Four wins and a future challenge
Changes in welfare benefits can have huge impacts both on homeless people and agencies within the homelessness sector.
At Homeless Link, we work hard to investigate welfare benefit issues - and present our evidence to Government - in ways that produce positive results.
It’s easy to get bogged down in sad or bad news - but we had some real wins in 2013, too. I’m going to tell you about four of them!
Challenge 1: the threat of housing benefit ending for night shelters (and other homelessness services)
In February 2013, a Social Security Tribunal decision (known as the ‘Anglesey Judgement’) was interpreted by several local authorities to mean that people staying in night shelters might no longer be eligible for Housing Benefit.
There were also concerns that the decision might affect residents in hostels, No Second Night Out projects, severe weather accommodation, and temporary accommodation provided by local authorities.
We analysed the judgment, conducted agency surveys and assessed the potential impacts. We had several meetings with both the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Local Government (DCLG).
Following these meetings, the DWP and the DCLG clarified the legal position and suggested practical ways forward.
So far, only one or two services that we know of have had Housing Benefit removed as a result of the judgment.
Challenge 2: the structure of Universal Credit putting homelessness agencies in a financially precarious position
By 2018, most clients of homelessness services will be claiming Universal Credit - as other benefits will have been phased out. One of the benefits set to disappear is Housing Benefit, which will be replaced with a monthly Universal Credit Housing Cost payment.
We have already concluded that, for a number of reasons, this new system would not work for many homeless people - not least because all benefits will be paid directly to clients on a monthly basis. The Government acknowledged this fact in 2012, and committed to finding a solution.
Unfortunately, the solution it came up with - to keep housing costs for certain projects protected from these changes - would only help homelessness services which met a technical definition of ‘exempt accommodation’. Half of services would remain vulnerable.
We analysed the extent of the problem, and the level of risk services were facing.
Working with a number of partners (including agencies representing other vulnerable groups, such as women fleeing domestic violence) made sure the Government were aware of just how bad things might get.
Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform, contacted us in April 2013. He acknowledged the problem, and said he was committed to protecting services.
After months of working closely with civil servants and others to come up with a solution, we met with DWP staff again before Christmas. They confirmed that they felt close to a proposal which will (we hope!) result in much more comprehensive protection of homelessness services.
Challenge 3: private rented housing becoming unaffordable for under-35 year-olds
In 2010, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the existing under-25s Housing Benefit restrictions would be extended to those aged between 25 and 34. This would, in effect, substantially reduce the amount of Housing Benefit they received.
An element of transitional protection for existing tenants was introduced. However, various homelessness agencies told us that, in some areas, it was becoming nearly impossible to find private sector properties for those aged 35 or less.
This issue threatened to undermine many years of work by homelessness agencies in developing links and contacts in the private sector.
During the phase-in period of this policy, it seemed that Government was finding it hard to thoroughly measure its impact.
To address this, we looked at 57,000 properties in London - and found that fewer than 6% of them were affordable to individuals receiving Shared Accommodation Rate levels of Housing Benefit.
When we followed up this analysis with a smaller scale study, looking at properties in the North East, the West Midlands and the South East, we found that the extent of the problem varied between areas within the same regions.
The Government launched a consultation on where to allow above 1% increases in rates of private sector Housing Benefit for 2014-15. We used our research to respond to it.
In December 2013, 52 local authorities in England were told they would get their Shared Accommodation Rate raised by up to 4%. While this is far from ideal, it’s a significant improvement on a uniform 1% rise.
Challenge 4: benefit sanctions badly affecting homeless people
In October 2012, a new, tougher sanctions regime was introduced in advance of Universal Credit.
Stories began to appear in the media about Job Centre Plus staff being under increased pressure to sanction claimants. And homelessness agencies started to report large increases in the number of clients they were seeing sanctioned.
It seemed the new sanctions regime was threatening to undermine months and years of effort by individuals who were trying to get their lives back on track.
We surveyed 50 homelessness agencies at random. Two trends struck us as particularly disturbing: We were told that homeless clients were up to ten times more likely to be sanctioned than benefit claimants in general. We were also told that within the homeless population, the most vulnerable were increasingly likely to be penalised.
The feedback we received from agencies - along with our own research - really helped to push the issue up the agenda at meetings we had with the DWP.
In October 2013, Job Centre Plus wrote to us to announce the launch of an independent investigation into sanction implementation.
We have been working closely with the Social Justice team at the DWP to make positive changes to the benefit sanctions regime. We hope for positive news later this year.
Rest assured we will carry on lobbying and campaigning as hard as we can. This will begin in earnest on January 15th, when we appear before the Work and Pensions Select Committee to talk about a submission we recently provided.
We hope to use this opportunity to tell MPs more about the unprecedented challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness - and the agencies working with them.
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