Real Life Stories: How First Base Day Centre helped Joe off the streets

Many of the people we are seeing are new to rough sleeping, like Joe who was helped by First Base Day Centre.  This is his story:

“When Joe first came into our service, he had never before been in the position of rough sleeping.  He was 45 years of age, had worked fairly consistently and always had friends or partners he could rely on if work dried up and he found himself in between jobs.  The recession had meant that he had faced a longer period of not working, his relationship had succumbed to stress and he found himself sleeping on the beach.

“Joe had made a claim for Job Seekers Allowance, but had not received a payment after several weeks.  He had eaten nothing for two days and was embarrassed, he said that he had not washed or changed his clothes for a week.  We made sure that Joe had a hot meal, a change of clothes and was able to use the shower at First Base.

“Joe was assigned a caseworker who met with Joe every day for the following week and it became clear that he was feeling overwhelmed by his difficulties, ashamed and hopeless about his future.   He said that he had visited a railway bridge on several nights in the previous month and had considered throwing himself under a passing train.  Joe disclosed the difficulties that he experienced throughout his life and that these experiences were re-visiting him on a nightly basis and tormenting him.

“Joe’s caseworker referred him to the Mental Health Team, a multi-agency team providing mental healthservices for homeless people, contacted his GP and made Joe an emergency appointment.  The Doctor was sympathetic and offered medication and follow-up visits.

“It was obvious that Joe was in no position to be actively seeking work and he needed a new claim for a sickness related benefit.   Joe was very anxious and physically shaking while he spoke with the Department for Work and Pensions on the phone so his caseworker supported him with the call.  It was a further two weeks and many phone calls later that Joe received any benefit payment.

“Joe met with the Mental Health Team at First Base and they agreed to offer some on-going support, seeing Joe fortnightly, alongside regular contact with his GP and daily support from his caseworker.

“With the support of his caseworker, Joe arranged an appointment with a BHT housing adviser who suggested that he make a homeless application.  His application was rejected due to lack of medical information supporting his case.  As Joe did not have a local connection to Brighton and Hove it was not possible for him to be referred into one of the City’s hostels, so we began to explore the possibility of privately rented housing with support from another BHT project, Firm Foundations.

“Throughout this time, Joe was continuing to sleep on the beach and his mental and emotional state would fluctuate greatly on a daily basis.  Joe made very good use of services at First Base, including volunteering and on good days was able to plan the direction of casework himself.

“Over time, we collected letters from his GP and from mental health specialists involved in his care and re-submitted his homeless application.   With the additional evidence gathered Brighton and Hove City Council accepted Joe’s application for housing.

“Joe is now living in BHT supported accommodation for people experiencing mental health difficulties.  He has key work support from this project alongside specialist mental health support for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He is engaging with alcohol support services and still calls in periodically to let us know how things are for him.”

First Base operates in the centre of Brighton and is the main centre for the provision of support to assist people who are homeless or vulnerably housed in Brighton and Hove to move on from the streets or insecure accommodation and realise their aspirations.  First Base operates client-centred specialist services to support people who are sleeping rough in the city to get off the streets, start realising their aspirations through work, learning and leisure and find a place they can call home. Several services run from First Base including a Healthy Lifestyles Project (comprising the Catering Training Project and Fitness 4 All), PASH (Promotional and Awareness of Sexual Health), First Impressions (CV and Employment Service), Culture (Heritage and Cultural Activities), and Dine, our catering Social Enterprise company.  

The unintended consequences of poorly implemented welfare reform: incompetence, indifference or design?

From time to time I comment on welfare reform, not necessarily the principle but the woeful manner in which it has been implemented. I sometimes wonder whether it is incompetence, indifference or design that has resulted in unexpected (or planned) consequences that inevitably impact on claimants.

The unintended (intended?) consequences of sanctions is one example that is impacting not just on claimants but on landlords too. (In this article I am not commenting on the arbitrary process by which sanctions are imposed).

Sanctions can be imposed where it is deemed the claimant is not doing enough to find work, or if they miss appointments and so on. It means that their Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance is stopped. It has been reported that in some cases this had ‘inadvertently’ led to housing benefit being automatically stopped because people may not be aware, or they may not be informed, that they must inform the local authority because sanctions are a change in their financial circumstances.

If the local authority is not informed, housing benefit may be suspended because the claimant appears to be no longer in receipt of a qualifying benefit. Staff in BHT have reported how much time they are having to spend on challenging decisions to sanction claims and to have housing benefit reinstated. All the time the client is becoming more despondent, mental health suffers, and landlords (be it private landlords, BHT or other social landlords) are not getting their rent. I don’t have any figures regarding resulting evictions.

