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by administrator @, Saturday, July 09, 2011, 15:00

The Local Government Ombudsman has warned councils that they face criticism for maladministration if they fail to meet responsibilities to homeless people.

The body has published a report on the serious mistakes some councils make when dealing with people with housing difficulties. It is concerned that increasing numbers of people may face significant injustice because homelessness is on the rise and council budgets are under pressure.

It asks councils to consider how they ensure people who face homelessness get the help that they are entitled to. Other organisations have coined the phrase 'gatekeeping' to describe where, for no legitimate reason, councils refuse to accept, or delay, an application for help with a homelessness problem.

People are legally entitled to help from councils if they are homeless or face homelessness within 28 days. This can range from advice and practical assistance to the provision of interim accommodation for those judged to be in priority need.

Someone would be in priority need if they have dependent children, are pregnant or if they are vulnerable - for example, if they are ill, disabled, a victim of domestic violence or under 18 years old.

Dr Jane Martin, Ombudsman and Chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England, said: "The complaints we receive suggest councils should consider how they meet their responsibilities to homeless people. We see too many cases where individuals have suffered injustice at a particularly precarious moment in their lives when they most needed help.

"Often extremely vulnerable, they can find themselves sleeping rough or on people's sofas, struggling to find the foothold that would allow them to change their circumstances. When councils fail to give them a helping hand at that key moment, it can affect that individual for years.

"I am concerned that more people could now suffer injustice because of the combined impact of a tough economic climate and the serious budget pressures on councils. It's really important that councils are alert to this very significant risk. We want to help them understand the dangers and take action to avoid mistakes."

The report says the LGO investigates more than 300 complaints every year where people claim to have been denied access to help or interim accommodation for no legitimate reason. It tells the stories of six people who did not get the help that they should have.

They include a pregnant women who struggled to get help from the council after being asked to leave her parents' home; a wheelchair user who had to prove she was in priority need; a young family who needed assistance when mortgage arrears built up; and a victim of domestic violence trying to move on from a women's refuge.

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