Can the ‘duty to refer’ prevent homelessness?

Tuesday, 9 October 2018 - 12:31pm

Hospitals, Jobcentres and prisons now have a duty to notify local authorities when they think someone may be homeless or at risk of homelessness. Could this lead to a coordinated approach to preventing homelessness?

Young homeless man with back pack

“I was made homeless through a fire and got treated well at [X] Hospital but I had to stay in to recover from my injuries. I was let out on crutches with my arm in a sling. I don’t think this is right for someone going out onto the streets. Local councils should work alongside hospitals to help homeless people get accommodation and ensure the recovery and safety of the patient.” Member of Homeless Link’s Expert Panel 

Individuals can arrive at the point of homelessness after a long chain of other life events, often coming into contact with a range of public services before reaching a homelessness crisis or approaching the local housing authority (LHA) for advice.

Duty to refer

The recently introduced duty to refer, part of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, aims to help people get access to homelessness services as soon as possible by ensuring that peoples’ housing needs are considered when they come into contact with a range of public authorities. Where they become aware that someone is homeless or at risk of homelessness these authorities are now legally required, with consent, to notify the LHA, which will then contact the individual and begin the process of determining whether they require support. The Government hope that this requirement should see ‘local housing authorities and other public authorities build strong partnerships that will enable them to work together to intervene earlier and prevent homelessness through, increasingly integrated services.

Although LHAs’ and public authorities should decide how the duty will work in each local area, the Homelessness Code of Guidance offers direction around the minimum amount of information that will be required for a referral (213B), recommends that LHA’s set up a single point of contact for submitting referrals (4.7) and makes clear that for certain individuals it may be more appropriate for public bodies to assist them to approach the LHA rather than simply refer them (4.12). The guide to the duty to refer goes further, highlighting that if an individual wishes, public authorities can actively assist them to make a homeless application.

Identification and engagement

The guide to the duty to refer acknowledges that identifying whether someone is threatened with homelessness is difficult. It outlines a number of factors that may indicate that someone is threatened with homelessness (e.g. if they have problems with debt, or are a ‘victim of domestic abuse’), and public authorities should also have received service-specific guidance from their relevant government departments to support them with implementing the duty.

Homeless Link recommends that staff develop a trauma-informed approach to support effective identification and engagement with individuals. Consideration should also be given to how the environment can be designed and delivered in a way that takes into account the emotional and psychological needs of the individuals using them. Guidance from the then Department for Communities and Local Government provides case studies on how this has worked in practice for services working with homeless people.

Beyond a statutory duty

Not all public authorities have a statutory duty to refer. GPs are a notable omission, particularly given that homeless people access GPs roughly 1.5-2.5 times more than the general public each year. However, the voluntary commitment that housing associations will refer an individual or household to a local authority is a very welcome indicator that other organisations without a statutory responsibility will work within the new framework.

Further, although the police will not have a statutory duty, Police and Crime Commissioners have been active members in many of the MEAM approach areas. The 23 MEAM approach areas have been looking to develop better-coordinated responses for people facing multiple disadvantages, with evidence showing that by working in this way local areas can increase wellbeing and reduce the cost of wider services by an average of 23%. Learning around developing an effective referral process from these areas should be used to inform how the duty to refer operates at a local level.

A coordinated approach

As the national membership body for frontline homelessness organisations, we are aware of good practice that already exists in many local areas across England. For example, Stockton on Tees local authority has a pathway which encourages early engagement from people in custody who have stated they will have no fixed abode (NFA). Projects funded by the Department of Health to improve discharge procedures have led to improved working links across housing and the NHS and better access into accommodation and ongoing medical care.

Following the recommendations outlined in this work, such as combining health and housing professionals in a homeless person’s package of care during and after their stay in hospital, can lead to local areas effectively building on the duty to refer and preventing homelessness.

As local areas are in the early stages of implementing the duty to refer, we will be working closely with our members across the country to monitor the impact in the coming months.