Fighting homelessness on the front line
Helen Roberts explains how a legal advice centre in Wales is tackling one of society's greatest crises. Matthew Rogers reports
England and Wales are facing a homelessness crisis. In 2016, local authorities (LAs) in England accepted 59,260 households as being statutorily homeless (a 22 per cent rise over five years); in Wales, this figure was 10,884 (a 57 per cent rise on 2015). Thousands more are believed to be at risk, including those sleeping rough on the streets.
At The Speakeasy advice centre in Cardiff, Helen Roberts, who became the first Justice First Fellow to qualify as a solicitor in May 2016, assists clients faced with the prospect of being made homeless. Common cases include lodging homelessness reviews for ‘intentionally homeless’ clients, following LA decisions and defending possession proceedings.
“I had a client who was fleeing domestic abuse, and was heavily pregnant,” says Roberts. “She had made a homelessness application on the grounds that it was unreasonable for her to remain in the property, which was rejected. She was facing the prospect of having to return to a property that she felt was unsafe for both her and her unborn child. There were a number of issues she was facing, including honour-based violence, as well as serious threats to her life. With our assistance, she was able to review the decision successfully and offered a property outside of the area, and an opportunity to start a new life.”
During Roberts’ time at the centre, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 has been introduced, requiring all LAs to help anyone threatened with homelessness within 56 days. “This was a positive change to the way homelessness is tackled in Wales; there were less restrictions on those that the LA assist,” says Roberts.
However, despite the Act’s intentions, homelessness in Wales soared by 57 per cent in 2016/17, placing greater pressure on law centres like The Speakeasy, which relies on charitable funding. “We are fortunate to have funding for a number of projects that have enabled us to continue to help our clients despite the cuts to legal aid, but there are a number of organisations who were not able to survive the cuts.”
One of those projects was created by Roberts during her fellowship. With many new clients visiting the centre for housing advice, following the legal aid cuts, a new housing law drop-in service was launched. The service also catered to the needs of vulnerable clients who could not keep to a booked appointment.
Looking ahead, Roberts hopes England can follow in Wales’ footsteps with the introduction of The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, set to be implemented next year. The Act, which is the first major piece of homelessness legislation for 15 years, places two new duties on LAs: to help anybody threatened with losing their home within 56 days of becoming homeless (up from 28 days); and to offer all homeless people secure suitable accommodation, regardless of whether they are ‘intentionally homeless’ or priority need.
Roberts would also like ministers to understand how severe the impact of cuts to social welfare benefits has been. The cuts been so deep for some that The Speakeasy has been forced to hand out food vouchers to struggling clients. “During my training contract, I worked in the welfare benefits team and witnessed a low-level element of chaos in the Department of Working Pensions regarding substantial delays in processing benefit payments, as well as clients having to wait a lengthy period of time for their employment support allowance or disability living allowance appeals to be concluded.”
Despite the daily challenges faced, Roberts is determined to tackle them head on. “I love working on the front line and I will always be passionate about promoting access to justice for the most vulnerable in society, so they are not forced to accept situations that are impacting on their mental health and wellbeing.”
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal