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Landmark ruling to increase homeless support workload for councils

Source: PSE June/ July 15

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, says a recent Supreme Court judgment will significantly change the way councils assess homeless people’s vulnerability when deciding whether local authorities have a duty to house them.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled on a long-running legal challenge to the way councils decide who is ‘vulnerable’ enough for housing help and, as a result, it will very likely mean that local authorities should house more single vulnerable homeless people. 

Previously, councils had decided whether someone was vulnerable by comparing them with ‘an ordinary street homeless person’. This resulted in councils deciding that people with depression, risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts were not vulnerable, because this was no different to what an ‘ordinary’ street homeless person suffered. 

But in the joined cases of Johnson, Hotak and Kanu, the Supreme Court has found this to be the wrong approach. Instead, the council should consider whether the homeless applicant is more vulnerable than “an ordinary person if made homeless, not an ordinary actual homeless person”. 

The Supreme Court judgement read: “The expression ‘street homeless’, is … much used, but it is not to be found in the 1996 Housing Act. ‘Homeless’, as defined in the Act, is an adjective which can cover a number of different situations, and the very fact that the statute does not distinguish between them calls into question the legitimacy of doing so when considering the nature or extent of an authority’s duty to an applicant.” 

Speaking to PSE about the ruling, Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said the Court heard how horrific a homeless person’s life has to be before they qualify for council help, which meant “that the test was effectively an almost impossible bar for people to meet”. 

“It also meant that lots of single homeless people were being turned away legally from their councils, despite some really horrific situations,” said Downie. 

He added that the ruling was a landmark case and already local authorities have been in touch following the judgement and have said they are changing the way they are working. 

“Quite often, in legal campaigning terms, it can take a long time for the outcome to really come to pass. In this case, it has not,” said Downie, adding that local authorities will now face real challenges in providing a duty to homeless people. 

“The overall concern local authorities have is that what this [judgement] effectively does is expand the number of people they have a duty to help. That is an almost impossible situation for a number of local authorities, particularly in London and the south east, where the housing situation is so dire in terms of affordable and available housing to people who are owed a duty and are homeless.” 

He added that, despite the ruling, the legal entitlements for single homeless people remain inadequate and many will still be turned away from help. 

The Local Government Association (LGA) has said that councils will be considering this ruling “carefully”. 

A spokesperson added: “With homelessness approvals increasing and local authorities accepting more people than ever, sadly, councils simply do not have enough homes to provide accommodation for all of those who need support, due to a shortage of housing and pressures on their budgets.” 

The Supreme Court has confirmed that councils are not allowed to take their own resources (such as funds or available accommodation) into account when deciding on ‘vulnerability’. 

Asked for his opinion on the LGA’s comment, Downie said: “If the solution to every single case of homelessness and preventing homelessness was to provide accommodation then I would agree. But it isn’t.” 

The solution is often instead acting as a mediator in the early instances of homelessness to try to prevent people becoming long-term homeless. 

“One of the things that we are doing, and local authorities have asked us for this, is giving them much more information around the cost savings that are available within their own systems and within their local areas if they provide a more effective prevention offer,” he said. 

However, Downie admitted that the hardest thing to do is invest in prevention when there is less and less money available. “But it is the only alternative in a situation where there is less and less housing available”. 

Crisis recently ‘mystery shopped’ some homelessness services across England and, on the back of the work, is providing feedback not just to those it mystery shopped but other authorities seeking help to improve their work. 

“The general findings were that, in almost all cases, where people presented themselves in very serious scenarios, they were either turned away with nothing or virtually nothing in terms of an assessment,” said Downie. “As you can expect, where local authorities have less housing stock available to them it got harder to [get] support. For instance, you were less likely to get a decent service in London, although there were good examples inside the capital and bad examples.” 

Crisis is now running training events for councils on the Supreme Court judgement and what it means.

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