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Homelessness is now a serious risk for working families with stable jobs who cannot find somewhere affordable to live after being evicted by private-sector landlords seeking higher rents, the local government ombudsman has warned.

Michael King said nurses, taxi drivers, hospitality staff and council workers were among those assisted by his office after being made homeless and placed in often squalid and unsafe temporary accommodation by local authorities.

“People are coming to us not because they have a ‘life crisis’ or a drug and alcohol problem, but because they are losing what they thought was a stable private-sector tenancy, being evicted and then being priced out of the [rental] market,” he said.

King said the common perception that homelessness was about people with chaotic lives who slept rough no longer held true. “Increasingly, [homeless people] are normal families who would not have expected to be in this situation,” he said.

The ombudsman’s report came as the latest quarterly homelessness statisticsshowed another year-on-year rise in the number of households classed as homeless. There are 79,150 homeless households in temporary housing, including 6,400 in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Homelessness of all kinds has increased for six consecutive years in England, prompting a highly critical National Audit Office report in September that said social security cuts and ministers’ failure to get a grip on a “visibly growing problem” was costing the taxpayer £1bn a year.

The homelessness charity Crisis said: “As social housing declines, welfare cuts bite and private renting costs soar, people who were less likely to become homeless in the past are now being pushed further to the brink of losing their homes.”

The ombudsman investigates individual complaints about public services and registered social care providers, and fines councils thousands of pounds when complaints are upheld. In 2016-17, the ombudsman received 450 complaints about council homelessness services, with 70% of those investigated upheld.

King was particularly critical of local authorities he had investigated that rehoused homeless families in damp, filthy and dangerous temporary homes. “You do not have to look to Victorian fiction to see totally Dickensian housing conditions,” he said.

“Dreadful” cases of homeless families being put up in substandard accommodation landed on his desk every week, he said. Examples include:

  • A couple with two young children who spent 26 weeks in a single room in a B&B. Although they reported that the shower did not work and the room was infested with cockroaches, the council failed to ensure repairs were made.
  • A mother whose baby had type 1 diabetes was placed in a dirty and unhygienic B&B room without access to cooking facilities. The baby contracted an infection and ended up in hospital. The hospital blamed the housing, saying the mother was unable to properly feed her baby.
  • A disabled single parent with four children was put up in B&B accommodation for nearly two and a half years after her benefits were capped. The council ignored letters from medical professionals outlining concerns that living in the property was affecting the family’s health.

Some councils routinely flouted homelessness law, with many placing homeless families with children in B&B rooms for longer than the legal six-week limit, a practice that had a “devastating impact” on many tenants’ lives, King said. The situation had deteriorated in the four years since the ombudsman last examined it.

“Sometimes it is an authority which has just made a mistake and does not understand the law. In other cases, it is a conscious attempt to manage a problem they are overwhelmed by. In some cases, they say they just do not have the staff to meet the number of applications,” he said.

Asked whether government cuts to council budgets had undermined homelessness provision, King said: “What local authorities tell us when we investigate is that they are working with increased pressures and fewer staff, fewer landlords are willing to take homeless tenants, there are increased evictions and less temporary accommodation available.”

One-third of cases analysed by the ombudsman’s team involved councils in south-east England, often in affluent areas with high housing costs such as Berkshire, Sussex and Kent.

Martin Tett, the Local Government Association housing spokesman, said: “Councils are facing immense pressures when it comes to temporary accommodation, having to house the equivalent of an extra secondary school’s worth of homeless children every month, and the cost of providing temporary accommodation has trebled in the last three years.”

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson said councils had a duty to provide safe, secure and suitable temporary accommodation.

“Tackling homelessness is a complex issue with no single solution, but we are determined to help the most vulnerable in society,” they said.

“That’s why we are providing over £1bn up to 2020 to prevent and reduce all forms of homelessness and rough sleeping. We are also bringing in the Homelessness Reduction Act – the most ambitious legislation in decades that will mean people get the support they need earlier.”

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