neighboring poorer parish.
* There is a useful loophole which allows you to get more than the “Local Housing Allowance” – if you can manage to get a flat from a Registered Social Landlord such as a housing association or resident’s co-operative, then it doesn’t apply, and they’ll pay your whole rent. Of course, the waiting lists for those properties are just as long as for a council flat.