Camden Council's policy towards Irish homeless families has been misrepresented, Peter Stanford reports. And at the root of the problem is Central Government intransigence.
LONDON'S homeless problem is a national scandal whose burden is falling unfairly yet squarely on the shoulders of hard pressed borough councils in the capital.
The case of Camden and its policies towards Irish families without a home has hit the headlines in recent days. Even normally sensible newspapers have been employing emotive words like "repatriation" to castigate a council that has simply been swamped with people asking for a roof over their heads.
The issue in question is Camden's policy, since September, of offering travel warrants backs to Ireland for homeless families. Such warrants are only offered — and do not have to be accepted in very specific circumstances. Firstly, the council's housing officers will check whether that family has 110=11■1111••■ any connection with any other borough in England, Scotland or Wales as it would with all homeless people asking for its advice and assistance. If a connection with any other borough exists, that family are referred back to the original local authority.
If, however, there is no connection for the homeless Irish family, Camden's officers will then investigate if they have left behind safe and suitable accommodation in Ireland. In ascertaining what exactly is "safe and suitable", the council will take into account factors such as whether that home was the scene of domestic violence or the like.
Only if there is "clear evidence" that safe and suitable accommodation is available in Ireland will that family be offered a travel warrant to return. If they turn down the warrant, however, Camden has discharged its statutory duty under law, and the family must then find its own accommodation.
In checking up on the kind of accommodation a homeless family turning up on Camden's doorstep has left behind in Ireland, the council is not employing any different techniques than it would with a family from say Glasgow, Manchester or any other part of the United Kingdom.
Tony Dykes, the leader of Camden Council, was categorical in stating to the Catholic Herald that his authority "has never and will never return people anywhere". Such distortions have done great
damage, he noted, and have given rise to completely groundless fears from long-term Irish residents in the borough.
At the crux of the problem is the inability of the inner London boroughs like Camden and Islington to find enough accommodation for those turning up in the capital in search of the good employment prospects of the southeast.
"Camden can't solve the housing crisis on its own", Mr Dykes pointed out. Camden currently has 11,000 families on its homeless register, with "more and more people living in housing in desperate need of repair". The solution is a simple one. "What we need is more council housing stock at a price people can afford", Mr Dykes stressed. However, government constraints on local authority spending on repairing existing council properties, or building new ones, have tied the hands of the local authorities at the same time as council houses are being sold to their tenants. "What we urgently need is a policy and action from the central government", Camden's leader stated. "All they have done so far is cut the money we can spend on dealing with the homeless problem".
Camden has seen a fall in real terms since 1979 of 76 per cent in the money it can spend on council housing stock. As a result it is now spending between £16 and £20 million a year on housing homeless families in inadequate and cramped bed and breakfast accommodation.
According to the most recent legislation on homelessness, a council has a duty to house only those who are unintentionally homeless".
The exact meaning of this nebulous phrase has been hotly disputed in the courts. If a wage-earner has been without work for several years and then gets a job in London, and thus leaves his home and brings his family with him to the capital, can he be said to have made
himself intentionally homeless simply by wanting to work?
In the past Islington and Camden have been freer in their interpretation of their statutory duties towards the homeless hence many more homeless people have headed for these two councils, and neighbouring Brent, to ask for advice and assistance. Because of the large Irish communities in these three north London boroughs, a sizeable percentage of those presenting themselves as homeless there have been Irish.
Camden's decision to offer travel warrants is not an ideal solution, they would be the first to admit. But sheer numbers and cost have driven them to it. And they are not alone in resorting to this policy.
Part of the problem with dealing with Irish families who are homeless in London is the
fact that the Republic is not treated in the same way as other foreign countries. Language and cultural links make it easier to telephone Ireland and check whether other accommodation exists. A family coming from Bangladesh, for example, and presenting themselves as homeless would present housing officials with a more difficult situation to investigate under the "intentionally homeless" regulations.
It is this ease of checking up on details of Irish families that concern. Fr Thomas Scully OMI of the London Irish Centre in the heart of Camden. He was anxious about how Camden and other boroughs checked the evidence about safe and suitable accommodation back in Ireland. Telephone calls were not enough, he told the Catholic Herald. Written details should be sought.