Clavia’s case shows how anyone can become homeless…

Does everyone deserve a home? For most of us it’s simple. Housing should be a basic right. Many people believe that the law follows the same morality and that if anyone is homeless the welfare state will step in – either to help with rent or to provide housing directly.

So when people read about Clavia Chambers this week, it seems incomprehensible. A lone parent with two young children evicted by the council and told to fend for herself. But Clavia is not an exceptional case who has fallen through the net. In fact her experience is becoming commonplace. Campaigners who went to the council office to support Clavia met three other people in the space of a few hours who were facing eviction for the same reasons.

So how does this happen? And what needs to change?

High rents

Clavia was in a private flat, sublet on her behalf by Lambeth council, which charged extortionate rent. The average rent for a 2 bed in Lambeth is now £1,855 per month.

Without a high paid job (or independent wealth!) Clavia relied on housing benefit to pay her rent. In London, most people in private flats who rely on housing benefit to pay their rent are also working.

Low wages

With childcare responsibilities Clavia had limited job choices and went on a seasonal contract. Her employer pays the minimum wage for part-time hours, split into short shifts spread across numerous days which change fortnightly, which raises the associated costs for their employees such as childcare and travel. When she was working Clavia earned around £90 per week.

Complicated and unaccountable benefits system

Every time Clavia moved in and out of work she had to inform the relevant authorities so that her benefits could be recalculated. But some benefits work in arrears, some in advance and some, such as tax credits, are paid speculatively and recouped at the end of the tax year if actual income exceeds expected income.

Stopping or starting work can involve moving between working tax credit and income support or jobseekers allowance which are administered by the DWP but also impacts housing benefit which is administered by the council.

Benefits can be, and often are, suspended while changes are calculated and then backdated if and when the correct information is supplied. Strict deadlines apply for backdating and if they are missed claimants can be instructed to make a new claim. Without support or advice this can be the first point of crisis leading to benefit entitlements being lost, arrears accruing, and people forced to resort to money lenders or foodbanks.

Clavia found herself caught in this all-too familiar and debilitating cycle. Trying to convince the council that her benefits were being calculated incorrectly but being given the run around. The council saying letters were sent, which Clavia never received. Evidence of wages and childcare costs submitted but not being acknowledged. No council records of Clavia’s phone calls or her requests to meet with housing officers.

Cuts to advice and legal services

When Clavia was brought to court for eviction proceedings she contacted a private solicitor and they requested her housing benefit records from Lambeth council. These were not supplied and the solicitor, with no defence case to present, said that they could not apply to be paid through legal aid so they declined to represent her in court.

Advice services in Lambeth, as everywhere, have been decimated in recent years and cuts to legal aid have forced solicitors to severely limit the number of cases they can take on.

Legal loopholes

Clavia mistakenly believed that because she had not defrauded anyone, or hidden any income, or committed any crime, that she would still be entitled to help from the council. When she was evicted she went straight to the council to ask for help. However, the law allows for a person who has rent arrears to be considered ‘intentionally homeless’ and therefore without any legal entitlement to housing. This is how Lambeth council chose to categorise Clavia.

Councils have to show in court that they have made every effort to support tenants to stay in their homes before they can be granted an order to evict someone. But that does not mean actually helping them or properly informing them of the process, only that they be seen to have done so. No advice agencies were able to represent Clavia and as a last ditch effort, a volunteer she met at the foodbank went with her to the council in the days before her eviction, but Lambeth council simply refused to discuss her case because they did not legally have to do so.

What needs to change?

Lambeth council maintain that Clavia is being ‘used’ by campaigners for some political vendetta. Lambeth council, it seems, is the victim here. Like so much in this case, this is a grotesque distortion of reality.

Some of the campaigners who have accompanied Clavia or shared her petition were out on the doorsteps just a few months ago campaigning for Labour. They hoped for an end to this kind of treatment and want Lambeth Labour to live up to the promises they made in the general election.

Those who would like to give Lambeth the benefit of the doubt might agree with the council that Clavia bears the responsibility for losing her home. But just in this one week of campaigning we have directly experienced with Clavia the frustrating humiliating treatment that so many face every day.

On Monday 14th August we stayed with Clavia in the housing office until the council finally gave her a hostel where she stayed that night, but was told to leave the following day. On Friday 18th August council officials wrongly claimed she had refused the hostel.

Clavia was told that she failed to attend a meeting at 3.30pm on Tuesday 15th August. But neither Clavia, nor any campaigners who were with her in the housing office on that Monday evening, were ever told about an appointment the next day. Clavia met a Lambeth law centre solicitor on Tuesday morning at 10am who contacted the council immediately to inform them he was her representative. He was not told of any meeting at 3.30pm either.

Most bizarrely council officers told Clavia on Friday the 18th that they would not rehouse her because she had failed to collect a key for temporary accommodation on Tuesday the 15th and it was now no longer available to her. This tallies with an email from Councillor Paul McGlone on Wednesday the 16th claiming that Clavia had been provided interim accommodation. But nobody had told Clavia. An email from Councillor McGlone on Friday the 18th did not refer again to this mystery offer, which was never actually made to Clavia, but still subsequently withdrawn!

The housing benefit file which the council maintained they could not access on Monday 14th, which Clavia’s solicitor requested on Tuesday 15th, and which Councillor McGlone maintains has been reviewed more than once this week by senior council officers, has still not been provided to Clavia.

This is how Clavia is being treated in the full glare of a public campaign. This is the reality for thousands who do not have the support or the stamina to continue the fight and who end up going under. With Universal Credit coming in, this kind of mishandling of claims is a recipe for disaster.

We need a complete overhaul of Lambeth’s housing and benefits system – but these four changes would be a good start:

  1. Stop classifying people with rent arrears as ‘intentionally homeless’
  2. Housing benefit is paid from central government funds and rent arrears are a drain on local council resources. The council has everything to gain from supporting tenants in applying for backdated housing benefits. The council should use their discretionary powers to accept those applications particularly when people have, for a variety of reasons, failed to meet the time limits and where this is the only criteria that the claimants have not met.
  3. Millions are wasted on legal action for possession hearings that cause such distress, and chasing arrears that people can never repay. That money should be spent on independent legal and debt advice for tenants as soon as they fall into arrears so that they can avoid losing their homes.
  4. Tenants in private housing are even more vulnerable to losing their homes when they have problems with benefits which is just one more reason for the council to urgently increase their stock of council homes.