Three weeks ago I received a rather disturbing phone call from a close friend of mine, Robert. He described to me an unfortunate course of events which had led to him becoming homeless. He explained how he had spent the last few weeks sleeping in hostels, on friends’ sofas and, sometimes, out on the Bristol streets on cold October nights. Robert is one of my closest friends and the fact that he has to undergo this struggle hurt me deeply. What hurt almost as much, was the fact that structural changes to the British benefits system directly contributed to his becoming homeless, in the form of Universal Credit.
Before life out on the street, Robert had worked as a chef in a pub. He lived in a flat with a group of friends which was rented to them on a temporary lease. One night, after a long shift in the pub kitchen, Robert left the hob on overnight. The next day he turned up to work and was told he was fired. A couple of days later, the owner of the premises he lived in rang him to inform that the building had been sold to be turned into a restaurant and, because of the temporary contract, they had a few days to get out before the locks would be changed.
Unlike his flatmates, Robert did not have the opportunity to move back into the family home. He had no savings to put down a deposit on a new room. His only choice was homelessness – he had to head out onto the streets penniless and alone. At this time what he needed was simple: money to tide him over and find a new place and a place to stay in the meantime. Unfortunately, the British benefits system, which supposedly should be some kind of safety net between losing your job and becoming homeless, could not deliver.
Over the last couple of years, Universal Credit has rolled 6 benefits, including income support and housing benefit, into one simple payment. BS postcodes, which cover the Bristol area, were some of the first areas affected by the scheme beginning there in May 2015. Rather than making the benefit system fairer, Universal Credit has been widely accused of creating significant hardship for many. The Department for Work and Pensions has argued that the new benefits system is better at getting unemployed people back into work. However, this progress has been negligible compared to the increased strain it has put on economically vulnerable people.
Although the policy was not originally designed to cut the actual amount paid to claimants, the Resolution Foundation think tank claims significant changes have been made. These severely reduce the amount of money available. Furthermore, the think tank’s report claims that the very structure of the policy was altered, meaning that the total that benefits claimants receive has changed. This has fundamentally damaged ‘its ability to deliver against its purported aims’ (Resolution Foundation).
One of the most pertinent issues with Universal Credit is the six week lag time between the claim and the first payment. This can be even longer in a system with well-established misfirings and administrative errors. 11% of claimants wait over 10 weeks and, in some cases, they have waited 8 months to receive any money. Tory politicians backing the scheme, who are unlikely to ever rely on it, have called these “teething problems”. In reality, six weeks or more without any income is ample time for someone in a precarious situation, like Robert, to fall hard. In his case this meant homelessness – he managed to fall hard in a matter of days.
When you are homeless, you need quick financial support to have a chance at getting off the streets and able to support yourself again. According to the department for work and pensions, Universal Credit is supposed to be better at putting the unemployed back into work. However, I am sure none of the politicians and civil servants responsible for the redesign of our welfare system has tried to attend a job interview after a night spent on the street. We live in a society where homeless people are heavily stigmatised and this prejudice does not exclude potential employers.
People who claim Universal Credit generally have little money to fall back on when times get tough. BBC News claims that only 6% of housing benefit claimants have any savings at all. Universal Credit is claimed by the most vulnerable section of British society and systematically places these claimants in tough situations. A Tory councilor in Newcastle claimed people applying for Universal Credit needed to adapt and ‘live within [their] means’.
Adapting to abject poverty should not be a political agenda anywhere, let alone in a country as prosperous as ours.
Living for six weeks without any income can force people to rely on other means to survive. At best this involves taking on an arduous or demeaning job, whilst at worst it can mean falling into criminal activity. This dangerous rephrasing of welfare as unreliable ‘workfare’ has the potential to place people between a rock and a hard place as the saying goes.
In a highly economically developed country such as the U.K., the government has a right to look after its citizens. If the government is not going to give councils the funding for affordable social housing it must at least ensure that its citizens are given the financial support to put a roof over their head. We should fight against this system which treats human beings like Robert as numbers. Robert is not just a +1 increase in the homelessness or unemployment statistics. He is a friend of mine. He is a real person, with real needs and dreams.
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*Note from Funraising: Robert’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Words by Joe French.