Families living in ‘last resort’ B&Bs in record numbers as homelessness rises
- Credit: Archant
Families are living in emergency B&Bs, sometimes for months on end, as councils struggle to deal with a record number of homeless people.
Local authorities are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds a year placing hundreds of families in cheap hotels in Norfolk and Waveney, as more people turn to them for help.
The surge in homeless applications means, the councils say, they have little choice but to place people in B&Bs - despite admitting they are a "last resort" and charities raising concerns.
Some of the B&Bs used by councils are amongst the worst rated in their areas, a probe by this newspaper has shown.
Other families have complained about being placed in dirty B&Bs with drug users.
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The "temporary accommodation" is meant to be a stop-gap but some people have been living there for up to two years.
Councils put the rise in homeless applications, which have gone up five-fold in some parts of Norfolk since 2017, down to legal changes made by the Homelessness Reduction Act. Introduced in April 2018, it means councils have to help more people threatened with homelessness sooner.
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But the amount of temporary accommodation has not increased with the homeless numbers, charity Crisis said, meaning B&Bs have to be used instead.
"B&B's are no place to call home," said Matt Downie from Crisis. "They can be crowded, in poor condition and sometimes even dangerous.
"But more and more we are seeing single people and families trapped in B&Bs for months or even years at a time with no hope of moving on."
Breckland Council spent £150,000 last year on B&Bs - more than any other Norfolk council, according to its spending data.
And it has already spent that amount in the first four months of this year. The main hotel it uses is the King's Head in Dereham, paying it £54,000 since January 2018.
Michelle Barnes, manager at the King's Head said: "This year there has been a massive difference (in numbers of guests).
"Usually at winter you get an influx, but this year it is still continuing now. We are always full."
She said the council carried out inspections to make sure the accommodation was a good standard.
But one Dereham charity worker, who helps homeless people in the town, said it was "very short sighted" to rely on hotels with no cooking or washing facilities.
"It is not a step towards rebuilding your life," she said. "Yes they have a roof over their heads but some people are homeless because of alcohol or drug addictions and they put them in a pub. It is ridiculous."
She called on the council to provide more self-contained units so people could have their own bathrooms and kitchens.
Breckland does use some purpose built temporary accommodation but it relies mainly on hotels.
It warns in its latest accounts that there could be a "serious shortfall in available temporary housing options".
A council spokesman said: "As a result of the housing legislation changes, the number of people requesting housing support and their average length of stay has gone up.
"This places increasing demand on local services and so Breckland is keeping this under close review."
No BnBs in West Norfolk
In neighbouring West Norfolk and King's Lynn, the council rarely uses B&Bs, relying instead on self-contained flats.
The council said that was "far more appropriate" than B&Bs which were "likely to be far more disruptive to family life".
Michael McKay, 55, has been living in a self-contained flat in King's Lynn since April.
He sought help from the council after he was evicted from his home of 14 years in Hunstanton with his wife and daughter when their landlady decided to sell up.
The construction worker said: "It is not ideal as we were in a four-bed home before but it is clean and it has all the features you need."
He admitted he was lucky to not be in a council area which used B&Bs.
What Norwich does
In Norwich, the council spent £100,000 last year on motels and has already spent £42,000 in the first three months of this year, according to its spending data.
The main B&B it uses is the Spixworth Motel which we have contacted for commented.
The council has paid the motel £136,000 since January 2018.
South Norfolk and Broadland councils also use the motel, with Broadland spending £26,000 on rooms there since January 2018.
South Norfolk Council has seen its numbers in temporary accommodation rise by 73pc last year from 64 people to 111.
A spokesman said: "Where we do use B&Bs we always try to move customers from B&B to our own accommodation at the earliest possible opportunity."
Broadland spent one of the highest sums on temporary accommodation last year at £465,000. It said its spending was below budget and B&Bs were a "last resort", preferring to use social housing units instead.
The city council also said the majority of people in temporary accommodation in Norwich stayed in self-contained places and it only used B&Bs when these places were full.
One of the B&Bs it uses in emergencies is called NR2. A double room we booked there for £30 a night was only just bigger than the bed and had no furniture, windows or storage space.
Owner Tony Burlingham said the council only tended to use the hostel during cold snaps.
