Benefit sanctions forcing people to sleep rough and go hungry
10 December 2015
Crisis is calling for reform of how benefit sanctions work for the most vulnerable as new research by the charity reveals how the regime is leaving people homeless, hungry and destitute and making it even harder for them to find work.
The report warns that the system is hitting vulnerable people hardest – including those who are already homeless, care leavers and those suffering from mental ill health – despite the fact that the vast majority do want to work and agree that benefits should come with conditions [see key findings].
Drawing on a survey of more than 1000 people from homeless hostels and day centres in 21 cities, along with 42 in-depth interviews, the report provides detailed accounts of people being forced to sleep on the street, coping with severe hunger and going without heating in winter.
Conducted for Crisis by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Researchat Sheffield Hallam University, the report shows that where people had been sanctioned in the past 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
Respondents were also at least twice as likely to be sanctioned compared to claimants as a whole, often because the system failed to take their needs and circumstances into account (see notes to editors).
The report also provides numerous examples of people being 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 was sanctioned after her home burned down in an arson attack, and another for missing appointments while he was ill with cancer. [See appendix]
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.”
Crisis raises serious concerns that out of the people who were sanctioned, more than one third of those claiming housing benefit said it was stopped as a result. The report clearly shows that this flaw in the system is leaving people homeless and calls on the DWP to fix this issue once and for all, and to report on their progress.
The report also gives detailed recommendations for reform of the system so that it builds on people’s strengths and aspirations rather than pushing them further away from the labour market.
It recommends: steps to identify homeless people from day one and suspend the rules until their housing situation is resolved; introduction of a new financial assessment to determine beforehand if a sanction is likely to result in destitution or homelessness, in which case it should not be issued; steps to provide tailored support to help homeless people into work; and a full review of the effectiveness of conditionality and sanctions in moving homeless people into work.
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."
KEY FINDINGS: The impact of sanctions
Of those sanctioned:
- 53% said it made it harder for them to secure or maintain a job
- 42% found it harder to continue with training / courses / groups
- 50% found it harder to maintain their permanent or temporary housing
- 64% said it had a negative impact on their physical health
- 61% had received a food parcel from a food bank
- 28% had resorted to begging
- 38% had stolen or shoplifted food
- 19% had taken out a loan from a loan shark or pay day lender
KEY FINDINGS: Attitudes and experiences
- 88% of all respondents said they wanted to work.
- Where people were subject to the sanctions regime, 39% had been sanctioned in the past year
- People who had been in local authority care were more likely to have been sanctioned compared to other homeless people (49% compared to 36%)
- People with mental ill health were more likely to have been sanctioned compared to people without mental ill health (45% compared to 34%)
- 63% of people under the regime found the conditions difficult to meet. People frequently complained of a lack of internet access, a lack of money to travel to appointments and being given the wrong information.
- 82% of those sanctioned felt they had a good reason for failing to meet the condition
- The 42 in-depth interviews showed widespread support for conditionality, with most thinking it right that people should 'earn' any benefits they receive.
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Example reasons for sanctions
Adam was sanctioned for failing to do the requisite job searching. He was actively seeking work but was doing so by delivering CVs in person. Adam is not IT proficient, but his Claimant Commitment specified he must job search online only.
Christina was sanctioned for failing to attend the Work Programme. Full details (directions, map, telephone number) were not provided, although the letter indicated they would be, and so she did not know where to go. She contacted the Job Centre and they promised so send her full details, but when the second letter arrived this information was missing again.
Emergency childcare issues prevented Fred from signing on. He was asked at short notice to collect his daughter from school because his older daughter had gone into labour and her mother wanted to be at the hospital her. He went in person to the Job Centre the next day to explain.
Ja was sanctioned twice for failing to attend appointments for which he had received no notification.
Joe was sanctioned for failing to meet his job search requirements. He was clinically depressed at the time and had no motivation to seek work. A few months later he was deemed unfit for work and awarded ESA because of his mental health issues.
Lee has had three sanctions, all for missing appointments. Lee had been very ill during this time, with cancer amongst other things, but struggled to get the necessary medical evidence (mainly through being too ill to pursue it) to prove he was too unwell to attend.
Lewis was sanctioned for failing to attend the Work Programme. Lewis did not attend because he had a job interview. He informed the Work Programme Provider of this but did not inform the Job centre and was sanctioned as a result. He successfully appealed.
Luke was sanctioned for missing an appointment. He was in hospital at the time having been assaulted.
Maggie was sanctioned because she missed an appointment. She had just moved following an arson attack on her previous home that left her homeless. She informed the Job Centre, but the letter was sent to her previous address.
Matthew was sanctioned several times for failing to attend the Work Programme. He cares for his partner who has mental health problems and, because of this, he finds it difficult to consistently attend.
Melanie was sanctioned because she forgot to sign on. She is 18 years old and was being evicted that day from the hostel where she had been living since leaving care.
Pete missed an appointment to sign on. He has numeracy and literacy issues and did not understand the electronic claim system.
Philip was sanctioned for being 15 minutes late for signing on, having been stuck in traffic.
Ross missed an appointment due to confusion about the location. He went to the wrong office, was told he had no appointment there, contacted his advisor immediately and was told his appointment was elsewhere. Once he arrived he had missed his allotted time.
Tim has been sanctioned for missing appointments and for failing to do the requisite job search. Tim was sleeping rough and has mental health issues and found these requirements too difficult to meet. Soon after he was deemed unfit for work and awarded ESA, being placed in the Support Group.
William was sanctioned for failing to apply for enough jobs. He has borderline learning difficulties, mental ill health and poor computer literacy. A couple of months later William made a successful claim for ESA and was placed in the Support Group
Notes to editors
- Homeless people’s experience of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions is the second report looking at benefit sanctions and homelessness. Conducted by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, the study explores homeless people's experiences of the benefit system and of being sanctioned, testing the policy assumptions underpinning the regime so that clear recommendations can be made to ensure the fairness of the system as applied to homeless people. It considers the effectiveness of sanctions in supporting homeless people into work, and considers alternative approaches to delivering welfare and labour market support.
- Of the 548 survey respondents subject to conditionality 39% had been sanctioned in the past year (JSA 38 per cent; ESA WRAG 40 per cent). By comparison, a Freedom of Information request in the year 2013/14 revealed that 18% of all JSA claimants were sanctioned in that year. This suggests that homelessness service users claiming JSA may be twice as likely to be sanctioned as the JSA claimant population as a whole.
A comparable annualised figure is not available for sanctions amongst ESA WRAG claimants but the monthly sanction rate is lower than for JSA claimants. The similar sanction rate amongst ESA WRAG and JSA claimants in our survey suggests the prevalence of sanctions amongst homeless ESA WRAG claimants is greater than twice the rate of this claimant group as a whole.