Priority Need is a crucial, but widely misunderstood term within homelessness law. People who are homeless and entitled to publicly-funded services should be immediately housed by a council if there is reason to believe they may be in priority need.
But what is ‘priority need’?
Well, you are automatically in priority need if you are pregnant, have dependent children, have lost your home through fire / flooding / other incident, if you’re aged 16-17, or if you’re aged 20 and under and were in care between the ages of 16-18^.
But if you don’t hit one of these criteria, you will still be in priority need if you’re ‘vulnerable’, as defined in homelessness law.
So vulnerability = priority need.
But vulnerability is a deceptively complex concept, hinging on the meaning of several key words.
Basically, you are in priority need if your lack of a safe, suitable home would make you significantly more vulnerable (to some kind of harm) than an ordinary, healthy and robust person would be if they were homeless. Significantly here is the most crucial word – it means something like ‘more than trivial’, or ‘worthy of note’.There was a case last year^ that probably gives the clearest formula yet to work out if someone is vulnerable:
(a) Do they have an identified existing issue? (e.g. diabetes, asthma, history of being abused, mobility issue, depression, anxiety, risk of relapse into substance use, time in the armed forces etc.)
(b) Would the consequences of that issue be significantly exacerbated by the threat of homelessness? (e.g. reduction in ability to carry out day-to-day activities, reduced ability to interact socially with others, difficulty in getting around etc.)
(c) Could those consequences include increased risk of harmful effects (self-harm, suicide, isolation, deterioration in condition etc.)?
If the answer is yes to these 3 questions, they’re vulnerable. Most people we encounter who have lost their home will be in priority need but will often be told they’re not by councils that they approach. This is why you need to understand priority need to help people get the help they’re eligible for.
We also look at priority need from another perspective here and it is something we go into more in our homelessness law training days.
^ There are a few caveats to these ages that tie in with duties to accommodate under the Children’s Act
^^ Thomas v LBC Lambeth
This info has been simplified to make it as accessible as possible – if you’ve lost your home, you should always get proper legal advice asap.