Top tips

  • Get advice before you become homeless – it can take time to organise emergency accommodation
  • Not everyone is entitled to accommodation if they are homeless but everyone is entitled to advice from the homeless service, aimed at trying to help them to find somewhere suitable to stay
  • Make sure you give the homeless officer all the information you can
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the homeless officer’s decision, if you think they have ignored an important fact
  • If you have slept rough for the first time, contact StreetLink and you will be put in touch with your local council
  • If you have slept rough for some time, ask the local council if they can help – most are trying to make sure no-one has to sleep rough in their area any more

How the homeless legislation works

The basics

Everyone who is homeless, or at risk if becoming homeless within 4 weeks, has a right to get advice and help to find somewhere to live, or to avoid losing their home.

Beyond that, councils have a legal duty to provide more help (emergency housing arranged for them, and longer term housing after that) if the person qualifies under the homelessness law. Local councils can choose to help people beyond the basics even for those who do not have a right to that help, but not many do.

There is still a lot of help that can be offered to people who do not qualify for what is called “the full housing duty”. These are helpful guides which explain the help you can expect:

How to qualify for the full housing duty (help with emergency and long term accommodation)

To decide if you qualify, the council will need to be able to answer 5 questions. The answer to the questions must be positive for all 5 for you to be owed the full housing duty.

1. Are you eligible for assistance as homeless?

Some people who have come from abroad are not eligible for help even if they are homeless. The rules on this depend on a number of things including:

  • your immigration status
  • whether you are “habitually resident” in the UK
  • what country you come from
  • whether you have been working here (if you come from one of the European Union or some additional European countries)

People who are British citizens are eligible, but British citizens who have been living abroad will not be eligible unless they can show that they are “habitually resident” here. This means that they have lived here for a few months at least, and have family, jobs, or other connections here.

People from the European Union countries or the additional countries also in the European Economic Area (EEA) may be eligible for assistance if they have been working here for at least two years and are now sick or disabled, or need benefits to top up their income.

People from other countries are eligible only if they have exceptional leave to remain in the UK, or indefinite leave to enter or remain (“settled status”), or are a refugee who was granted asylum and came here before April 2000.

As this shows, the rules are pretty complicated, and anyone who needs to know if they are eligible for assistance should check the rules with someone who is an expert on this. The Shelter helpline is available on 0808 800 4444.

2. Are you homeless or threatened with homelessness?

You should be considered homeless if you have no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world that is available for you to live in. Someone is homeless if they:

  • Have no accommodation they have a right to live in
  • Have accommodation but can’t get in to it because someone there or even outside the home is likely to be violent to them if they stay in that accommodation
  • Have somewhere to live but they have been locked out of it (for example, by a parent or by the landlord)
  • Have nowhere they can live together with their immediate family
  • Have accommodation but it is in such a bad state, or is so expensive, that they cannot be expected to stay there
  • Have a mobile home but no site they can place it on

Someone is considered to be threatened with homelessness if they:

  • Have been asked to leave in less than 4 weeks’ time, and have no right to stay where they are

So, someone who is sleeping on the street, or in a car or tent, or who has been staying very temporarily with friends, or is in a short term hostel or a women’s refuge, is likely to be seen as either homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Someone in prison who has been told they will be released in less than 4 weeks’ time should be seen as at risk of (threatened with) homelessness.

If you are staying with friends or family, and they say you can stay there for as long as you like, or you have a home with your husband or wife, or civil partner, you are unlikely to be seen as homeless unless there is violence or a threat of violence, or another form of abuse.

3. Are you in a priority group?

People in one of the priority groups are seen as in priority need. These are people who are:

  • Pregnant or in a family with a pregnant woman
  • A family with children living with them (usually school-age children)
  • A young person who is aged 16 or 17
  • Someone who has been in care and is still under 18, or under 21 (there are different rules for each group)
  • Anyone who is homeless because of a fire, a flood, or another disaster
  • A person who is particularly vulnerable

The “vulnerable” group could include:

  • Older people (someone over pensionable age)
  • Someone with mental illness, very poor health, or with a physical or learning disability
  • Someone who had to leave their home because of domestic violence or harassment
  • People who have been in prison or on remand who have become very vulnerable because of the stay in prison, or has been in prison for a long time (this rule is quite difficult to prove and not used very often)
  • An ex-service man or woman who is particularly vulnerable in some way – someone with a disability, mental health problem, drug or alcohol addiction or other problem

The council can decide for themselves if they think that the homeless person is in a priority group or not, but they need to take into account all the case law (how the courts have interpreted the law in the past). They need to consider if the person would be seriously at risk, or less able to sort out their own housing, compared to other homeless people in the same situation.

