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23 April 2019

As Universal Credit rolls out across the country as part of the government’s welfare reform, more people are turning to Glass Door for advice and support. While Universal Credit was intended to simplify the benefits system by rolling together a variety of benefits into one, for many it has dealt a financial blow that can make--or keep--a vulnerable individual homeless.  

Glass Door caseworkers and two individuals we work with share their experiences of hard choices, late payments, errors and shortfalls of the online benefits system.

Brian's Story  

Brian* suffered a stroke two years ago while working as a security guard at a large department store. The doctor told him it was due to the high stress of his job and advised him to rest, so Brian stopped working. He could no longer afford his rent, and when Brian was evicted, a friend allowed him to sleep on the sofa.  

Last week, Brian turned to the Ace of Clubs for advice and support. There, Brian met with Glass Door caseworker Boguslaw to discuss his options.  

Currently Brian is on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which pays benefits to those who cannot work due to a disability. As a Londoner, Brian  hopes to live in his local borough again and intends to approach the council. But he will only be housed by the council if he is considered “in priority need”, and the application process is often a lengthy one with a low rate of success. 

In the past year, Boguslaw has helped 77 homeless individuals find housing. Of these, only nine were eligible for social housing from the local council.

Says Brian:

I'm getting too old for all of this. I only want a roof over my head.

An alternative route for Brian could be to find a private rental scheme with a landlord willing to take his benefit payments. For those who have access to public funds but do not qualify for social housing or want to remain in their area of local connection, private tenancy is often the only option left. 

Caseworker Boguslaw and day centre guest

Boguslaw advises guests at the Ace of Clubs.

In order to make this work, Brian would have to switch to Universal Credit. But as soon as he makes the switch, his ESA money will be automatically suspended, and it could be six or seven weeks before the first payment comes into his account.  

Furthermore, Brian could find himself with a substantial shortfall of funds at the end of every month. The housing allowance portion of the universal credit payment often doesn’t stretch far enough in London, and a claimant will often have to dip into the remainder of their monthly payment to cover the shortfall. (To make a difficult situation worse, a “benefit cap” introduced as part of the Universal Credit system means there is an upper limit on the amount of benefit that working age claimants who are out of work can receive.) 

The payments from Universal Credit may enable Brian to afford a studio flat in London, but it would leave him with little left.  

After the bulk of someone’s benefit payment goes directly to the landlord, Boguslaw says that typically, people are left with as little as £38 left over to cover food, bills, and other living expenses for the rest of the week.  

Brian said he would be willing to make the sacrifice.    

I just want somewhere safe to sleep where I can lock the door. 

For now, Brian intends to consider all options. Boguslaw managed to source his birth certificate (which he lost after losing his flat), so they can now complete the application for social housing through the council.  

Brain’s situation isn’t unique. Later that same day, another person approached Boguslaw with the same predicament.  

Boguslaw worries that some who pay private rents with universal credit payments will not be able to maintain their housing and will fall back into homelessness. Says Boguslaw: 

Universal Credit simply doesn't cover the basic minimum someone needs to survive in London.

Mary's Story 

Mary* had been living in her apartment in Hounslow since 1998 with help from Housing Benefit payments. When her council became one of the first areas to trial the new Universal Credit system, she had no choice but to make the switch.  

But in 2017, her payments stopped coming through. Mary immediately appealed, yet her payments still failed to appear in her account. She fell into £5,000 worth of rent arrears and was subsequently evicted six months ago. She has been sleeping on a friend’s sofa ever since. 

Mary came to the Vineyard to speak to Glass Door’s caseworker Lewis last week after receiving a letter from her council about her Universal Credit. The letter apologised for the mix-up and offered compensation. Lewis is now working with Mary, who is in her fifties, to appeal the eviction to the council and reclaim her home. 

Lewis said: 

In the areas where Universal Credit were first trialled, there has been an increase in rent arrears, debt, and homelessness. Yet the new system was rolled out across the country, despite the advice of many who see the negative effects first-hand.

For many, errors like these have life-changing consequences. A recent Guardian  article  revealed that a joint Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC study found that 60% of those who struggled to pay their bills said their problems began when they switched to Universal Credit.  

The vulnerable left more vulnerable 

Glass Door caseworker  Agnieszka  points out that the struggles are compounded for those without access to computers and poor language or literary skills. She says: 

It's been devastating. The change to online administration alone means that many without access to computers can’t be self-sufficient.  

Women in abusive relationships are also made more vulnerable by the new system, our caseworkers say. Couples living together must now claim benefits together rather than separately, which can lead to a form of financial abuse. A victim may become more reliant on the partner who controls the combined income payment.  

Under the new system, the only way to separate the income payments is by proving financial abuse has occurred. Victims find themselves facing potential financial and housing instability if they leave a relationship. 

Caseworker Michelle, who  offers support at both the Glass Door women’s group and in the Chelsea Community Drop-In centre says: 

The majority of our guests are affected by the change to Universal Credit. It feels like it’s been designed without the needs of vulnerable people in mind.  

(*Names have been changed to protect anonymity)

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