How to make a homeless referral

How and when to make a referral to a local authority or to help someone make a homeless application.

Published January 2023

Homeless application or duty to refer?

A homeless application is when a person applies to a local authority for assistance because they are homeless or at risk of homelessness. 

An application can be made in any format and can be verbal or in writing. Local authorities must provide assistance to anyone who is eligible based on their immigration status.

The duty to refer requires certain public bodies to refer anyone they work with who is homeless or at risk of homelessness to a local housing authority. A referral cannot normally be made without the person's consent. The duty to refer was introduced in 2018 by the Homelessness Reduction Act. 

Making a referral under the duty to refer is not the same as making a homeless application. On receiving a referral, the local authority should contact the person referred onto them and assess whether to take a homeless application based on their situation.

Some public bodies are legally required to make referrals, including job centres and probation services. Other organisations who are not subject to the duty can still refer someone to a local authority.

Alternatively, any professional, subject to the duty to refer or not, can assist someone to make a homeless application by helping them to contact the local housing authority. The best option for the person depends on their individual circumstances.

When a public authority must make a referral

The duty to refer is triggered when a public body identifies that someone they are working with is either:

  • homeless

  • likely to become homeless within 56 days

  • a tenant and has been given a valid section 21 notice that ends in the next 56 days

A local authority has a duty to help anyone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness and eligible based on their immigration and residence status.

Missed opportunities

The duty to refer has existed since 2018 but professionals still sometimes miss situations where they should make a referral. 

Research by Crisis found that although 24% of homeless applicants surveyed had been in contact with Jobcentre Plus, only 6% remembered being advised to contact the local authority for assistance with their homelessness situation. This suggests that although Jobcentre Plus staff are subject to the duty to refer, staff might be unaware or unsure when a referral is needed.

Government statistics show that the largest number of referrals were made by the probation service, where it may be more straightforward to identify those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

How to identify if someone is homeless

If you’re aware that someone has a housing issue, you might need to ask more questions to establish whether they are legally homeless or threatened with homelessness. 

Use Shelter Legal's homelessness referral checker to help identify whether someone is homeless and whether to make a referral.

Duty to make a referral or help with a homeless application

Some public bodies must make a referral, including:

  • social services

  • jobcentre plus

  • prisons and probation services

  • secure training centres and colleges

  • youth offender institutions and youth offending teams

  • accident and emergency services provided in a hospital

  • urgent treatment centres, and hospitals providing in-patient treatment

  • the Ministry of Defence in relation to members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the regular army and the Royal Air Force

If your organisation is in the list above and you’re working with someone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness, you must make a referral if the person consents.

There are some situations where a homeless application can be made alongside the referral. The Homelessness Code of Guidance advises that for some people, for instance, those with additional support needs, it might be more appropriate to help them to approach a local housing authority directly, rather than only making a referral.

Whether it’s through a referral or by helping with a homeless application, the most important thing is that the person’s details and information about their situation are passed to the local housing authority.

Help with a homeless application where there's no duty to refer

Many organisations that work with people who have housing issues don’t have a duty to refer. A professional who isn’t subject to the duty to refer can help someone make a homeless application. As a homeless application can be made in any form, this could just be as simple as contacting the local authority by phone or email.

Government guidance on the duty to refer states that other public bodies who are not subject to the duty to refer can still make a referral.

If your service doesn’t have a duty to refer you might still be asked to make a referral by the local authority. It could still be worthwhile completing the duty to refer form, as this should alert the local authority to the person’s situation.

The homeless person might be in contact with other organisations who do have a duty to refer so another option could be to ask that organisation to make the referral. In an urgent situation, the quickest option might be to contact the local authority directly and help the person to make a homeless application.

How to make a referral for a homeless person

You must obtain the consent of the person being referred. Explain what the duty to refer is and what should happen after the referral has been made.

You can only make a referral without the person’s consent if it is necessary to safeguard a child or vulnerable adult.

Gather relevant information

A good referral should include the person’s name and contact details, their address (if any), household members and any health issues or vulnerabilities which the local authority should be aware of.

You can still make a referral if you don’t have all of this information. At a minimum the referral needs to include the person’s name, contact details and agreed reason for the referral.

Identify which local authority to contact

You can refer someone to a different local authority area outside of the one they are currently in. A local authority should not refuse to accept a homeless application just because someone doesn’t have a local connection to their area. If someone is already homeless and does not have a local connection to the area they have approached, that local authority can refer them to another area where they do have a connection. 

Make sure the person understands that if they are referred to an area where they don't have a local connection, the local authority may be able to refer them to another area. It’s best for them to have a realistic expectation of what help the local authority might offer.

