How to define ‘ordinary’? – My Word published in the Gazette & Herald Newspaper – March 2015

There is a very little known legal assessment tool that establishes the vulnerability of those who are homeless called the “Pereira Test”.

This test instructs authorities to ask the question, “will the applicant, by reason of whatever condition or circumstances assail him/her, suffer greater harm from homelessness than an ‘ordinary homeless person’?”

The relevance of this to the work of Doorway was recently highlighted when two of our guests who were rough sleeping, on the same day, received letters from Wiltshire Council stating that they were not entitled to the statutory duty because they were classified under the homelessness assessment as not being of a ‘high priority’.

And the reason why they were not a high priority was because “I do not believe that your medical condition impedes your daily activities and renders you less able to fend for yourself than an ordinary homeless person so that you would suffer injury or detriment R v Camden LBC ex p Pereira (1998).”

The question that really needs to be asked is how can someone determine just how vulnerable is an ‘ordinary homeless person’??

In Dec 2014 charities Shelter and Crisis challenged the government over the definition of the word ‘vulnerable’ for the purposes of housing those who were homeless and argued that the definition used by councils (and set out in 2006 government guidance) was leading to decisions being made based on resources available rather than the need of the individual.

There is no legal definition for the term ‘vulnerable’. It is not the definition that you will find in a dictionary. It is a definition that has evolved due to use in courtrooms and is incredibly subjective and therefore adaptable by any individual local authority in order to suit its own purposes, resources available (financial, support, housing etc) and statistical recording.

So just who actually is the ‘ordinary homeless person’?

In the Johnson v Solihukk MBC (2013) case the reviewing office used the Homeless Link’s Survey of Needs and Provisions (SNAP) 2010 report to make the decision that the applicant was homeless but not vulnerable.

Unfortunately, for the outcome of the case, the Homeless Link report found that 92% of homeless services were working with people who were experiencing problems with drugs and that drugs were among the issues most frequently affecting the users of homelessness services.  Therefore the applicant’s circumstances were considered to be no different to the ‘ordinary homeless person’ and he was just not vulnerable enough.

In the words of my GP colleague: “Over the course of my many  years as a Wiltshire GP, I’ve been well used  to helping people with their housing requests by specifically addressing  their potential vulnerability were they to become street homeless (or, less often as a GP, their current vulnerability if they are already rough sleepers).”

“I had already worked out that alcohol or other substance abuse alone will not be deemed by the Council’s Housing department to constitute ‘vulnerability’ in themselves, although I certainly disagree with them.”

“However, I am taken aback by what seems to be the current interpretation, ie that mental health issues in the very common ‘dual diagnosis’ pairing with substance abuse do not count as making people ‘less able to fend for themselves’ than other street homeless, on the grounds that most other people on the streets have similar problems!”

“This seems to me to be an unjust and inhumane interpretation of the Pereira judgement, and I shall do my very best to fight this wherever and whenever I see it being used.

“I would also add that the very common ‘dual diagnosis’ combination of mental health and substance abuse problems, often due to past traumatic events, is currently not managed ideally in this area. The psychiatry services will usually not help people with active substance misuse issues, however ‘chicken and egg’ the situation may be, and housing seem to be taking a similar line.”

So if you’re planning on being homeless any time in the near future then just make sure that you are way more vulnerable than the ‘ordinary homeless person’.

Update 9th April 2015

It is with great regret that I learned this week that one of the guys mentioned above died.

Whilst I am still awaiting the post mortem results, I would argue that all rough sleepers are vulnerable and that no one should ever be defined and stamped as ‘an ordinary homeless’ person.

To us, at Doorway, each person who accesses our services is a human being. Not just a name on a piece of paper or a statistic to be briefly noted and then ultimately forgotten. 

We do not have the answers. We cannot make all the bad stuff go away. We cannot make other services / organisations do the ‘right thing’.

What we can do is just simply care. Enough to carry on speaking out on behalf of those who don’t have a voice.

RIP mate.

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