So for people who are leaving prison, you might be in priority need if:

  • you have children who lived with you before you went to prison, and you’ll be living with them again when you get out
  • you were in care before you went into prison
  • you are considered to be especially vulnerable (you are disabled, have health problems, or have become particularly vulnerable whilst in prison)
  • you were in the forces and, for example, were released on medical grounds, or have not been able to sort out your housing since leaving the forces

4. You haven’t made yourself intentionally homeless?

People who have made themselves intentionally homeless must have:

  • Deliberately done something or failed to do something, which led to them losing their home, and
  • Been able to stay where they were living

The council must look at each case individually, and not decide that everyone who fits into a particular group or who did a similar thing will automatically be seen as intentionally homeless.

Examples of actions that are likely to be seen as intentional homelessness:

  • Refusing to pay the rent or the mortgage
  • Being evicted because of noise, or damage to the house, drug dealing, or violence
  • Giving up the house or flat for no good reason

Someone who gave up a house when they did not know they could stay, or got into rent arrears without knowing they could claim housing benefit, for example, should not be seen as having deliberately made themselves homeless.

Other examples when you might be classed as intentionally homeless include:

  • Leaving a house or flat which you had a right to stay in (for example because you were a joint tenant or owner) because your partner asked you to leave – if there is no violence or threat of violence, then many councils will consider that you could have stayed there at least till you had sorted out somewhere else to live
  • Leaving your house or flat when the landlord asked you to go, but without a court order saying you had to leave – if you ask for advice and the advice is to stay put until a court order is obtained by the landlord, then it is even more likely that you will be classed as intentionally homeless
  • Turning down the offer of a private rented home that the council say was suitable for you and your family, and available for at least a year, after you had been accepted as being owed the full housing duty
  • Losing accommodation that went with a job, because you have been sacked – for example if you were a pub or club manager and stole money from the till or allowed drug dealing on the premises, or you were a school caretaker and were sacked for being found with child pornography
  • Being evicted because your children were terrorising the neighbours, or someone in the house was playing music very loudly on many occasions
  • Setting fire to your house
  • Failing to fill in claim forms for Housing Benefit and as a result having rent arrears
  • Selling your house with nowhere to go
  • Leaving a house abroad to come back to the UK, when there was no reason for you to have to leave that house

Examples of actions that would not normally lead to you being classed as intentionally homeless include:

  • Being evicted for rent arrears that you knew nothing about, for example if your partner usually paid the rent and, although you were joint tenants, you can show that you did not know that there were any problems
  • Being in rent arrears because of Housing Benefit payments being delayed
  • A landlord told you that you had to leave your house when you did not have to, or someone else gave you wrong or misleading advice about this
  • You left a property because your partner had brought another person who he or she was having an affair with to live in the same property

A person who lost their home when they went into prison could be seen as intentionally homeless. Similarly, someone who gives up their home because they would not be able to pay the rent whilst in prison might be seen as intentionally homeless. In both cases, this is worth challenging, if you can show that your criminal action was done without knowing that it could lead to losing your home. But this is only worth doing if you are seen as in a priority group or in priority need.

5. Have you got a local connection with this area?

A local connection, for the purposes of the homelessness laws, is:

  • Resident in the area for at least 6 of the last 12 months, or 3 years of the last 5 years
  • Close family in the area (parents, brother, sister, children, or someone who brought the person up)
  • A job or being in the armed forces in the area
  • Some other special connection with the area

Being in prison or on bail in the area does not qualify as a local connection. It is not very likely that a stay in supported housing in the area will qualify either.

If there is no local connection with the area, and you are in priority need and not intentionally homeless, the council which you have applied to as homeless can send you back to an area where you do have a connection, but not if you would be at risk of violence wherever you lived in that area. If there is no local connection with any area, then you can apply to any local authority.

Summary of housing duties

Here’s a quick guide to what you’re entitled to if you fall into the categories explained in more detail after the table below:

The situation

What help must be given

  • Eligible for assistance
Duty to give general advice. Possibly emergency accommodation if there are young children in the household or someone who is disabled or in very poor health or for some other substantial reason (not for failed asylum seekers or illegal immigrants).
  • Homeless, or
  • Threatened with homelessness
Duty to give general advice, particularly aimed at helping them to avoid becoming homeless.
  • Homeless,
  • Not in a priority group
Duty to give advice and help, aimed at helping them to find accommodation. An assessment of their needs should be done, so that the advice is geared to meeting these needs.
  • Homeless,
  • In a priority group,
  • Intentionally homeless
Duty to offer emergency accommodation for up to 28 days. After this, the person has to find their own accommodation, but this can be a longer period if it is not possible to find somewhere to live.
  • Homeless,
  • In a priority group,
  • Not intentionally homeless,
  • No local connection
Duty to give emergency accommodation, and then to refer to the local Council where they do have a local connection.
  • Homeless,
  • In a priority group,
  • Not intentionally homeless
  • Local connection
Duty to offer emergency accommodation, and long term (“settled”) accommodation in council, Housing Association, or private rented housing for at least a year

Making a homeless application

Applying from inside prison

The housing advice service in the prison should help you to do this. You may need to fill in a homeless application form, or just send a letter saying you are going to be homeless when you leave prison. It is also possible to make an application over the phone or in an e-mail. You do not have to be seen face-to-face to make a homeless application.

