The first article I ever wrote was about how fundamental housing benefit was to me as a homeless 16-year-old living in a hostel, in response to a proposal to cut housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds. Three years later, the policy is about to be rolled out. Talking to the young people planning to protest against it outside Westminster on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine that the ministers imposing the cut have had any interaction with those set to lose the most as a result.
Take the exemption system, which will aim to ensure that those at “serious risk” mentally or physically, or those likely to suffer “significant harm”, are still entitled to housing benefit. That sounds like a simple enough feat, if you’ve never had the misfortune of having to return to your local council, day in, day out, to prove that you are indeed still as homeless as you were yesterday.
“I went back every day for a week. I had years of serious mental health history; self-harm, suicide attempts. The council still said I wasn’t vulnerable at first,” says Lily, a 19-year-old currently on housing benefit. While many councils still operate in silos, without quick access to mental health and children’s services records to justify vulnerability, they often request a ludicrous alternative form of evidence – a confirmation letter from parents. “Oh yes, I got them to write one while they were kicking me out just in case housing needed proof!” Lily jokes.
Georges, 18 and living in accommodation provided by the homelessness charity Centrepoint, is a bit more sombre. “My mum wasn’t honest … I was mentally abused, physically abused. But she told them she wanted me to come back. I had physical proof – photographs. What if you don’t have that?”
The government proposal doesn’t seem to take into account other situations, either, where young people may not feel safe disclosing their reasons to parents or the council – for example those who are LGBTQ. And of course, it’s not always easy to prove that there is risk to you. Nilu, who went on housing benefit after leaving university, points out: “My parents have never laid a hand on me, but I have mental health problems which they refused to engage with. My mum thinks that I need to pray away my depression.”
How do you prove to a council that living in that environment is unreasonable? I remember explaining, the first time I ran away from home, that my dad had chased my boyfriend with an axe. Housing reasoned with me that, since my dad had apologised, it would be OK for me to go back. With this cut coming into place, will a young person’s safety become even more dependent on how rational the person they see that day is?
Balbir Chatrik, director of policy at Centrepoint, says: “Young people might not want to disclose intimate parts of their lives which will stop them from getting the housing they’re entitled to.” And Nilu adds: “Not everyone wants to rupture their family relations like that – to go to the council and accuse them of abuse. The way I claimed housing benefit allowed me to protect my relationships in a way that was more beneficial.”
Josh, who is 19 and lives at home with his parents in Warrington, is angry that he will no longer be able to apply. “People who are just a couple of years older will be able to get this support. I have a partner. I’m working full-time. It feels arbitrary.”
The government has forecast that it will save £95m with this cut, but Josh is certain this isn’t a saving worth making. “I’ve worked with vulnerable people all my life: homeless people, young people, prisoners. If I can’t afford to do that any more because I can’t house myself, the government will lose money.”
Chatrik points out that the saving will likely be a lot less than forecast. “Research by Heriot-Watt University suggests that the ultimate saving, after exemptions, will only be £3.3m … If an additional 140 young people became homeless, that saving would be offset,” she says.
But the burning question for those really worried about this cut is whether protesting now can have any real meaning. Ed, one of the people organising Saturday’s protest, doesn’t believe it will have an immediate effect on policy, but is still believes in the power of protest. “It’s about solidarity. Building attention,” he says. “If not now, there’s an election in three years’ time – maybe sooner. We want to put this issue on the map.”
With all of the information about this policy so easily accessible to ministers, it feels like they’re deliberately ignoring the evidence in order to be seen as “tough on welfare”. Making a big song and dance about it, and flagging up the real world consequences of this cut, might be the only way to force them to reconsider.
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