"There are no homeless people in my hotels at the moment," he said. "The winter period is when the government gives them [the council] a surplus grant to house the homeless, so they are not using council money to pay for the rooms."
The city council has also used a range of B&Bs in Great Yarmouth, including the lowest rated one in the resort on review site TripAdvisor, called Fawlty Towers.
Owner Patsy Elphick said: "Some people complain but we also have some really good reviews."
Her husband Philip said the hotel had spent thousands of pounds upgrading rooms, buying new carpets and beds.
He added the rooms had their own bathrooms, kettles and microwaves.
A council spokesman said its providers had to meet health and safety rules and it carried out inspections.
Complaints in Yarmouth
Great Yarmouth Council also uses a host of B&Bs in the town.
It has spent £88,000 on B&Bs since January last year.
One of the main hotels it relies on is the St George Hotel on Albert Square where it has spent almost £6,000.
Kelly Gregory, 34, was placed there last winter with her three children aged 10, 8 and 3.
She said they witnessed drug taking amongst other guests. They also called 999, once when they heard a woman being attacked and a second time when her ten-year old son Ellis found a man passed out in the corridor.
"It was horrible, she said. "I didn't want people doing drugs in front of my kids". The B&B has been contacted for comment.
A Great Yarmouth Council spokesman said: "We are not aware of any specific complaints in respect of St George Hotel. Overall occupants seem happy with the accommodation."
They added: "The council only looks to use such accommodation in an emergency and on a short term basis if there is no other suitable temporary accommodation for the household."
They added 24 households were currently placed in B&Bs in the area, up from 17 at the start of 2018.
'We were at breaking point'
North Norfolk Council also said its use of temporary accommodation was rising.
It said it had little choice but to use B&Bs when its self-contained accommodation was full.
Last year it spent £10,000 on a hostel in Ipswich called Chequers Hotel.
Guests there have complained about dirty conditions, but the hotel said it passed all its inspections and staff took every complaint seriously.
NNDC said it sent guests to Chequers because it took "very complex clients that we struggle to house within the usual establishments".
When we visited in April guests described the struggles of living in B&Bs long term.
One father, who stayed at there with his partner and three children for 10 weeks, said it almost tore his family apart.
"It's not an exaggeration to say we were at breaking point," he said.
The emergency accommodation is meant to be used for a maximum of six weeks, but one mother said she had been placed at the hotel for 10 months by East Suffolk Council.
"They couldn't find me anywhere near where I was in Felixstowe, so my children are staying with my mum and I'm here with the youngest," she said.
Freedom of Information requests to councils show long stays are not one-offs. One person has been staying in temporary accommodation in Broadland for more than two years, while in Breckland the longest stay is six months.
In Waveney one person has been in temporary accommodation for 33 weeks and its spending on B&Bs went up by 40pc last year to £109,000.
Most of the temporary accommodation it uses are self-contained rooms with a kitchen and bathroom, such as a hostel called Abigail Court in Lowestoft.
Manager Kathy Brooks said there had been a big increase in guest numbers in the last year.
"It is very relaxed. I try to make it as friendly as possible," she said.
"We get inspected by Waveney Council every fortnight and they make sure there are no issues."
She said one reason for the rise in councils using places like hers was landlords not wanting to take tenants on benefits
"I've had people in here who have looked at eight houses but it is very difficult for them because the landlords want a guarantor," she said.
What is driving the rise?
Crisis said the Homeless Reduction Act had "completely changed the legal duty" that councils had to people at risk of homelessness.
The Act means councils have to help those at risk of becoming homeless within 56 days rather than 28 days under a so called "prevention" application.
It means that people who are facing eviction or other accommodation troubles can apply to the council for housing support before they end up without a place to live.
Crisis researcher Sophie Boobis said the changes had seen some "really positive improvements" in terms of preventing homeless before it reached a crisis stage.
She also highlighted new eligibility criteria, which meant previously overlooked groups, such as single men, could make homelessness applications, which tended to have been refused before.
"That's a really positive step," she added. "The new assessments are also much more focussed on individual needs."
Although the changes are relatively new, Ms Boobis said there were concerns that the wider housing system could pose challenges for local authorities in fulfilling their new obligations.
In response some councils are building more temporary accommodation to avoid using B&Bs.
Last year Mid Suffolk District Council re-opened a homeless shelter in Stowmarket, more than doubling its amount of temporary accommodation.
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