It’s important to gather together all the facts and make a good case for why you should be seen as in priority need and not intentionally homeless. These are the two critical factors.

The council’s homeless service must take a homeless application from you if you are likely to be homeless within 28 days (4 weeks). If it is longer than 28 days before you are due to leave, they can help but they may say that they will consider you when there are only 4 weeks to go. They should make a decision about the answer to the 5 questions above.

No-one should be told that the Council will not make a decision until the day that they come out of prison. If they need to see you to make this decision, the best councils will either interview you over the phone (if that can be arranged within the prison) or will come into the prison to interview you. If they refuse to make a decision until you are released, ask the prison housing advice service to challenge this and to try to make sure that you get a decision.

If a homeless officer speaks to you in the prison or over the phone, they will probably tell you what the decision is likely to be, and then follow this up in writing. When they are speaking to you, they can then tell you what will happen when you come out, where you should go, and who will be helping you there.

Applying from outside

Go along to the homeless service and ask for help because you are homeless, or about to become homeless.

The council’s homeless service must take a homeless application from you if you are likely to be homeless within 28 days (4 weeks). If it is longer than 28 days before you are due to become homeless, they can help but they may say that they will consider you when there are only 4 weeks to go. They should make a decision about the answer to the 5 questions above.

It’s important to gather together all the facts and make a good case for why you should be seen as in priority need and not intentionally homeless.

Getting help to make an application

Inside prisons, the best service to help is probably the housing advice service, who should be experts in dealing with homelessness law and with local Councils.

Outside prison, there are lots of housing advice services. Shelter have a helpline, which is available on 0808 800 4444, and they will help people to make a homeless application in any area.

What happens next?

Full housing duty: If you are entitled to the full housing duty (if you are in a priority group and not intentionally homeless), you will be offered emergency accommodation if you need it. For a single person, this is likely to be either in a hostel, a small flat in a block of flats, in short term private rented housing, or in Bed & Breakfast (B&B). From there, the council will organise for you to be offered long term accommodation. This could be council or housing association housing, and you will either have to bid, or wait until your name comes to the top of the list, or private rented housing. See separate sections of our information which explains this in more detail.

Advice only: if you are only entitled to advice and help to find your own housing, you should get help from the homeless service to find somewhere as soon as possible. This could be in a hostel or another type of supported housing, or B&B, or help to get into council, housing association, or a private rented property. The homeless service may help you to get into the private rented sector with a bond or deposit.

Challenging homeless decisions

All decisions about homelessness can be challenged. The first step is to ask for a review of the decision. The council must organise for someone who did not take the initial decision to review the decision and give you an answer. The review must be asked for within 21 days (3 weeks) of getting the letter about the decision. This time limit is usually strictly applied.

The council must write to tell you that they have got your letter asking for a review, and what the timetable and procedure is. They may ask you to give the council more information, and if so, it’s important to send the information back within the time that they set for this. The council may offer you a meeting so that you can put your case. It’s useful to go to this. Get advice and ask the adviser to go with you – the chances of success are much higher if you have an adviser with you.

After that, the council has 56 days (8 weeks) to make a decision. They must write to tell you what their decision was.

What if you don’t get help to find somewhere to live?

There is emergency accommodation in most areas. Ask the homeless service, your Probation Officer, the drugs worker, or anyone else who is helping you, to advise you about what is available in the area.

Staying with friends and family

If you can stay with someone for a short time, this may give you time to find somewhere else. Make sure it is safe for you to stay there, and that any conditions relating to leaving prison allow you to stay there. Try not to stay in places where people will lead you into re-offending, as this could be a reason for some people to be sent back to prison.

Tell the homeless service that you can stay with a friend or family member, but only for a short time, so they know to keep on looking for somewhere else for you. Keep in touch with the homeless service, so they know where to find you if there is a place for you.

Sleeping rough?

Most councils now try to find emergency accommodation for anyone sleeping rough for the first time.

You can ring the number for the national StreetLink service, and you should be put in touch with the council in the area you are in: 0300 500 0914

Another option is to ring the local Council or go to the homeless service and tell them you are sleeping rough.

If you have slept rough on a number of occasions, ask the homeless service if they can help to find you somewhere, either short term or long term.

Below you will find links to useful websites relating to this information.

Centrepoint is the UK’s leading charity for homeless young people.

More information

  1. Practical self-help information – We have information on housing.
  2. Discuss the issue – Read and share your experiences on our online forum.

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