The government has stepped in and written to councils saying they can still pay housing benefit to the majority of night shelters to try to clear up confusion caused by a case in Wales.
In the note it points out it has invested £470 million in night shelters for four years from 2011/12 and recognises the important role they have in reducing rough sleeping.
‘The government recognises the important contribution that night shelters can make to reducing rough sleeping and the associated costs to society,’ the missive states.
It makes clear ‘housing benefit rules have not been changed’ and it can ‘continue to be paid to the users of the majority of shelters’.
Local authorities have been reviewing and changing their approaches to paying housing benefit to people in night shelters following a court ruling in Anglesey last year.
The judge in the Anglesey case said the council was not liable to pay housing benefit to an individual because he did not store his belongings at the shelter and beds were allocated each night, so it could not be deemed his permanent dwelling.
A 28-bed night shelter serving Manchester and Salford has already closed down as a result of the Welsh ruling. Umbrella body Homeless Link said 11 local authorities had withdrawn some or all payments to night shelters or were insisting on modifications to services.
But the joint note from the Communities and Local Government department and Department for Work and Pensions points out: ‘In his decision the judge made it clear that this case was limited to its own particular facts and state expressly that the case was not “intended to prescribe how housing benefit claims for rough sleepers should be decided”.’
It also suggests local authorities discuss the issue of housing benefit thrown up by the case with their night shelters.
Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy for the umbrella body Homeless Link, said: ‘When individuals suddenly find themselves on the streets, it is vital that they have somewhere to go.
‘Night shelters are often the only emergency accommodation available and confusion over the ruling was beginning to lead to unnecessary closures, potentially leaving those in need with no option but the street.’
Homeless Link is encouraging councils who have withdrawn funding to reinstate it, she added.
Peers in the House of Lords last month called for the government to issue guidance to local authorities and charities following the ruling.