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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser