Homelessness Legislation

Homelessness to the general public may be synonymous with people sleeping rough. The definition perhaps might simply be viewed as someone who is without permanent or settled accommodation. However, as a result of legislation and the historical growth of the homelessness sector, the picture is not quite as simple.

Local authorities have a range of duties to people who are homeless, and this always includes advice and assistance and often the provision of temporary accommodation. There is also an ongoing duty to some homeless people. The main housing duty is to accommodate those who are vulnerable, unintentionally homeless and in priority need.

At one level, the definition of homelessness can be divided into two main groups: statutory and non statutory, or single homelessness. As a result of this divide, many agencies in the voluntary sector tend to support those who are non-statutory or single homeless. However, in practice, the division between the two groups is becoming increasingly blurred.

The legal provisions for statutory homelessness are contained in the 1996 Housing Act, the Homelessness Act 2002 and The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002. There is also a Code of Guidance which sets out how a local authority should interpret the legislation.


Vulnerability is a key test in determining whether homeless people without children are considered to have a priority need for housing under homelessness legislation. In homelessness terms, vulnerability means a person is more likely to suffer harm than the ordinary homeless person if you do become homeless. To be accepted as vulnerable, you have to show that homelessness would have a greater detrimental impact on you than it would on an average homeless person.

Under Section 189 of the Housing Act 1996, a homeless person will have a priority need for re-housing if s/he is vulnerable as a result of:

  • old age
  • mental illness or learning disability (mental handicap) or physical disability
  • having been looked after, accommodated or fostered and is aged 21 or more
  • having been a member of Her Majesty’s regular naval, military or air forces
  • having been in custody or detention
  • ceasing to occupy accommodation because of violence from another person or threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out
  • or any other special reason.

Section 10.12 onwards of the Homelessness Code of Guidance gives local authorities guidance on the interpretation of vulnerability.

Section 10.12 advises that: “It is a matter of judgement whether the applicant’s circumstances make him or her vulnerable. When determining whether an applicant in any of the categories set out [above] is vulnerable, the local authority should consider whether, when homeless, the applicant would be less able to fend for him/herself than an ordinary homeless person so that he or she would suffer injury or detriment, in circumstances where a less vulnerable person would be able to cope without harmful effects."

To assess vulnerability, local authorities should carry out a composite test taking into account all of the individual's circumstances. Courts say that local authority housing officers are the experts in assessing vulnerability; so it is not a medical test and a doctor's view isn't conclusive. Judges will be wary of overturning vulnerability decisions, as they are effectively subjective judgments.


The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002 states that the following will always (subject to very limited exceptions) be in priority need, with no judgement required as to their vulnerability:

  • young people ("children") aged 16 and 17
  • people under 21 who were in local authority care when 16 or 17.

Shelter publishes an advice guide Know your rights - 16 or 17 and homeless?


The following groups could have a greater risk of being homeless:


Shelter's emergency housing rights checker will help you check eligibility for help as homeless - or you can download Shelter's advice guide Homeless? - Read this.

Shelter's advice services directory will help you find local homelessness support and advice, or call their free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444.

AdviceNow publish links to a number of websites dealing with homelessness issues.

The Homeless Pages website provides information on homelessness legislation resources.

Shelter has also published a report: Rights and Wrongs - the Homelessness Safety Net 30 Years On.