More vulnerable homeless people will now be found accommodation by their local authority instead of being left to sleep rough – thanks to a legal challenge by Cambridge House which went to the Supreme Court.
In the past, when a homeless person without children came to the local council for help, the council would only offer them housing if they deemed them to be ‘vulnerable’.
Cambridge House challenged Southwark Council at Supreme Court level and won. Image by N Feans under Creative Commons licence
Over the last few years local authorities have been raising the threshold for what counts as vulnerable high and higher – to the point where some councils were refusing to help people with significant mental health or physical disabilities.
‘An ordinary homeless person’
This was in part because case law suggested that a ‘vulnerable’ person was someone who was at risk of more harm than an “ordinary homeless person”. Some local authorities were taking the approach that ordinary homeless people often had mental health and physical disabilities and that therefore you were only counted as ‘vulnerable’ if you had even worse problems.
This meant that many homeless people – often with severe issues – were turned away. People with mental health issues, disabilities or addiction problems simply did not qualify for housing help and were left to fend for themselves on the streets.
This is what happened to Patrick Kanu. Even though he suffered from “multiple physical problems and as well as psychotic symptoms and suicidal ideation” Southwark Council deemed he was not vulnerable and refused to accept a housing duty to him.
Staff at Cambridge House, a community centre based in Camberwell, knew Mr Kanu. They saw in his case, as well as in many others, that instead of helping the people it was supposed to protect, the law was being used to deny assistance to those who desperately needed it. They decided to mount a legal challenge against Southwark Council’s decision.
That challenge culminated in the Supreme Court ruling on 13 May 2015, stating that Southwark Council did have a duty to help Mr Kanu.
The Supreme Court ruled that instead of judging the needs of a homeless person against other homeless people, they should simply be judged against those of ‘an ordinary person’.
A very welcome judgement
Stuart Hearne, of Cambridge House Law Centre, was the case lawyer. He said:
“This is a very welcome judgement. I would hope that it will also be welcomed by local authorities. It will make it much clearer who should be assisted. In the past local authorities were having to compare homeless applicants with other homeless people to consider who is more vulnerable – this was a very difficult decision and one that led to disputes and some very disabled people being refused accommodation. It is not in anyone’s interest, including that of local authorities, that people who have disabilities or mental health issues should not be housed or left street homeless.
“Rough sleepers have a lower life expectancy than the general population and are more likely to have mental and physical health problems.
“This decision should now mean that the vast majority of homeless people who have a physical disability or have mental ill health should be accepted as being in priority need for accommodation”.