Dr Andy Guise & Martin Burrows on Universal Credit as new guidance for homeless people is launched

The Department of Work and Pensions has released new guides for homeless people and for supporting organisations when working with homeless people around Universal Credit. This is a much-needed resource, but, substantive change is needed in the Universal Credit system as we continue to see it having a damaging impact on the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

First published November 2018 by Dr Andy Guise, King’s College London and Martin Burrows, Director of Research and Campaigns, Groundswell.

The recently launched research for Gateshead council which found the Universal Credit system to be linked to depression, anxiety and increased suicide risk made for difficult reading. The study, exploring the impact of the roll out of Universal Credit in two North East England localities reveals the hugely damaging effect of universal credit on people with long-term health conditions, disabilities, mental health issues and other vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, Groundswell’s current research exploring the impact of Universal Credit on people experiencing homelessness in London finds that the stories told in the north east are not in isolation.

Groundswell, working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College London, have been conducting qualitative interviews with people who are homeless and people working in health and social care to understand how Universal Credit is being experienced. The challenges in Gateshead are echoed in our conversations with participants across the capital.

The stresses of Universal Credit accumulate: the sanctions, the cuts in payments, the uncertainty and the lack of support from work coaches. This in the face of other stresses that can come from day-to-day survival of homelessness can be a driver of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Earlier in the year, Groundswell’s Peer Journalists reported on the ‘Suicide Epidemic’ among the homeless community, writing articles for the Pavement Magazine and creating a podcast on the topic. The Peer Journalists highlighted how the risk factors for homelessness – low income, debt and unemployment all also increase the risk of suicide. While people from all sections of the population experience suicidal thoughts, or even die by suicide, it is people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness who are most vulnerable. Crisis finds that homeless people are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from suicide than the general population.

When people are homeless they need a welfare system that can support them to move on from homelessness, but our findings reveal that, in fact, it is causing further hardship. People are having problems with their initial claims for Universal Credit and then having to wait a long time for payments. There is also the pressure to be searching for work and meeting job-search targets, whilst trying to deal with other issues that come with the experience of homelessness and need to take priority, such as health. In our interviews an individual’s own health is often becoming a secondary issue, relegated under the pressures of Universal Credit. This is despite the physical and mental health of many people experiencing homelessness being far worse than that of the general population.

We welcome the release of the Universal Credit and homeless people: guide for supporting organisations and the Quick guide to Universal Credit targeted at people who are experiencing homelessness. The guides are a good start to help people to navigate the Universal Credit system which although promising simplicity, can be a challenge to negotiate. We are looking forward to seeing the physical copies of these guides alongside the online versions, as with the research in Gateshead, our research indicates that a key challenge of the current system for people experiencing homelessness is the online nature of managing a claim.

Our report will be due out in early 2019, and will add the unique experiences of people who are homeless to the growing evidence for the problems with Universal Credit. Groundswell will also be starting a new Trust for London funded project: ‘Benefits for Health – Improving access to welfare and health for people experiencing homelessness’ where we will place welfare benefits on the radar of health bodies, identify barriers and implement practical changes to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

Through our own work and other research a clear theme is emerging: that Universal Credit is far from universal, but is highly individual, even arbitrary. The uncertainty and lack of transparency creates problems. The pressure to work, or fear that you might be made to when you are unable to, compounds this.

Signed:
Dr Andy Guise, King’s College London
Dr Claire Thompson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Rob Edgar, Groundswell
Martin Burrows, Groundswell