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BCC deny charging homeless for B&B

December 08 2010
Council allegedly no longer sees appkicants as being in priority need if they won‘t sign undertaking to pay charges

Birmingham City Council (BCC) has denied rumours that it charged an elderly homeless man - a priority case - for emergency B&B accommodation.

The man, who speaks little English and has a history of mental ill health, was distraught when the council subsequently presented him with a £160 bill.

From this surprising case, it appears that the council had been paying £103 housing benefit towards emergency housing, and then charging the remainder of the rent to the person being accommodated. The debt builds while the person stays at the B&B and must be repaid once they leave.

Other homeless people have allegedly been asked to sign an undertaking that they will pay the difference between their housing benefit entitlement and the B&B charge. If they refuse to sign the undertaking, the Council judges it has discharged its statutory responsibilities, and the people are no longer regarded as being in priority need.

Several concerned local charities have questioned whether it is legal for a council to offer accommodation on a loan basis to a priority case homeless person whom they know will not have the funds to repay it.

Alan Fraser, the chief executive of Birmingham YMCA, said: "Having become aware of this problem, I have been seeking clarification from Birmingham City Council. Despite numerous telephone calls and emails, I have had no confirmation or denial from them regarding their policy on this issue. We are concerned about the impact on homeless people."

St Martin's Centre in the Bull Ring has also dealt with two cases where people using their centre have reported similar issues with Birmingham City Council.

Dr Graham Stubbs, help desk co-ordinator at St Martin's Centre, said: "There have been two instances where service users have been charged £60 per week for their rent while they remain in B&B. It has been Birmingham City Council's policy for the last several months to cap the difference between service users' housing benefit and the outstanding amount for their rent. I have written to the Temporary Accommodation Team at Birmingham City Council. They did reply saying this policy is now under review with their legal team."

A BCC spokesman told us: "It is not our policy to recover costs for temporary accommodation from clients who do not have the means to pay. We are aware that some invoices were issued in error. This has been corrected and we apologise for any anxiety this has caused."

However, as The Pavement goes to press, the Community Law Partnership (CLP) claim to have other cases of this type with charges been passed on to homeless people. Mike McIvaney of CLP told us they have 17 possible cases and that he "fully expects BCC to come back and claim each individual case is merely a mistake."

"We have a stream of people coming in who have been treated in this manner," McIvaney said. "We have today [25 November] commenced High Court proceedings arguing that this policy is unlawful and that the council will therefore need to repay anyone who they have had money from. We hope to hear back from the High Court judge within a week."

This is a story we'll report on again when we're back in February.