An interim senior housing officer said staffing pressures meant council’s homelessness team were dealing with more than double the amount of recommended cases, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter
Short staffing in Waltham Forest’s homelessness team led to a culture of “housing families in crisis,” a temporary senior officer has said.
Lindsay Megson, interim director of housing options and support, said that when she joined the council in March this year the homelessness team was “eight full-time staff short”.
This meant that staff on the team dealing with residents at risk of homelessness had about 70 cases each, more than double the amount councils are advised to have.
Speaking to the housing scrutiny committee last week, she said: “It would be true to say that there hasn’t been a culture of early intervention and prevention, rather a situation where officers were left to firefight and house families in crisis.
“That culture was left to grow for quite some time.”
Megson, whose LinkedIn profile says she specialises in “service transformation”, replaced corporate director of housing strategy and options, Modester Anucha, who is now director of housing at Hounslow Council in West London.
Her presence at the council marks what it is describing as a “new approach” to homelessness which will place a “greater emphasis” on prevention.
“Experienced” interim housing staff have been hired to clear the backlog of cases and face-to-face meetings between housing officers and residents are due to restart.
However, it remains unclear whether the council will change its controversial policy of telling hundreds of families in temporary housing they must move far from London to avoid being declared “voluntarily homeless”.
In the same month that Anucha left the council, Waltham Forest Council suffered its most recent defeat in the Court of Appeal when judges ruled in favour of local mother Nadia Zaman, who refused the council’s offer to be re-housed in Stoke-on-Trent.
The judges found there was a “dearth” of evidence that Waltham Forest had tried to house Nadia closer to home, while the council’s barrister, Nicholas Grundy KC, argued that she could have been lawfully housed in Penzance – about 300 miles from Walthamstow.
In February last year, former borough resident of 35 years, Lisa Paley, won a Court of Appeal battle with the council over its decision to move her family of five to Stoke-on-Trent with a £50 a week budget for clothing, transport and school expenses.
The council is now awaiting another Court of Appeal judgement over its decision to move Mother-of-three Katie-Leigh Webb-Harnden to Walsall in the West Midlands in September 2021.
Katie-Leigh’s legal team has argued the council failed to take into account discrimination that the benefit cap has on single mothers by moving her so far away from her home and support network.
In recent years, several cases have also come to light of single mothers raising concerns about how the council has handled their temporary accommodation placements.
A serious case review into the murder of 14-year-old Jaden Moodie, who was killed in 2019, criticised the council’s “slow” response to his mother’s application for temporary accommodation.
Weeks before Christmas in 2021, mother-of-three Izebela Kikosicka spent the night in a car after she was abruptly evicted from temporary accommodation after refusing to move to Derby.
On Christmas 2022, two local mothers living in temporary accommodation complained about spending months in “unsuitable” hostels.
In June, a single mother from Waltham Forest lost her place on the waiting list to bid for council homes “a week” after reaching the front of a seven-year queue.
Samantha, a mother-of-two who works at a nursery, was living in freezing cold temporary accommodation in Ilford when the council made her a non-negotiable offer to move to Havering.
As a London borough seeing increasingly unaffordable rents in the private sector, Waltham Forest faces both high numbers of residents seeking help with housing and difficulties finding properties that are affordable to those on benefits.
Ahsan Khan, the council’s lead for housing and regeneration, recently said the government did not offer him “the courtesy of a reply” when he called on the chancellor to “unfreeze” local housing allowance rates to make renting affordable to households on benefits.
He added: “We are housing residents in some instances at a considerable distance from the borough.
“That’s something that I’m not entirely comfortable with but I understand that at times we have no other option.
“Our policy is always at the first instance to place people in the borough or as close to the borough as possible.
“Unfortunately, there are not enough homes.”