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8 December 2014

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.

By Jon Sparkes Jon Sparkes

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.

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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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