Today, an important judgment in the Supreme Court will make a huge difference to the thousands of vulnerable homeless people who, every year, approach their local council for help.
Our homeless legislation is quite rightly designed to keep vulnerable people from the streets. No one wants to see children, pregnant women and other vulnerable adults sleeping rough or forced into dangerous situations. This was the intention of Parliament.
But in some parts of the country, where the shortage of affordable homes is most acute, some very vulnerable people were being left without legal protection. Although the concept of vulnerability was intended to be applied as an absolute test, in reality it was driven by available resources.
This was compounded by the 1998 ‘Pereira Test’, a High Court ruling which defined a vulnerable homeless person as ‘being less able to fend for oneself than the ordinary homeless person’. With the average street homeless person dying at 47 years old, this set the bar very high indeed for vulnerable people.
As a result, people with serious mental and physical health problems, chronic illnesses and fleeing violence and abuse were left without meaningful help in the form of temporary or settled accommodation.
Over the years, Shelter’s advisers have seen many people in this position. The frustration of being unable to assist them in obtaining a roof over their head – and the worry about what the future might hold for the person concerned – remains with them for years to come.
People like Mya, who had suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse as a child and became homeless again when she fled further violence from a family member. Despite supporting evidence from medical professionals that she was in poor health and had considered taking her own life as a result of her trauma, she was told she didn’t qualify for assistance. This was because her risk of self-harm was ‘not anything different to what would be found with ordinary street homeless people’.
The fact that Mya, despite all the challenges she faced, had been attending university; undertaking voluntary work; paying bills; and attending counselling was used as evidence that she was not a vulnerable person and need not be given even emergency accommodation.
It is this inhumane and nonsensical approach to the homelessness safety net that the Supreme Court has today said is wrong. The Court’s unanimous view is that vulnerability should be measured against the ‘ordinary person’ if rendered homeless, not against statistical evidence of the characteristics of existing ‘street homeless’ people.
The judgment also emphasises the need to treat vulnerable homeless people as individuals, paying ‘close attention to the particular circumstances of the applicant’ and all his or her difficulties taken together. Nearly Legal provide more detail of the judgment here.
Backed by evidence and support from St Mungos Broadway and Homeless Link, Shelter and Crisis intervened in this case to ensure the Court was aware of the very high burden of proof required for vulnerable people to be accommodated and the impact of being refused help when not deemed vulnerable enough.
The Government also intervened in the case to clarify that the statutory guidance on homelessness should apply throughout the country and should not be applied differently because of availability of resources or accommodation.
This judgment will not mean that all single homeless people will be rehoused. Until our housing shortage is properly addressed, and the holes in our housing safety net patched up, the stark truth is that some vulnerable people will continue to fall through the gaps – and, tragically, some will be the visible face of homelessness on our streets.