The law distinguishes between "ordinary" homeless people and others. Photo: Getty
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There is nothing "ordinary" about the devastation of homelessness

Homelessness charities will soon present evidence to the Supreme Court in a landmark case – a once-in-a-generation opportunity to challenge the way the law is used to turn people away to live on the streets.

Single homeless people are routinely turned away by their local authority when they ask for help, with councils often saying they have the law on their side. We know this, because as part of recent research we engaged people with experience of homelessness to test the services of councils across England as "mystery shoppers".

One of our mystery shoppers was a young woman who went up to a local council desk, told them she was homeless and fleeing domestic violence. She was given no help. Though acting, it was still a harrowing experience for her. She said: “I was heartbroken. From my personal experience . . . if I actually got treated like that then I probably would have become very suicidal or depressed, because these are the people that are supposed to help you and they could see I was worked up . . . They had no empathy whatsoever.”

It’s not just people fleeing domestic violence being left with no option but to sleep in the bitter cold. Those with learning disabilities, physical or mental health problems are turned away. How can a homeless person in such desperate need be turned away from help?

The answer lies in a Court of Appeal judgement from 1998, which says single homeless people are not given "priority need" for housing assistance unless they are:

When homeless, less able to fend for himself than an ordinary homeless person so that injury or detriment to him will result when a less vulnerable person would be able to cope without harmful effects.

This means that a local authority assesses a homelessness case not solely on the circumstances of the person in front of them, but in comparison to what is considered an "ordinary" homeless person. According to this test, a homeless person has to prove that they are more vulnerable than another homeless person in order to be entitled to housing assistance.

Homelessness is a devastating experience. The average age of death of homeless people is just 47, which is 30 years lower than the general population. Rates of mental and physical health problems are much higher than the general population. Homeless people are over nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Deaths as a result of infections are twice as likely. They are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violence.

Yet these, and many other tragic facts about homeless people, are currently being considered as "ordinary".

Crisis will present evidence about the everyday result of the vulnerability test for homeless people. The court will also hear from local authorities themselves, and we learned this week that the Government also wish to intervene in the case.

This is the first time the highest court in England has considered the vulnerability test for homeless people, and we are delighted to be given permission to intervene in the case. Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to campaign until single homeless people are offered the support they need, and we will never accept that the devastation of homelessness is acceptable, or "ordinary".

Jon Sparkes is the Chief Executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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