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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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.