The government’s controversial benefit sanctions regime is leaving vulnerable people hungry and at risk of homelessness, a leading charity has warned.
Research conducted by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, on behalf of the homeless charity Crisis, warns that benefit sanctions are hitting vulnerable people hardest, with many pushed into poverty and destitution.
The resulting report draws on a survey of more than 1000 people from homeless hostels and day centres, as well as 42 in-depth interviews.
Researchers uncovered shocking stories of people being forced to sleep on the street and having to cope without food or heating.
Of those respondents to the survey who had been sanctioned over the last year:
- 21% reported becoming homeless as a result;
- 16% said they had been forced to sleep rough as a result;
- 77% had gone hungry or skipped meals;
- 75% said it negatively affected their mental health;
- 64% had gone without heating;
- 60% found it harder to look for work
Homeless people are at least twice as likely to be sanctioned than other benefit claimants, a situation Crisis says fails to take their needs and circumstances into account.
People with mental health problems were also more likely to have been sanctioned compared to people without mental ill-health – 45% compared to 34%.
The report highlights examples of where people have been sanctioned unfairly, including as a result of illness, lack of IT skills, poor literacy/numeracy and administrative errors such as incorrect information or missing letters.
One person even had their benefits stopped after their home was burnt down in as arson attack, whilst another was sanctioned despite suffering from cancer.
Around one in three respondents to the survey were placed at potential risk of homelessness, after housing benefit was stopped following a sanction.
Official guidance has now been issued to local authorities by the government, informing them that benefit sanctions should not affect eligibility for housing benefit.
Crisis has called on the government to reform the benefit sanctions system, so that it identifies homeless people and exempts them from sanctions until their housing situation is resolved.
The government should also introduce a new financial assessment to identify and protect people at risk of destitution or homelessness, the charity says.
Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “Benefit sanctions are a major cause of homelessness and poverty. They’re hitting vulnerable people hardest and preventing them from finding work.
“Many will be trying to rebuild their lives or coping with trauma or illness. At times like this, losing the support of benefits can be disastrous.
“Sadly, the vast majority of people we spoke to wanted to work and agreed there should be some sort of conditions attached to benefits, yet too often the system didn’t take their circumstances or aspirations into account and instead seemed to treat them with mistrust.
“It’s clear that the regime isn’t working for the most vulnerable. The government’s recent proposal for a two week period of appeal doesn’t go far enough.
“We must make sure that homeless people and those at risk of homelessness are identified and protected from an early stage.”
Report lead author, Dr Kesia Reeve of Sheffield Hallam University said: “This is one of the most extensive and far-reaching studies of homeless people in Britain, giving them a previously unheard voice in the ongoing debate on welfare reform changes.
“Findings in these 21 cities demonstrate the potentially devastating effect of benefit sanctions, leading to more people on the streets and going hungry. And the impact on people’s mental health and job opportunities is staggering.”
Watchdog warns of ‘potentially misleading’ homelessness statistics
The UK Statistics Authority has recommended that The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) take ‘urgent action’ in improving ‘potentially misleading’ homelessness statistics.
Research from Crisis shows that the number of people facing homelessness in England rose by 9% last year to a total of 280,000 cases. And yet DCLG statutory homelessness statistics show just 52,270 households ‘accepted as homeless’ in 2013/14.
Crisis says the discrepancy is caused because the DCLG stats only account for those people who have gone to their local council, and meet a narrow definition of being in ‘priority need’ and ‘accepted as statutory homeless’.
The DCLG stats also fail to account for those people living in hostels, sleeping rough, or who are in squats or other types of insecure accommodation.
Homeless charities Crisis, Centrepoint and Shelter have written a joint letter to the government, arguing that the DCLG homeless stats “mask the full extent of need”.
Jon Sparkes wrote: “If we are to end homelessness in this country, we must fully understand it. That is why today’s announcement by the UK Statistics Authority is so important: It is now clear that the way that statistics on homeless people are collected and used can mask the full extent of need.
“We hope the Government will now look carefully at these recommendations and quickly put them into practice. We are all keen to work closely with them to help with this. Because the better we understand the full extent of homelessness in England the sooner we can end it.”