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A family, including children with disabilities, shared a single hotel room for more than three years because Bristol City Council did not treat their housing and homelessness applications properly, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigation has found.

The Ombudsman has criticised the council for the way it handled the family’s attempts to register a housing application, for failing to take a homelessness application, and for trying to charge them the full cost for storing their belongings while they were living in hotel accommodation.

The family, which includes two children with visual impairments, first called on the city council for help when they were evicted from their private tenancy flat. They had to remain in single hotel rooms with no cooking facilities, often having to move from rooms and hotels at short notice. The council did not step in to help even when the father told it the family had a new baby with disabilities.

A number of council departments were aware of the family’s problems, including Children’s Services, but nothing was done about their housing situation until the Ombudsman got involved.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said: “During our investigation, the council followed our recommendation and registered a housing application from the family. That they found a home within two months of being on the register suggests just how desperate the family’s situation was.

“I’m pleased the council has now agreed to some of our recommendations and would urge it to accept the rest of them. The recommendation we have made to improve services should prevent this sort of thing happening to other families in the city.”

The family first contacted the council in April 2014. The two older children were being schooled in their hotel room, and at one point staff at the hotel raised concerns about the children. Children’s Services became involved, but their situation was not referred to the housing department.

The father regularly tried to register for housing, but the council failed to accept these applications, even after he told the council they had a new baby with disabilities.

The family found private lets on a number of occasions, and asked the council for help with a deposit. But they lost the properties because the council took too long to look at their applications.

The Ombudsman criticised a number of aspects of the council’s handling of the family’s housing situation: in 2014 the council reopened an application originally made to it in 2005 – the council then neither closed this application nor assessed it as an active application. This meant the family could not complete an online application as the council still had an application open for them.

The council also failed to inform the family about the open application, so the father was not able to ask the council to reassess it.

The council said it would not have used its discretion to house the family as it had previously found them intentionally homeless. However, the family had an urgent need to be housed and the council could and should have considered this.

The Ombudsman’s investigation has also criticised the council’s use of a ‘pre-application checker’ for its online housing application. This checker prevented people from registering if they met certain criteria. This was unlawful, and prevented people using their right to apply for a review of their housing application decision. The council no longer has this checker.

Children’s Services were also found to be at fault for failing to carry out a full assessment of the children’s situation sooner, and for failing to address the accommodation needs of the children.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services.

The council has already housed the family and agreed to wipe off the whole contribution the father agreed to make for storage costs, in recognition of the trouble and distress its actions caused when it stopped paying for storage.

In this case, the council should also pay the father £8,400 for the delay and a further £600 for the time, trouble, frustration and distress it has caused.

The council should also confirm in future it will follow the law and not automatically end its duty to store the belongings of people it has found intentionally homeless.

© Commission for Local Administration in England, 2015