Homelessness legislation should change to reflect the truly ‘vulnerable’

Hotspot news

Homelessness could be turned into a crime under proposed anti-social behaviour laws.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing bill, which featured in the Queen’s Speech in May earlier this year , includes powers to ban certain activities from designated areas including banning spitting, banning homeless or young people from parks, banning begging or rough sleeping and banning smoking in outdoor public places.

The Housing Act 1996 requires housing authorities to provide accommodation to homeless people, in the public or private sector, where an applicant did not make themselves homeless and has a priority need. A person has a priority need if, among other things, he or she is vulnerable because of a disability, mental illness, age or other special reason.

The Court of Appeal heard in the case of Pereira v Camden Council, had held that a person is vulnerable if their circumstances are such that they would suffer more when homeless than ‘the ordinary homeless person’ and would suffer an injury or other detriment that the ordinary homeless person would not.

Defining ordinary
This begs the question, who is the ordinary homeless person? What are his or her characteristics? What harm would they suffer? The Court of Appeal recently considered this question in Johnson v Solihull.

Craig Johnson was 37 years old. He was a heroin addict and had previously suffered from depression. For years he didn’t have a home of his own. He applied to Solihull Council for accommodation. Solihull was satisfied that he was homeless, but declined to provide him with accommodation because, in its view, he was not vulnerable. In reaching this decision, Solihull’s reviewing officer relied upon a report which showed that the vast majority of homeless people suffered from drug problems; Mr Johnson’s circumstances therefore meant that he was no different to the ‘ordinary homeless person’ and was not vulnerable.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Johnson’s appeal. The reviewing officer had been entitled to find that the ordinary homeless person was likely to suffer from drug problems and to draw the comparison, and reach the conclusion, that he did.

Controversial decision
This is the type of decision that most people are likely to find perplexing. Surely a person is vulnerable if their drug addiction is such that they would be more liable to harm than someone who did not suffer from those problems? This does not just accord with the everyday meaning of vulnerability but is also plainly what the government intended – that people, who are at more risk of suffering harm when homeless, are given greater priority than those who are not. While there must be a comparator, the comparator should be someone who is able to cope if they were homeless. If the majority of homeless people are now more liable to harm because of drug addiction, then surely this comparator should no longer be the ordinary homeless person?

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court and the House of Lords has never considered the meaning of vulnerability within homeless legislation despite being law for 36 years. With homelessness on the rise, it has surely never been a better time for it to do so and Public Space Protection Orders urgently need to be subjected to additional checks and limitations to ensure that they are used proportionately and do not interfere with the rights of those who use public spaces.

The fact that there are so many people forced to live on the streets is testament to the sad fact we in the UK are in. Banks foreclosing on family homes left many with no option but to set up homes in campers, cars and vans and even caves we reported last month (See link below). Tent cities have sprung up under road bridges and makeshift camps can be found in many wooded areas as families struggle to get back on their feet. We have wrote many times that Homelessness needs to be tackled by the provision of affordable housing, not by making those people forced to live on our streets into criminals. #justsaying