Universal Credit and homelessness: Lessons learnt for a fairer society

The COVID-19 global crisis has hit our society hard. It comes at a time of inequality and poverty where the safety net for the most vulnerable is threadbare; for people who are without a home this crisis has devastating impacts. But what lessons can we learn from Universal Credit to make society fairer?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK over 1.8 million people have applied for Universal Credit. So far, the Government tells us the system is resilient and coping well, this is welcome news. However, our research which explores experiences of Universal Credit (UC) for people who are homelessness suggests that the system, without the crisis of COVID-19, is already failing the most vulnerable. The challenges people experiencing homelessness already endure with the UC system will only be exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis.

UC was intended to make the welfare system simpler and easier for people to navigate. Our research found the system complicated and contradictory. On top of the range of challenges people have had generally with UC – such as the long waiting times, inconsistent communication and difficulty using the online system to name but a few – our research has shown how people who are homeless face increased barriers to accessing UC.

The research was conducted as a partnership between Groundswell, King’s College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It involved interviews with people who are homeless and the staff from services that support them to navigate the UC system. We heard of the many challenges that were being faced by claimants who were homeless and the impact it was having on their health.

The UC system assumes capacities of spare time, computer skills, internet access, a bank account and being able to self-advocate. Such capacities are challenging for many people, but especially those facing the multiple health and social challenges linked with homelessness. The welfare system needs to start from the point of assuming that many of its applicants don’t have these resources and capacities – hence why they are claiming in the first place. With the spike in UC applications COVID-19 has led to, we need to ensure that those with complex needs and who need extra support do not get pulled into further difficulties as a result of the system.

The learning from the study can be applied to the current crisis and the way the health and social care system is responding. Face-to-face engagement is being reduced in health settings; many health appointments are being delivered online. People experiencing homeless, who often face personal and structural barriers to utilising healthcare health are likely to be further disadvantaged by this. In the short term these necessary changes in healthcare need to be compensated for, in the longer term we need to ensure that this does not become the ‘new normal’.

We need to acknowledge and not forget adaptations to the UC system in the current crisis. Recent adjustments to ‘streamline’ applications and increase payment amounts do not universally make UC accessible for people who are homeless, but they are welcome. They are an acknowledgement that the payments previously issued were not enough to provide an appropriate safety net, and that accessing to payments is a challenge.  As detailed in our research, these challenges can have a negative impact on the health and well being of claimants.

We have witnessed things we previously thought were not possible under the current Government; people rough sleeping provided accommodation within days, a wage guarantee for staff made redundant and a rise in UC payments. As over 1.8 million people claim UC and as the light shines through its cracks, we have an opportunity to create a welfare system that is universally fair for everyone.

Read the full research report by Groundswell, Kings College London and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

First published May 2020, a collaboration between Claire Thompson, Senior Research Fellow, School of Health and Social Work, University of Hertfordshire; Andy Guise, Lecturer in Social Science and Health, King’s College London; Suzy Solley, Research Manager, Groundswell and Martin Burrows, Director of Research and Campaigns, Groundswell.