A Kent teenager was left to sofa surf and live in a tent for almost two months by Medway Council during the COVID-19 pandemic after his family was left homeless, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.
The Ombudsman found the council missed at least five opportunities to house the teenager and his mother during the summer of 2020, leading to them sleeping rough.
When the mother first approached the council, it decided it had no duty to house her and her 16-year-old son under its homelessness obligations. However, it did place the family in temporary accommodation because of its child protection duties.
The family became homeless in the middle of July 2020 when the children's services department asked them to leave their temporary accommodation. In making the family homeless, the council failed to consider the government guidance in force during the lockdown, which asked landlords to work with renters who may experience hardship as a result of the pandemic.
When they left the temporary accommodation, the family had nowhere to go. The teenager called the council saying he and his mother were sleeping in a tent.
The mother continued to contact the council throughout July. She filled in a change of circumstances form at the beginning of August explaining she and her son had been on the streets for a few weeks, but the Ombudsman found is no record of the council taking any action upon receipt of the form.
At the beginning of September, the mother contacted the council with the help of Shelter to say she and her son had been street homeless since 13 July. The council told the mother it would not provide her with the temporary accommodation, and she should find her own private rented accommodation.
The mother contacted the Ombudsman on 8 September. The investigation asked the council to make an urgent review of the case and Medway moved them to a bed and breakfast on 11 September. During the investigation, the council offered them a two-bedroomed property.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said the watchdog's investigations into issues occurring during the pandemic "have to balance the difficult circumstances and the speed at which laws were changing, against what should have reasonably happened".
"Despite these challenging circumstances, the council in this case failed in its duties to a vulnerable teenager who was sleeping rough, and it missed numerous opportunities to ensure he was safe.
Mr King added: "I do, however, welcome the swift action the council took when we alerted it to the family's situation, and hope the training it has agreed to provide to relevant staff should ensure cases such as this do not happen in future.
"From what we've seen so far, the issues in this case are not indicative of how councils generally responded to public concerns during COVID-19. But we decided this case contained sufficient learning that others could take on board. Some of the problems in the case mirror issues we were seeing before the pandemic, but which have been amplified by the impact of COVID-19."
Following its investigation, the Ombudsman levied fines of over £3,000. Medway Council will pay the teenager and his mother £1,500 each in compensation and the mother an additional £200 to reflect the fact that she was not listed to when she reported being street homeless on a number of occasions.
Additionally, the council has agreed to provide refresher training for staff in its housing department to ensure they understand their duties under the Housing Act.
“We fully accept the recommendations made by the Local Government Ombudsman,” a Medway Council spokesperson said, “and we have apologised to the individuals involved, as well as made recompense. We are committed to learning from specific cases, such as this, to improve the service we provide to those at risk of becoming homeless and in need of additional support. Staff in our housing allocations and housing options teams will also be provided with refresher training on identifying information from potential applicants.
“We have ensured that the family are now in permanent accommodation.
The council added added: “During the pandemic we have provided temporary accommodation to hundreds of households and individuals who have needed additional support. Supporting our most vulnerable residents remains our top priority and we will continue to do all we can to prevent homelessness, including providing advice on the issues which can cause someone to become at risk of losing their home. We will also continue to work with partner agencies to continue offering specialist support to those who find themselves in need of accommodation.”