Latest sanctions figures: too high a price for homelessness

Thursday, 7 November 2013 - 5:36pm

There has been a sharp rise in the number of people sanctioned, but what does this mean for jobseekers who are also homeless?

Photograph: lydia_shiningbrightly (Flickr)
Photograph: lydia_shiningbrightly (Flickr)

When we spoke to homelessness services and their clients earlier this year, we found that a third of those clients on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and nearly one in five on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) had received a benefit sanction.

What we found is now echoed in stats released this week by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which shows a marked rise in the number of people who have had their benefit stopped or reduced as a result of sanctions.

Sanctions in numbers

860,000 people claiming JSA were sanctioned in the eight months to June – up by a quarter from the same period last year. A further 18,300 people claiming ESA were sanctioned in the same period – an increase of 156%.

The chart below tracks the numbers of JSA clients (in '000s) over the past ten years.

The data suggests that the Government’s new sanctions regime, introduced in October last year, is having a large effect. The new regime imposes tougher conditions on claimants and increases the minimum length of time that claimants can be sanctioned for if they do not meet their conditions. More generally, sanctions are used to set the expectations that, in return for receiving benefits, people have a responsibility to meet certain requirements, including seeking work.

Sanctions and homelessness

We found that people experiencing homelessness, in particular, seem to be significantly affected by sanctions. Our findings highlighted that the proportion of homeless people being sanctioned is disproportionately higher than for the remainder of the population. Rather than motivating people to find work, sanctions in fact alienate many people from engaging with job centres.

Less than a fifth of the homelessness services we surveyed said people they supported were more motivated to find work after being sanctioned. Less than a tenth said people engaged better with their Jobcentre after a sanction.

More worrying is that we found some people had experienced severe hardship as a result of being sanctioned, with the impact of sanctions actually contributing to their homelessness. Take Sarah, for instance. She was sanctioned for a month after missing an appointment at the Jobcentre. Her Housing Benefit was mistakenly stopped, she lost her home, relied on homelessness services and food banks for food and borrowed money from her family. This chain of events led to depression.

Other homeless people may be experiencing similar issues to Sarah. More than two thirds of homelessness services that took part in our survey said people using their service were experiencing problems with their Housing Benefit. Almost nine in ten said people were experiencing food poverty; and nearly all (96%) said people had to borrow money from friends.

There’s a very real risk that sanctions may be forcing people deeper into the problems that caused their homelessness in the first place.

What can be done?

When used, sanctions need to be applied appropriately so that they really do help motivate people find work, without increasing their risk of experiencing severe hardship. More needs to be done to make sure that happens.

Few people that we interviewed during our research had been made aware of how to appeal their sanction or that they may be eligible for Hardship Payments, which the Government grants to people experiencing financial hardship. So in the first instance, the Government should more clearly outline the potential impact of sanctions on people and the options available to those who do get sanctioned.

In addition, where someone have support needs, such as mental health and illiteracy issues, it should be recognised that these can make it difficult for them to comply with the same benefit rules as the rest of the population. In particular, someone might struggle to find a job due to issues around their support needs.

For this reason, Jobcentre Plus workers need to be more flexible when working with people experiencing homelessness, and the Government should work with the Jobcentre Plus and offer specific training to improve workers’ understanding of homelessness and the issues that some of their customers face.

Evolving a sanctions approach that takes account of these recommendations will be a significant first step toward preventing individuals from being sanctioned when it may lead to hardship, food poverty and financial distress.

A high cost to pay 2013: Impact of benefit sanctions

Our 2013 research into sanctions and homeless people indicated that clients of homelessness services are at greater risk of being sanctioned. It found a third of homeless people on Job Seekers Allowance had had benefits reduced or stopped, which is disproportionately higher than the general population.