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"You can judge them on how they look...": homelessness officers, medical evidence and decision-making in England

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Publication details

JournalEuropean Journal of Homelessness
DatePublished - Aug 2013
Issue number1
Number of pages24
Pages (from-to)69-92
Original languageEnglish


Unusually in the international context (Fitzpatrick and Stephens, 2007), the landmark Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 provided a set of justiciable ‘rights’ to homeless people and imposed duties on local authorities to assist persons who met a set of criteria set out in the Act (the current legislation is contained in the Housing Act 1996, Part 7). One of the criteria (“vulnerability”) often requires consideration of medical evidence. As the individuals assessing whether or not an applicant is ‘vulnerable’, homelessness officers are key actors in decision-making. Homelessness officers represent, as Bengtsson (2009) suggests of housing managers in the UK, classic examples of Lipsky’s (1980) ‘street-level bureaucrats’, in that they exercise discretionary power in the interpretation of legal rules. In exercising this discretion they work in an environment that “can be characterised as a space where law and alternative normative influences co-exist” (Halliday, 2004, p.87).
This paper examines the evidence from an empirical study of how decisions are made by homelessness officers where medical evidence is involved. It explores how far officers assess the “expert” medical evidence that is put to them, how far they rely on their own intuition and judgment and the other factors which influence their ultimate decision.

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