Make the referral

A referral is usually made by completing an online form. This should be available on the local authority’s website and local authorities should have a specific email address for duty to refer forms to be sent to.

Use the Gov.uk standard duty to refer form if the local authority doesn’t have a form available on its website.

What happens next

A local authority is not specifically required to respond to the organisation making a referral but is encouraged to do so. The authority should contact the person subject to the referral.

A local authority should accept a homeless application if it has reason to believe that the person might be homeless or threatened with homelessness and would like assistance.

Use the search on Find your local council - GOV.UK to find your local authority area by postcode.

How to help someone to make a homeless application

Before helping someone to make a homeless application, you should get the person’s agreement and make sure they understand what you’re helping them to do. 

When dealing with the local authority, you might need the person’s written consent for the authority to agree to discuss their situation with you. If this isn’t possible, when you contact the local authority over the phone, try to make sure the person is with you or can join on a conference call.

It might take repeated attempts to contact the local authority. You might need to follow up on an initial contact if the person doesn’t get a response. 

A local authority has 56 days to complete its inquiries into what duty is owed to a homeless person and the person may require ongoing support during this time. If your organisation can’t provide this type of support, try to connect them with a service that can.

Gather information

Gather information before contacting the local authority. Try to confirm:

  •  the person’s name

  •  contact details

  •  address (if any)

  •  household members

  •  any health issues or vulnerabilities the local authority should be aware of

Identify which local authority to contact

A homeless person can apply to any local authority. If someone is already homeless and doesn’t have a local connection to the area they’ve approached, that local authority might refer them to another local authority where they do have a connection.

A local authority should not refuse to accept a homeless application because a person does not have a local connection. It must still provide emergency accommodation if the person might have a priority need, for example, if they are vulnerable.

Contact the local authority

Use Shelter's housing advice website to find the contact details for the local authority’s homelessness team.

If you make initial contact by phone, follow this up by email. Ask the local authority to confirm that it has accepted a homeless application.

What happens next

The local authority must make inquiries into what duty it might owe the person. The authority carries out an assessment of the person’s housing needs. This normally involves an initial interview and further contact with the local authority. A homeless applicant is usually asked to provide supporting information or evidence relating to their application.

The local authority must provide emergency accommodation while carrying out its inquiries if it also has reason to believe the person might be eligible and have a priority need.

If the local authority won't accept a homeless application

When a local authority refuses to accept a homeless application when they are obliged to do so, this is known as gatekeeping. Use Shelter's template letter to contact the local authority about gatekeeping. 

The legal remedy to challenge a local authority who refuses to accept a homeless application is judicial review. Judicial review is a challenge of the local authority’s decision in the High Court. A homeless applicant will need a solicitor to help with this and they might be able to get legal aid if they are financially eligible.

You could also help the person make a complaint to the local authority. This can be escalated to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman if needed.

If the local authority asks for an additional form

Some local authorities have additional forms to be completed before accepting a homeless application.

A homeless application can be made in any format. If a local authority has reason to believe that the applicant is homeless it should not refuse to accept an application until a specific form is completed.

Additional forms might request information which is normally collected as part of the local authority’s assessment. It’s still the local authority’s responsibility to complete the homelessness assessment. If it isn’t possible to provide this information, this shouldn’t delay the local authority starting its own inquiries.

Online resources

Legislation and guidance

Guidance on the homelessness duty to refer — Government guidance on the duty to refer. It covers requirements of the duty, identifying when the duty is owed and the process for making a referral

Chapter 4 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance — covers the duty to refer.

Chapter 6 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance — covers when someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness.

Shelter Legal

Shelter Legal is an online guide to housing law for professionals. Topics covered include homelessness, possession proceedings, and housing conditions.

Check if someone is homeless or threatened with homelessness — an interactive tool to find out if a person is likely to meet the legal definition of homelessness or threatened homelessness.

Homeless rights checker — find out if someone is likely to be eligible for homelessness assistance based on their immigration and residence status.

Adviser resources

Duty to assess a homeless applicant's housing needs — a local authority’s duty to assess a person’s housing needs as part of a homeless application.

Local authority duties to prevent and relieve homelessness — a local authority’s duties towards people who are homeless and threatened with homelessness.

Experiences of the Homelessness Reduction Act

(do we need this bit?)

In May 2022, Crisis published detailed research into people's experiences of the changes brought in by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, including the prevention and relief duties. They spoke to people who had approached their local authority for support as well as staff in six different authorities.

The research shows how different groups can have different experiences and outcomes when asking a local authority for support. For people whose contact with the local authority had ended, 46% remained homeless. For people who were sleeping rough when they approached, this rose to 67%.

Read the full report.