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By Malavika Vartak: Researcher/ Adviser – Economic and Social Justice Team (Amnesty International)

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published its report, ‘An Obstacle Course: Homelessness Assistance and the Right to Housing in England’. The report highlights that assistance to people facing homelessness in England continues to be seen by the government as an act of charity or a reward rather than a human right. Amnesty joins people with experience of homelessness, grassroots organisations, and charities in efforts towards changing this approach.  

Homelessness results from combinations of factors, including poverty, inequality, lack of timely and adequate social support and healthcare, lack of affordable housing. However, the fact that many people face homelessness for prolonged periods of time is rooted in the government’s policy decisions that fail to address inequality of access to homelessness support and healthcare.  

Local authorities in England do not have a duty to provide assistance and housing to every person facing homelessness. To qualify, people facing homelessness must complete what seems like a gruelling obstacle course. Many fail to get past the first barrier because they are not considered eligible for homelessness support.  Others fall through trap doors along the way. For this group of people there is little choice but to sleep rough, or live in extremely precarious housing, often at great risk to their mental and physical health and personal safety. 

Eligibility for most homelessness assistance is based on immigration status. Local authorities do not have a duty to provide homelessness support to those subjected to immigration control, not habitually resident, or who have ‘No recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) status. This category includes undocumented migrants and those whose asylum claims have been rejected. They are also among people most likely to be abused and exploited, and therefore most in need of assistance.  

For people who pass the eligibility test, the next set of barriers include ‘priority need’ and ‘intentionality’. The criteria for ‘priority need’ include pregnancy, being a victim of domestic abuse, having dependent children and vulnerability as a result of old age, mental illness or disability. Applicants who cannot show they meet the criteria do not receive, but merely assistance. In addition, applicants need to prove that ‘they have not made themselves homeless’. Amnesty’s report discusses these barriers and how they deny thousands of people the housing they need. According to the Homelessness Monitor 2022, there were around 22,000 homeless households in 2020/21 who were deemed either not to be in ‘priority need’ or to be ‘intentionally homeless’. 

According to official statistics, from October 2020 to September 2021 a staggering 269,770 were assessed as threatened with or experiencing homelessness in England. While one of the underlying causes of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, other causes include and insufficient social security benefits and the lack of appropriate healthcare. With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, there are real concerns that even more people will face homelessness in the coming years.  

The UK is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). Many rights in ICESCR including the right to housing, however, have not been incorporated into domestic law. Providing access to basic shelter and protection from homelessness for all, is part of the minimum core obligations of the right to housing as well as the right to health – states are required to fulfil these minimum obligations regardless of the resources at their disposal. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also said that a state party to the ICESCR in which any significant number of individuals are deprived of basic shelter and housing is prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant.  

Recognising housing as a human right in domestic law would require local authorities to ensure that every person who needs it, has access to adequate housing. It would help in holding the government to account for legal and policy measures that undermine the right to housing, including for failure to ensure that housing is adequately resourced and ensuring that there is sufficient truly affordable housing available to meet housing need. 

Amnesty International is calling on the government to: 

  • Amend the Housing Act 1996, Part 7, to abolish the criteria of ‘priority need’ and ‘intentionality’ for determining entitlement to housing; and ensure that everyone who is homeless and unable to provide for themselves is provided with housing while prioritising those most at risk of abuse, exploitation, and other human rights violations.  
  • Take steps, including through amendments to immigration legislation, to ensure that every person regardless of immigration status has access to essential services to avoid homelessness and is able to access their right to an adequate standard of living. 
  • Take urgent steps to fulfil unmet housing needs, including by building and enabling local authorities to provide adequate and affordable housing for every person who needs it. 
  • Explicitly recognise and incorporate the right to adequate housing as a human right in domestic law, policy, and practice.  
  • Ensure that the ICESCR is incorporated into domestic law and the rights enshrined within it are enforceable through domestic courts. 
 BAckground image by Andrius Banelis