Benefit sanctions ‘forcing people to sleep rough and go hungry’

Jon Sparkes
Jon Sparkes

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.

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 Research at Sheffield Hallam University, the report shows that where people had been sanctioned in the past year:

  • 21 per cent reported becoming homeless as a result;
  • 16 per cent said they had been forced to sleep rough as a result;
  • 77 per cent had gone hungry or skipped meals;
  • 75 per cent said it negatively affected their mental health;
  • 64 per cent had gone without heating;
  • 60 per cent 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.

    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.

    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 per cent said it made it harder for them to secure or maintain a job
    • 42 per cent found it harder to continue with training / courses / groups
    • 50 per cent found it harder to maintain their permanent or temporary housing
    • 64 per cent said it had a negative impact on their physical health
    • 61 per cent had received a food parcel from a food bank
    • 28 per cent had resorted to begging
    • 38 per cent had stolen or shoplifted food
    • 19 per cent had taken out a loan from a loan shark or pay day lender
    • KEY FINDINGS: Attitudes and experiences

      • 88 per cent of all respondents said they wanted to work.
      • Where people were subject to the sanctions regime, 39 per cent 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 per cent compared to 36 per cent)
      • People with mental ill health were more likely to have been sanctioned compared to people without mental ill health (45 per cent compared to 34 per cent)
      • 63 per cent 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 per cent 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.
      • @crisis_uk

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