Investigation: May Bulman and Simon Murphy find widespread concern about a sector that’s supposed to help those with nowhere to go
Each night, after using the communal bathroom, Emma tiptoed down the corridor to her bedroom, closed the door and, with all her strength, pushed her chest of drawers up against it. Then she waited.
After five years, she had escaped the clutches of her ex-husband, who dragged her down flights of stairs by her hair and plunged her into thousands of pounds of debt. Now Emma hoped to find safety in supported housing known as “exempt accommodation”, for the most vulnerable members of society such as those with mental health issues, the homeless and those leaving care or prison.
Instead, night after night, she waited for the banging on her door to begin as a young man living in the same housing demanded she hand over money to feed his drug addiction.
“It was horrific,” says Emma, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “People would be released from prison and brought straight to the house, no vetting, nothing.
“One guy moved in and told me he had been done for sexual assault. He claimed that it wasn’t true, but a few weeks later the police arrested him for another sexual assault.”
In her three years in exempt accommodation, Emma, who is in her 50s, says drug use was rife, while furniture was stained with bodily fluids, including a soiled mattress that took two months to replace. She slept on the floor in the meantime.
At one stage she says she was placed in a room next to a woman wanted by police for attacking someone with an axe. “She had been in the room next to me and I had no idea,” she says. “That was terrifying.”
The problems Emma found in exempt accommodation in Birmingham – drug use, lack of support, fears over safety – are echoed across the sector. Meanwhile, huge sums of money are passed on to providers through housing benefit, as well as service charges they collect from residents that are supposed to cover costs such as support workers.
The number of households in exempt accommodation was 156,868 in May 2021, up from 95,149 in 2016, according to figures uncovered by housing charity Crisis.
Today an investigation by The Independent and openDemocracy reveals that among those receiving tens of millions of pounds are rogue providers that have been named and shamed by the housing regulator because the bosses of some of these non-profit organisations have been cashing in through a loophole in regulations.
Since 2018, more than £132m in housing benefit has been paid to providers for exempt accommodation that are subject to judgments or notices from the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH). The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, cover 95 of more than 300 English local authorities, meaning the true figure is likely to be far higher.
Following reports of unfit properties and inadequate support for vulnerable tenants, parliament’s levelling up, housing and communities select committee launched an inquiry into exempt accommodation last December, which is due to report later this year. Its call for evidence has unearthed a steady stream of damning findings.
West Midlands Police’s written evidence to the inquiry references “community safety issues”, which it details encompass “fighting, begging, anti-social behaviour, prostitution, drug use, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, harassment, intimidation, theft, damage to property including fire and threatening behaviour”.
But, the force says, it is “especially concerned with the concentration of vulnerable persons, many with complex needs”, adding: “The opportunity for them to be exploited, to exploit others or for their vulnerabilities to be otherwise taken advantage of or exposed.”
Rape and assault
Key to this are questions over the support provided under the service charge. These amounts are set at the discretion of providers and vary, but can be as much as £100 a month for residents. The submission says of providers: “Very few deliver what has been promised,” while others are open about the poor service provided – a monthly visit or even simply “leaving bread and jam in the shared kitchen on a Saturday for all residents”.
Emma says that in theory, support workers in the properties she lived in were meant to visit weekly – but the reality was different. “The only time you see the support worker is when they come to collect the service charge. The day your benefit is paid they will be there at the house demanding the money. It had to be given in cash,” she says.
“When I saw the support worker I’d say I’ve got no food and they would give me a food bank voucher. They were taking money off me when they knew I had no food. It was so demeaning.”
There are requirements for DBS checks on support staff in exempt accommodation. The West Midlands Police submission, dated January 2022, cites police intelligence “that a resident had been raped by the landlord under threat of eviction”, a “female resident being assaulted by her partner, who worked at the property” and a “sexual assault of a female resident by a staff member”.
Other examples were given such as providers recruiting vulnerable residents with significant needs and employing them as “lead support workers”. In another case, a “very high risk” perpetrator of domestic abuse was placed at a shared property with four single women before police had to be deployed to remove him.
Crisis told the inquiry: “Unscrupulous providers are putting people at risk as the financial imperative to fill vacant rooms outweighs consideration of residents’ needs and safety.”
Still facing harm
Emma says she witnessed the dearth of support first-hand. “One evening a young woman turned up in the house. She had just been dumped there by the provider,” she recalls. “She looked out of it […] so vulnerable. I gave her some clean clothes and saw that she was covered in open sores that were bleeding. She was obviously an intravenous user and had been sticking needles into herself.
“I went to [the] kitchen for a few minutes and came back to see that she was in a heap on the floor. I called the support worker but they said there was no one available to come and help – ‘deal with her yourself’. I said I was scared – she was clearly very unwell, but they did nothing. I sat with her all evening because I was terrified to leave her.”
In March this year, ministers set out plans to introduce minimum standards of support provided to residents and changes to housing benefit regulations to “seek to define care, support and supervision”.
However, measures requiring legislation are scheduled only for “when parliamentary time allows”.
A government spokesperson said: “It is appalling that rogue landlords are exploiting the supported housing system to profit from housing vulnerable people who need help to live independently.
“That’s why we recently announced our intention to bring forward new laws as soon as possible to crack down on rogue landlords, protect vulnerable residents and give councils stronger powers to intervene.”
For Emma, she has finally moved on from exempt accommodation, and her nightmare is over. Her thoughts now are for the most vulnerable in our society who are still facing harm. “I worry about the people still there,” she says. “Two girls I knew took fatal overdoses. They weren’t getting the help they needed. People are being failed. People are dying.”