Laws Connections Homelessness Blog (2): A Citizen, Nothing More, Nothing Less? Reflections on the Right to Rights of the Homeless

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: Nikhita Mani

A wander through the ‘chartered’ streets of London no doubt acquaints one regularly with familiar requests of the homeless, the have-nots of this city of contrasts. On this one uncharacteristically warm September afternoon, I stepped out from Euston Square station, passing as I had done many a time before, the homeless old man, a fellow citizen,  nestled inconspicuously in the affluence of Bloomsbury. As I hurried with nervous anticipation through the secure doors of Bentham House to my first ‘Laws Connections’ session, I reflected on the sobering juxtaposition between the man and the opulence that surrounded him. A juxtaposition that underscored the contrasts, as I navigated the grand but guarded halls of Bentham House, not just between the wealth and impecunity but also between those with access to information and justice and those without.

Law, as an integral part of society, can be and is instrumental in affecting social change. As part of the ‘Laws Connections’ program, an educational innovation that engages young law students taking their first tentative steps into the legal world, we were encouraged to perceive the latitude of the law as beyond just procedural through the examination of a case study of our choice.  Having grown up in Newham, East London, which has the worst record of homelessness in England, I was innately aware of the plight and pervasiveness of the problem and passionate about exploring it. Choosing homelessness as a case study afforded me the opportunity to explore the issue through the legal lens of human rights and social justice. With 100,000 homeless households in England[1],  a figure likely to be exacerbated as we come out of the pandemic, this is an issue through which law has the potential to create tangible and meaningful change. Compelling testimonies and statistics impressed upon me, not only the disparities in homelessness, but also the structural determinants and upstream factors that lead to homelessness and prompted me to question: is homelesness a consequence or merely a condition? And, if it is a consequence, is current legislation reductive, in that it does not attempt to address the root causes?  

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that homelessness is a consequence. A consequence of structural violence. Structural violence, a term coined by sociologist Johan Galtung[2], describes a form of violence in which institutions and structures prevent individuals from meeting their basic needs. This theory has long been substantiated by evidence that austerity policies have been, at least in part, a direct cause of rising homelessness. Cuts in housing benefits contributed significantly to one-third of all occurrences of homelessness in 2014, while making it more difficult for individuals who had become homeless to be rehoused.[3] A Crisis poll revealed that 67% of local councils throughout England claimed that such reductions in benefits had exacerbated homelessness in their region as a result of the 2010 to 2015 welfare reforms.[4] Furthermore, in 2013 to 2014, welfare measures such as the “Bedroom Tax” resulted in an 18% increase in repossessions by social landlords.[5] Not only have the welfare reforms been a contributory factor to poverty that leads to homelessness, cuts in legal aid under the Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act 2012[6] have removed the safety net that would have protected these vulnerable individuals and allowed them to seek justice for violations of their rights. The 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, presented a poignant portrayal of the human cost of these austerity measures. Watching the eponymous character navigate the tortuous and serpentine social welfare system impressed upon me the futility of legal safeguards that are inaccessible to those who need it most, and when they need it most.

Unlike poverty, primary legislation and statutory instruments have attempted to address homelessness through the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002. However, although they provide a welcome legal safeguard, they fail to address the fundamental and structural causes of homelessness. The concept of ‘Priority Need’, a framework that stratifies applicants according to vulnerability e.g. pregnancy but in effect renders a large proportion of the homeless ineligible to housing, seems reductive. The subjective and relative vulnerability assessments have led to many a litigation, some of which (Hotak & Others  v London Borough of Southwark) have led to some reform in how we define ‘vulnerability’. However, it seems that overall, instead of using resources to provide housing, resources are being diverted to prove eligibility, or lack thereof. It was surprising exploring the case, R(on the application of Ncube) v Brighton and Hove City Council (2021) EWHC 578 (Admin)[7], where the council went to great lengths to try to prove that the pandemic, that was declared by the World Health Organisation as “public health emergency”,[8] was not an emergency in Brighton, therefore deeming the claimant ineligible with regards to priority need. In my view, the current legislative approach is resource driven rather than rights driven. A paradigm shift towards considering housing a basic human right may provide for a more accessible and equitable system and prevent the stigmatisation and victimisation of the homeless.

The stigmatisation and victimisation is not just at a social level but is propagated by the institutions themselves. This is evident in the continued employment of the anachronistic Vagrancy Act (1824)[9] and the deployment of Public Space Protection Order[10] to disperse the rough sleeping homeless. Thereby, characterising these individuals as vagrants and a source of public disorder and criminalising the vulnerable and victimising the victim. This is reminiscent of what was portrayed in I, Daniel Blake, where sanctions were weaponised as a punitive measure against those in a vulnerable state. It seems that people faced with social morbidities, although victims of circumstance, are not afforded the same rights and respect as other citizens and often are not even seen as citizens, but a problem to other citizens. This sentiment was echoed in the final words of the film, through Dan’s poignant posthumous demand for rights and respect and, above all, his claim that he is a citizen, “nothing more and nothing less”.[11]

Social change, however, is impossible without political will. This was abundantly evident when, under the pressures of the pandemic, the government was able to provide housing to the homeless through the ‘Everyone In’ initiative where 15,000 rough sleepers were housed in emergency accommodation in England.[12] Unfortunately, this initiative has been quietly withdrawn. Which begs the question: why is there a lack of political will to create a more permanent solution to this pervasive problem?  The answer may lie in an aspect of this “decitizenisation”, the disenfranchisement of the homeless. Without a voice, their rights are eroded and ignored by successive governments. The rule of law is the bedrock of democracy and access to justice is the soil that can nourish the shoots of social reform. It is our duty, not just as lawyers, but, foremost, as fellow citizens, to, not only advocate for the rights of those most vulnerable in society, but to also espouse for, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, “Justice, justice, accessible justice…not for the few alone, but for all”.[13]

 

[1] Shelter, ‘Almost 100,000 Households Recorded As Homeless At The Start Of 2021’ (2021).

[2] Johan Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, And Peace Research’ (1969) 6 Journal of Peace Research.

[3] Patrick Butler, ‘Welfare Reforms Are Main Cause Of Homelessness In England, Study Finds’ <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/homelessness-study-welfare-reforms-crisis> accessed 13 October 2021.

[4] Suzanne Fitzpatrick and others, ‘The Homelessness Monitor: England’ (Crisis 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Legal Aid Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

[7] [2021] EWHC 578 admin

[8] World Health Organisation, ‘COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Of International Concern (PHEIC) Global Research And Innovation Forum’ (2020).

[9] Vagrancy Act 1824

[10] Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 cl Public Space Protection Order

[11] Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake (Sixteen Films, eOne Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, BBC Films 2016).

[12] GOV.UK, ‘Next Steps Accommodation Programme’ (2020).

[13] Chris Riley, ‘The Hermit And The Boa Constrictor: Jeremy Bentham, Henry Brougham, And The Accessibility Of Justice’ (2019) 60 American Journal of Legal History.

 

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