Groundswell’s research finds that the benefits system is not supporting the health and wellbeing of people who are homeless.
‘Benefits for Health’ launched on 15th December 2020, reveals how the benefits is system, instead of helping people to avoid and escape homelessness, is causing real challenges to the lives of people who are homeless. The Benefits for Health research interviewed over 240 people experiencing homelessness in London to understand experiences with the benefits and health systems. It reveals that while the benefits system should be supporting people with severe health needs, in many cases people who are homeless face barriers to getting support that is having a negative impact on their health.
The research, funded by the independent charitable foundation Trust for London, revealed that many of the people affected by homelessness faced severe issues with their physical and/or mental health (83%) and 54% of participants reported that physical and mental health issues had contributed to them becoming homeless. The consequences of homelessness and barriers in the healthcare system mean that people who are homeless have much poorer physical and mental health when compared to people with a stable home. The average age at death is 44 years for men experiencing homelessness in England and Wales, and 42 years for women.
Benefits exist to support people who out of work or who are unable to work because of health, disability or life crisis. However, the research found that for 20% of participants issues with benefits had contributed to them becoming homeless, and others spoke of how challenges with the benefit system was a barrier to moving out of homelessness. One researcher recalls a participant she met:
“She was a job seeker on UC (Universal Credit). She was then advised by the Jobcentre to take on a cleaning job. But her wages did not cover her rent. She also had to wait a few weeks for her wages to arrive in her account. Her UC stopped completely straight away, including her housing benefit. This meant her rent was unpaid. She also did not have the money to travel into her work and buy food.”
The findings reveal how navigating the benefits system can be complex particularly when people are facing the daily challenges of homelessness. Poor mental and physical health which was common among participants (83% had current mental and/or physical health issues) made maintaining benefits hard to sustain. Notably, 65% of participants said claiming benefits when they were homelessness was difficult. While the DWP and Jobcentre offer ‘easements’ to people who are homeless, we found this group are often excluded from these protections. For example, only 20% of participants on Universal Credit had been given guidance on applying and maintaining Universal Credit when homeless.
The requirements placed on claimants who are homeless do not account for individual circumstances including how being street homeless or unstably housed can impact the ability to stick to the ‘claimant commitment’ and engage with the benefits system. One participant explained:
“A lot of the times your mind is caught up in your day-to-day thing of how to get food, how to wash. And where you are going to spend that night. So sometimes to be thinking of – not necessarily work, but just to be thinking of benefits and what you have to do to get the benefits is kind of a secondary thing in a sense where literally you are just looking to be fed that day […]”.
Tightening of eligibility criteria and conditionality in response to Welfare Reform Act (2012) alongside the challenges of applying when homeless meant that many people experiencing homelessness are unable to access the benefits they are entitled to. The challenges juggling the stresses of homelessness and proving ill health mean that many participants felt they were not on the correct benefit for their health and wellbeing needs. Participants reported that challenges with the benefits system had had a negative effect on their health:
“If I was able to have that money (referring to ESA) I wouldn’t have been in – still going through situations like yesterday where almost the whole day I didn’t eat. So I do think that they – and of course that causes stress. It can exacerbate psychical health problems as well”.
However, for those who were able to claim and maintain welfare benefits successfully, this had a positive impact on their health and wellbeing. In this way there is a clear role for benefits to support the health of people experiencing homelessness.
Martin Burrows Groundswell’s Director of Research and Campaigns stresses the importance of having health and welfare systems that work for all:
“We have identified in this research that when the system works well for people it can be a critical step in preventing and moving out of homelessness. At a time of crisis where more people are relying on benefits and are at risk of homelessness, strengthening the health and welfare systems are critical in preventing homelessness and supporting those who already find themselves homeless. Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges, but we can also use this opportunity to ensure that people get the support they are entitled to. In the next phase of the project, we will be using these findings to create a campaign for change to improve people’s access to benefits and healthcare whilst they are homeless.”
For more information on the Benefits for Health project, a podcast on the findings, the Executive Summary and an action guide for people experiencing homelessness visit this webpage.