Ombudsman’s Report 03/A/15819 Waltham Forest London Borough Council (2005)

T was a single man in his 20’s who arrived in the UK as an asylum-seeker in 2003.  He was placed in a hostel by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) while the Home Office considered his application for asylum.  He was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK on appeal.  NASS could no longer fund his accommodation once he was granted this status.

T had no friends or relatives in the UK and spoke very little English.  T had been detained and tortured by soldiers in his country of origin.  He had regularly been beaten on the head with a rifle.  This caused epilepsy and he had daily seizures.  He also suffered from clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Shortly after his arrival in the UK he began to receive medical treatment and therapy from medical staff at a charity which supports victims of torture.

His doctor wrote to the Homeless Persons Unit (HPU) of the Council for the area for where T had stayed in the NASS hostel.  He explained that T was vulnerable and that he was about to be made homeless.  He gave a detailed medical history and explained that he was receiving long-term treatment and counselling from the centre.

A caseworker interviewed T and completed homelessness forms and a medical assessment.  She did not use an interpreter.  She decided to refer T’s case to the Council’s Vulnerability Panel (a joint social services and housing panel) which decides if a homeless person is vulnerable and in priority need.  She also booked T temporary accommodation in a local hostel while his application was being considered.

T stayed in the hostel for one night but the hostel contacted the HPU the following day to say that it could not meet T’s support needs because of his serious and frequent epileptic seizures.  The manager also told T to return to the HPU to request more suitable accommodation.

When T returned to the HPU his caseworker was on leave and he was simply given a list of churches that operate winter night shelters.  He returned to the HPU 3 times that week but the Council made no efforts to find him alternative temporary accommodation.  T slept rough in bus stations and shelters as well as some time in church night shelters.  He stated that he felt uncomfortable in the shelter because many people using them had alcohol or drug problems.  By the time the caseworker returned to work, the Vulnerability Panel was about to consider his case.  T’s doctor had asked to attend the Panel meeting and the Council’s procedure allowed for this.  The caseworker forgot to invite him to the meeting and so it went ahead in his absence.  Despite strong written evidence from the doctor, the Panel decided that T was not vulnerable.

When T received the written decision, his doctor referred him to a solicitor who immediately wrote to request a review.  The Council’s review officer agreed to the solicitor’s request to provide T with temporary accommodation while he considered the review.  T was offered a 6-month assured shorthold tenancy at a young person’s housing project while the review officer was considering his case and before he had reached a decision.  So the review was abandoned because T’s circumstances had changed and he was no longer homeless.

The Ombudsman decided that the degree of injustice suffered by T and the public interest, justified publishing a report.  The Ombudsman identified the following faults in the Council’s handling of the case:
(i) failure to arrange alternative temporary accommodation when T was asked to leave the hostel, which constituted a breach of a statutory duty
(ii) the Panel did not explain why it decided to disregard the strong medical evidence
(iii) the letter notifying T of the decision was defective
(iv) the failure to use interpreters in all the interviews with T
(v) the complaint made by T’s solicitor was not properly handled.

T had to sleep rough for a prolonged period due to Council’s failure to provide him with suitable alternative temporary accommodation.  To remedy this injustice, the Ombudsman recommended that the Council paid T £7,200; the Director of Housing send him a letter of apology translated into Tigrinya; the Council to meet T’s reasonable legal costs; the Council to meet the cost of arranging for a member of staff from the charity to talk to staff in the HPU about the special needs of victims of torture.

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