Social Care, Legal Literacy, Homelessness and the Care Act

Helena Kitto is a third-year PhD student at Keele University. (1,097 words)

Homelessness and law

Homelessness is complicated to talk about from a legislative perspective. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 is the first piece of English legislation that specifically pertains to homeless people, but other laws have been applied to people who are homeless, most infamously the Vagrancy Act 1824. Following the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, there is now the Homelessness Act 2002, and later the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Another piece of legislation that does not specifically apply to homeless people, but nevertheless has significantly impacted them, is the Care Act 2014, primarily due to the changes the Act made to adult safeguarding in England.

These laws span a number of legal domains, from criminal concerns to property to social care. This is where the complications of discussing homelessness from a legislative perspective arise, because they require a degree of contextual understanding of several different areas of legal concern. Concepts like responsibility, entitlement and safeguarding can be hard to define.

One way to view homelessness legislation could be as in a state of evolution. A chronological analysis of laws that pertain to homeless people (including those that are not specifically about them) shows a gradual move away from viewing homelessness in a punitive fashion, or one that is exclusively a concern of housing and entitlement to housing support, to one that acknowledges homelessness as bringing in adult safeguarding and public health.

Homelessness and social care

With homelessness, being as complicated as it is, social care practitioners can face a daunting prospect when trying to meet their legal and professional responsibilities.

Questions such as which service would be best placed to support people who are homeless, and exactly what support a homeless service user may be entitled to may not be immediately apparent. A person who is homeless may be facing multiple problems, and may be accessing several different services at once. This can make it difficult to quickly determine how best to meet their needs, and which service has immediate responsibility for the person.

For example, if a social worker is working with someone who is homeless, and has both substance misuse problems and also significant mental health problems, it may be hard determine how best to meet their needs. A service that provides mental health support or treatment may argue that the individual requires support with their substance misuse before mental health support can be provided. Simultaneously, a substance misuse service could argue that the individual’s addiction could be linked with mental health struggles, and so requires mental health support and treatment.

In addition to this, maintaining legal literacy can be a challenge for social care workers with their generally high workloads and limited time in which to address gaps in professional legal knowledge. Challenging decisions can be more difficult when social workers may not be entirely confident in their legal knowledge and understanding.

The Care Act and best practice

The Care Act 2014 is a further challenge when considering social workers’ legal literacy. The Act made a number of changes to adult safeguarding and the ‘eligibility criteria’ for publicly funded social care support. Eligibility is no longer established through binary criteria, and is now assessed on a “sliding scale” of needs related to wellbeing. In addition to this, the Care Act made adult safeguarding a statutory responsibility of the local authority. In short, it potentially widened the scope of responsibility of the local authority towards many homeless individuals with multiple needs and facing risks of harm, both in terms of statutory responsibility and in terms of social care support.

As a result, social workers – in the form that they are ‘personating’ the local authority – potentially had new legal responsibilities for adults who might be both vulnerable and extremely varied in both safeguarding and social care needs and entitlements. In addition to this, they had to familiarise themselves with a large and complicated piece of legislation. Specific training with regards to this part of the Care Act 2014 can be difficult to access for a number of reasons, not least because expertise in the Care Act and its interface with other legislation is, in my view, relatively limited.

A further difficulty in adhering to the responsibilities conferred by the Care Act is that it calls for a greater amount of financial investment in services and systems and this is hugely challenging for local authorities. In my view, under the Care Act, homeless people with multiple needs are entitled to the same financial and resource support that other members of the population with multiple needs are. Essentially, there was already high demand for limited services and support, nearly ten years on there is an even greater demand.

There is the added complication that people who are homeless often present with a higher level of risk, and a variety of needs that may benefit from support. Rough sleepers live in environments that can represent risk of deterioration of health and risk of personal injury. Doing an assessment even in a conversational form with a person who is homeless can also be challenging for several reasons, including finding a place in which to talk, as well as developing sufficient rapport with the individual in order for them to feel comfortable discussing their needs and wishes.

Best practice for social workers is that homelessness requires both a personal and multi-agency approach, in order for safeguarding interventions to be effective. This can be difficult to coordinate, especially as most services meeting the needs of homeless individuals may have begun interventions at different times, have different concerns and time pressures, and are not always working in the same legislative context as a social worker based in the local authority.

Possible solutions

As homelessness can be a particularly complicated legal area for social workers, it could be useful to provide legal training for workers that specifically focuses on the challenges that may arise when supporting service users who are homeless, as well as exploring ways to facilitate effective multi-agency intervention. Such training would need to be evaluated as social workers are short of time and have many other calls on their skills.

The Care Act 2014 was a step away from restricting homelessness to housing and allocation of housing resources. Could new or revised legislation help develop this further? For example, to what extent could it be valuable to design social care and public health law that addresses the complex nature of homeless people’s social care needs, as well as the multi-agency support they require in order for safeguarding interventions to be effective?

Helena Kitto is a third-year PhD student at Keele University.


Homelessness Research Programme at the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce.