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A landmark legal decision which should help people who are street homeless access emergency accommodation has been widely welcomed by campaigners as an important step towards justice for homeless people.
The ruling, made yesterday by the Supreme Court, was based on a legal challenge brought by three homeless people who were turned away from Southward and Solihull councils after seeking help.
It aimed to redefine the way that councils judge someone to be ‘vulnerable’, a definition that means they qualify for housing.
Previously, councils made the decision about someone’s vulnerability by comparing them with “an ordinary street homeless person”, a comparison known as the ‘Pereira test’. In practice, this often meant arguments that the person was vulnerable as a result of depression, suicidal thoughts or self-harm were dismissed as they had this in common with most street homeless people.
However, yesterday’s judgment means that they must in future compare them with an ‘ordinary person if made homeless’ rather than someone who is already homeless, which means such arguments will be made legally valid again.
The judge also emphasised the need for councils to treat every person applying for assistance with housing as an individual, taking on board their own circumstances.
The change has been described as “very significant” by legal experts working in homelessness, such as Giles Peaker.
Val Stevenson, chair of trustees of the Pavement, said: “This is seriously good news. Councils will have to house more single vulnerable homeless people, and without them having to be ‘even more vulnerable than the vulnerable’.”
Crisis and Shelter made interventions in the legal challenge, with St Mungo's Broadway and Homeless Link providing supporting evidence.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “This ruling represents a major step in tackling the injustice faced by so many single homeless people in England today.
“The reality is that anyone sleeping on the streets is vulnerable, and we applaud today’s ruling for making it easier for people to get help. The Court is also clear that while councils are often under huge financial strain, this must not be used as an excuse for avoiding their legal duties.”
However, he and others pointed to the lack of available housing as an urgent problem that continues to lead to people who desperately need help being turned away.
Howard Sinclair, St Mungo's Broadway chief executive, said: "We welcome this important ruling as we know that the previous test had become a very high hurdle for single homeless people to overcome and led to extremely vulnerable people being at risk of rough sleeping.
"However, the concerning issue is the problem of what housing is available for people. It means that already pressurised housing options are going to be stretched even further for those who are shockingly vulnerable, and often in serious physical and mental ill health."
Tony, 48, became homeless after losing his job. Unable to find work or a place to live, he slept wherever he could – first under a bridge and later in the woods. He went to his local council, but despite having a heart condition, he didn’t get the help he needed.
“I was at a real low ebb. I was sleeping in the forest because I didn’t want to get kicked or punched. It was a really bad winter. I was weak and worried.
“Going to the council felt like my last resort – I’d tried everything else. When I went in, it felt claustrophobic. It felt like quite an angry place. I approached the lady at the desk and said: ‘I’m homeless and I need help with housing’. And she said: ‘You’re not going to get it’. That was before I’d even seen an advisor. She was very clinical – just bouncing me off straight away without giving me a chance.
“Eventually she made me an appointment with the homeless team, who basically told me the same thing: that they couldn’t help. I had unstable angina, but it didn’t make any difference. All she gave me was a list of shelters. But I already knew where the shelters were. Other than that, she had no advice for me.
“I felt like a second-class citizen. It was a horrible feeling. When I left the council I went back to the forest. I found some cardboard, put that down, my sleeping bag, and I was just back there. I remember being very lonely. And I had this feeling that the government didn’t care at all.”