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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue