Laws Connections Blog – Homelessness (1)

As part of the Laws Connections Homelessness Case Study, first year students were asked to write a blog post reflecting on their experiences. We selected some of the most impressive entries to share with you here.

Author: Danny Hall

Having grown up in a small town in rural England, I was rarely exposed to the issue of homelessness for the first 12 years of my life. Even in my prosperous hometown though, throughout my teens I noticed an increasing number of people sleeping on the streets. The prevailing perception of these people, unfortunately, was that they had no homes as a result of their own foolish decisions. These people were described, in my home and school environments, as uneducated addicts who had drunk, gambled, or drugged themselves out of their homes. I wanted to take part in the homelessness case study to challenge these perceptions, and to understand why, in the world’s sixth largest economy, a noticeable number of people were being forced to live in the absence of a need as basic as shelter. Accordingly, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt about the relationship between homelessness and law.

From the beginning of the study, I was shocked to hear the true scale of the housing crisis in this country, and particularly the vast number of so-called ‘hidden homeless’ people. Having solely associated homelessness with rough sleeping, thinking about those in temporary accommodation or sofa surfing gave me a new sense of perspective on the issue. Crisis estimates that 219,000 people were homeless at the end of 2019[1], and seeing such a stark figure I wondered what legal provisions were in place to tackle homelessness, and why so many were slipping through the cracks. By examining the legislation and cases alongside material from charities, it quickly became clear to me that this was a layered problem. First, while I had assumed that the state of homelessness or being threatened with homelessness would be sufficient to request housing from the state, but the concept of priority need[2] showed that this was not the case. This seemed to me to create a distinction between the undeserving and the deserving homeless. Even for those in priority need, it is far from guaranteed that a local authority will properly perform its duty to them, as my experience talking to Rachel Knowles made evident. Another layer was exposed in a report by Shelter, showing the risks that poor-quality temporary accommodation poses to its occupants. It mentions ‘cramped living spaces, infestation, poor washing and cleaning facilities’[3] and so on. Thus, those granted accommodation still cannot feel safe in their living conditions. That the system seemed so stacked against the most vulnerable people in our society remains deeply concerning to me.

What best contextualized the issues, though, was watching the experiences of Daniel and Katie in I, Daniel Blake[4]. Going beyond homelessness itself, the film showed the reality of the benefits system that can force people out of their homes if it goes wrong. The application of rigid procedures to an issue as individual as welfare seemed inhumane, and the disconnect between Daniel’s real situation and his lack of eligibility for ESA added to the idea of slipping through the cracks. Further the difficulty he faced in contacting the Department for Work and Pensions showed how people can be cut off from the support they desperately need. The imposition of sanctions of Katie’s benefits for the simple mistake of being late to a meeting made it clear that this is a system that can apply petty, school detention-like punishment systems to matters of life and death. Watching the film was an opportunity to consider not just the issue of homelessness, but the wider societal issues that lead to it.

The two issues mentioned above are clearly relevant to law; they involve housing law and social welfare law respectively. In both, though, I gained a sense of the need for increased access to justice. I had become aware of the extensive lack of legal accessibility in the year before coming to university, but in the case of homelessness it can easily represent the difference between being housed by a local authority and being left on the streets. As housing cases, except the most serious examples, have been removed from the scope of legal aid[5], the importance of pro bono work in this area has been significantly amplified. Alongside the elements of the case study itself, the opportunity to speak to Connor Johnston has inspired me to seek out pro bono opportunities, which I hope I will be able to participate in both at UCL and in my later career.

The overall view, then, that I have gained from the case study is that the problem of homelessness is unique in every individual case, but in the wider sense is rooted in political issues. As such, I believe that any attempts to solve it must address both individual and political factors. On an individual level, it is vital that people become more aware of and find it easier to access the legal tools available to them. I have seen during the case study how judicial review cases, particularly Southwark[6] have addressed the unlawful actions of local authorities and forced them to house vulnerable individuals. Pro bono projects are one way to achieve this, but it would be preferable if all housing cases were recognised as being potentially life-defining events that should be eligible for legal aid. On a broader, political level, the spirit of the ‘Everyone In’ campaign might be brought into normal practice; there is no reason that housing the vulnerable inhabitants of this nation should be dependent on international crisis. Local authorities might be made more accountable either to the central government or to independent bodies, so that they are more pressured to properly consider each applicant. The root causes of homelessness might be addressed by the building of more social housing and reformation of the application and communication systems for benefits.

I feel that taking part in the homelessness case study has shown me the value of studying law in context, with an appreciation of social and political issues.

 

[1] Crisis UK, ‘Ending Homelessness – About Homelessness’ <https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/about-homelessness/> Accessed 14 October 2021

[2] Housing Act 1996 s 189; Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002/2051

[3] Shelter – Denied the Right to a Safe Home Report <https://assets.ctfassets.net/6sxvmndnpn0s/415ro3YWRxffE7sXqWI1bO/9fc9f11543e50fc4a49f2e13cfda611d/Shelter_Denied_the_right_to_a_safe_home_Report.pdf> Accessed 14 October 2021

[4] I, Daniel Blake (2016) Dir. Ken Loach

[5] Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[6] R (G) v Southwark [2009] UKHL 26

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