Welfare reforms are driving London's poor and vulnerable into deeper poverty and homelessness, according to a study published this week.
The Homelessness Monitor (pdf), an annual independent report published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says the amount of people sleeping rough rose by 5% in 2014, while the number of people in London facing homelessness increased by 12%. A combination of benefit caps, the bedroom tax and increased use of benefit sanctions have been blamed for creating a perfect storm of poverty. Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said:
“Council officials are clear that benefit cuts and sanctions are taking a dreadful toll on people’s lives, with rising numbers facing the loss of their home at a time when councils are being forced to cut services. This is a desperate state of affairs.
“What this report clearly shows is that political choices have a huge impact on homelessness. As we approach the general election, we want all parties to take homelessness seriously as an issue."
It's all depressingly familiar. The persistent vilification, both in the media and from the government, of benefit claimants under a 'shirkers versus workers' narrative has led to some utterly bonkers conclusions. UKIP candidate Lynton Yates published a leaflet suggesting benefit claimants should be banned from driving. While most rational people would probably consider this excessive, arguments in favour of benefit caps, the bedroom tax and sanctions are almost made to sound reasonable. Why should someone on benefits live in zone 1 when I can't afford to? In fact, why can't all the poor people just go and live in the cheap bits of London? Why shouldn't people on benefits living in palatial mansions have to downsize to a one bed flat? Why shouldn't they lose all their benefits for three months because they were five minutes late for signing on?
Food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, has said that “over 50% of referrals to food banks in 2013-2014 were a result of benefit delays or changes, including sanctions”. Former Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) staff have spoken out against the use of targets for sanctions, saying the DWP is deliberately setting claimants up to fail. Documented cases of claimants committing suicide have been widely reported. Other figures suggest vulnerable people are not using the welfare system which is meant to help them out of a fear of being sanctioned.
On Wednesday, an inquest into the death of pensioner Malcolm Burge found that he had committed suicide after being pursued by Newham Council for an £800 housing benefit overpayment. While the coroner acknowledged that government cuts led to a backlog at Newham's offices, he also said that Mr Burge "needed help and was in distress" but the council was unable to give it to him.
The Homelessness Monitor report also says the bedroom tax has contributed to an 18% rise in social housing repossessions. If tenants in social housing can't afford the rent there, it's a pretty safe bet they wouldn't be able to afford a private rental. Oh, and that's assuming they could even find one — a Shelter report in June 2014 identified just 86 affordable homes in the whole of London.
So just a recap of the insanity at play here: tenant falls into arrears, gets evicted, becomes homeless, seeks help from council, is put into emergency housing, taxpayer foots the bill which is more than it would have cost to pay the damn rent in the first place. And, as if in a further attempt to sabotage the housing supply, the government increases the discount for Right To Buy, forcing councils to set up private companies to hang on to the social housing which they desperately need to house the homeless. Like we said, bonkers.
Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation believe official homelessness figures are concealing the full extent of the problem. London's combination of an ever-growing population and lack of affordable housing means the problem is particularly acute here. The report's lead author, Dr Suzanne Fitzpatrick, said:
“Councils in England are changing the way they tackle homelessness, with an ongoing shift to more informal routes which aren’t recorded in the headline statistics, such as debt advice, financial assistance and mediation with family or landlords. Taking these actions into account, we see that the number of cases of people facing or at serious risk of homelessness rose sharply last year. Yet this alarming trend has gone largely unnoticed by politicians or the media.”
Tory plans to cut the benefit cap from £26,000 per year to £23,000 and remove housing benefit for 18-21 year olds on Jobseeker's Allowance, have not been ruled out by Labour — which is only going to exacerbate the problem. Keep that in mind in May.