In well-known and hitherto frequently cited guidance on the test for special vulnerability for priority need under the Housing Act 1996, Lord Justice Hobhouse in R v Camden LB Council, Ex p Pereira (1998) 31 HLR 317 said that the correct test was whether the applicant ‘when homeless [will be] less able to fend for himself than an ordinary homeless person so that injury or detriment will result when a less vulnerable man would be able to cope without harmful effects’. Homeless persons as a class. In the Supreme Court in May this year, in the landmark decisions in Hotak v LB Southwark, Kanu v LB Southwark and Johnson v Solihull MBC [2015] UKSC 30 (Crisis and Shelter intervening), Lord Neuberger described Hobhouse LJ’s formulation as dangerous and unhelpful (partly because of the objectionable circularity in explaining who a vulnerable person is by reference to a less vulnerable person) and not representing the statutory test. A shame, therefore, that it had been followed for some 17 years, its effects unnoticed – save by those thereby specially disadvantaged by its application. Neuberger explained that the required comparator is not the ordinary homeless person (which could mean either the ordinary person if rendered homeless, or the ordinary person actually homeless, and in each case viewed objectively or subjectively) but the ordinary person who is homeless, an important distinction. Scarcely a ‘fog legal’ in Chancery of a kind described by Dickens, but perhaps the imperfection of words that Locke wrote about before Bennion.

As with the thin membrane that separates civilisation from barbarism, that which separates home and regular paid work from unemployment and homelessness is surprisingly fragile. The expectations of the ordinary person passing from one side to the other, made homeless by unemployment or by the collapse of a relationship, or for some other reason, whether or not aggravated by addiction, change dramatically. The average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47. Homeless persons are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population and thirteen times more likely to be the victim of violence (source: Crisis). Hobhouse LJ’s identification of the ‘ordinary homeless person’ ... ‘able to cope without harmful effects’, apart from the defect of being the wrong approach in law, exhibits a discomfiting detachment and unreality. Perhaps we cannot bear too much of it.

Christmas, or, as some would have it, the Holiday Season, brings with it particular and especial misery for the homeless and dispossessed, separated like Lazarus from Dives from those eagerly engaged in the Hogarthian ritual of stuffed turkey and silver spoons. But others put briefs and wigs to one side and their shoulder to the wheel – or, more appositely, turn their hand to the ladle – by volunteering for the various charities that provide food, companionship and shelter to the homeless and friendless. These organisations often find their financial and labour resources stretched between December and New Year. Below, some readers of Counsel share their experiences of volunteering and helping-out. ●

Contributor Paul Marshall No5 Chambers


The Volunteers’ view

Some centres operated by Crisis provide accommodation for the homeless and those with specific needs, while others offer a wide range of activities and support together with three hot meals a day. I turned up on Boxing Day, meeting other volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. Some had been volunteering for years, for others this was a new experience. All were friendly and keen to help.

The volunteer leaders gave us a detailed talk about what to expect, emphasising the need to be a friendly face and to have a willingness to listen and chat. Homeless people are often ignored. Many face violence. Crisis offers respite where guests can relax in a safe environment without having constantly to be on their guard. The pre-brief stressed the need to ensure the guests were aware of all the services on offer. Alongside the canteen, guests could see doctors, dentists, opticians, podiatrists and hairdressers. Additionally they could watch a film or be involved in arts and crafts. Advisory help was available on housing, immigration and benefits.

The afternoon flew by. Between directing guests to the correct locations, serving refreshments, handing out wash kits and undertaking gate duty in the car park, I got to see just how the efforts of the many volunteers were co-ordinated, including linking-up with the volunteer drivers who ferried guests to particular services at different centres. One guest explained to me how frighteningly easy it is to become homeless. Without support from friends and family it can be easy to slip through the net. He told me he was turning his life around with help from Crisis Skylight centres which offer education, training and employment support. It was good to go home tired, with a real sense of having done something useful.

Crisis does a lot of good work throughout the year, not just over Christmas. MC

A group of us decided to take part in a number of activities across the country to raise awareness of the work of Shelter and Crisis.

It was sobering to learn that between 2013 and 2014 around more than six and-a-half thousand people slept rough in London alone. Many stories involve a simple change in a person’s own, or their partner’s, health, or a change in their work or social circumstances. Such changes in turn can transform the lives of ordinary people, including professionals, into desperate times. Discovering that Shelter and Crisis work on the front line and rely heavily on volunteers, including by providing legal advice and support, felt like a call to do something worthwhile, instead of being indulgent at an increasingly commercialised time of year.

One thing that we have come to appreciate from our time with Shelter and Crisis is that for the price of two pints of beer, it is possible to bring in from the cold someone who otherwise would sleep on the street. No beer tastes that good.

This is not just our story. You can help, through donations of cash or by giving up some of your valuable time. There are endless volunteering opportunities, helping out in homeless shelters, organising events for raising funds or social awareness, and in providing legal advice. JLP

While all may not be perfect in my own life, volunteering provides a timely reminder that others struggle with basic necessities such as food and shelter – literally outside our door. The tensions of work allocation and clerks’ attitudes rightly pale into insignificance.

Cooking a roast dinner for 50 people at a time is no mean feat, so I find banding together with groups of friends is a sensible solution. Other volunteer tasks which allow for social interaction prove humbling, informative and enlightening in equal measure. There are those who are homeless who are well educated, including published authors and those previously in the City, in the military and even in law, brought down by seemingly random situations and events. I have heard stories of a person being sole survivor from a family in a car crash, leading to a breakdown; of a person having contracted an illness that lasted for months and led to job loss and exhaustion; of a person who, bullied at work, spiralled out of control until, having exhausted finances, was left isolated and a recluse.

Mental health issues are common, but from speaking with articulate, intelligent and lonely individuals, it is clear to me that people can be simply worn down and broken by circumstances that would exhaust the strongest. The thought is horrifying that this could so easily be fate of some we know personally. ML

Contacts for Volunteers/Donations

Spitalfields Crypt Trust
020 7613 5722

0300 636 1967
(020 7426 3854)

Salvation Army
020 7367 4500

0300 330 1234

Mother Teresa,
Missionaries of Charity
020 7620 1504

The Connection at St Martin’s
(St Martin-in-the-Fields)
020 7766 1134

Veterans Aid (ex-Services personnel in crisis)
0207 828 2468