While much of this is common knowledge on the ground, it has been drawn to the attention of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in a report it commissioned from the economist Matthew Oakley. The report recommends 17 improvements to the way sanctions are administered.

The DWP has said that in the long-term it will “implement an IT solution” to the problem. Its spokesperson has said: “The DWP accepts that the housing benefit of claimants should not be stopped following a sanction”. The DWP has said it will now ensure that claimants are advised to keep their local authority informed of the sanction, thereby preventing housing benefit being stopped.

But why has the DWP implemented a measure without considering the human cost to individuals and to landlords? Why did the DWP not ensure claimants were being properly advised from the outset? And a long-term IT solution from the DWP is hardly something that inspires any confidence.

Writing in the latest edition of the RSA Journal, Matthew Taylor’s advice to politicians preparing their manifestos should be heeded by the DWP. He writes that rather than being “tempted to once again increase the number of promises they make, the principle of doing less – but doing it better – might be another RSA goal they could usefully consider”.

Biggest change in welfare provision since creation of the welfare state

April sees the biggest change in welfare provision since the creation of the welfare state. The aim is to simplify the benefit system, to replicate work conditions (monthly payments), and ensure that work always pays. I can support these aims but, as with much of what government (of any party) tries to do, there is likely to be problems with implementation and unexpected consequences.

The changes include:

  • Universal Credit replacing Jobseekers’ Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit
  • Personal Independence Payments will replace Disability Living Allowance
  • Council Tax Benefit going and those under Pension Credit age will probably have to pay around £2 per week
  • Benefits Cap of £500 per week
  • Changes to Social Fund
  • Child Benefit reduced if one parent earns more than £50,000 and stopped over £60,000

Any new system has the potential to cause confusion. There is an expectation that 80% of claims will be made online (although research suggests that the majority of claimants don’t have the means to do so)..

Payments will be in one monthly lump sum, raising challenges with budgeting for some claimants.

Landlords are expecting a huge increase in arrears and bad debts. This will result in increased evictions and homelessness. At BHT we have modelled the prospect of losing £95,000 as a direct consequence of these changes.

And finally, there is the Under-occupation regulation, called by some as the Bedroom Tax. It is not, in fact, a tax, but a claw back of benefit for those who have a ‘spare’ bedroom. This has recently attracted much controversy and changes have been made, although there remains serious concerns about the practicality of households downsizing, not least because of the shortage of suitable alternative accommodation and the disruption to lives, including those with disabilities.

In the next few days I will posts more details of the changes.

The public debate on welfare reform has been based on ignorance and prejudice

Daily ExpressLast week there was a contentious vote in the House of Commons regarding welfare benefits. Much has been written elsewhere regarding the impact of the reform of welfare benefits.

What has saddened me is the widespread ignorance relating to the level of benefits and the prejudice being shown towards claimants.  The Daily Express headline the following day, “Party is over for benefit skivers”, summed much of what I find distasteful about the way the debate has been conducted.

Here is a small test to help you assess your own understanding of welfare benefits. It is based on a YouGov poll that was carried out just before Christmas. If you don’t know the answers (I knew very few myself) make your best guess on the basis of what you have heard or read.

  1. What percentage of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people?
  2. On average what percentage of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently according to the government’s own figures?
  3. What percentage of people who claim Jobseeker’s Allowance go on to claim it for more than a year?
  4. How much does an unemployed couple with two school-age children get in Jobseeker’s Allowance per week?
  5. How much better off, or worse off, per week would this family with two school-age children be if one of the unemployed parents got a 30 hour a week minimum wage job?

Jot down your answers before you read further.  I was surprised by my own personal ignorance, and concerned how I had bought into some of the mis-information that has done the rounds.

I asked 30 colleagues at BHT to do this test, and again I was taken aback by how much they, collectively, had had their perceptions skewed by the tone of the debate.

So how accurate is your perception?

  1. On average people think that 41 percent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is 3 percent.
  2. On average people think that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government’s own figure is 0.7 percent.
  3. On average people think that almost half the people (48 percent) who claim Jobseeker’s Allowance go on to claim it for more than a year, while the true figure is just under 30 per cent (27.8 percent).
  4. On average people think that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker’s Allowance – more than 30 percent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive – a £35 over-calculation.
  5. Only 21 percent of people think that this family with two school-age children would be better off if one of the unemployed parents got a 30 hour a week minimum wage job, even though they would actually end up £138 a week better off. Even those who thought they would be better off only thought on average they would gain by £59.

It is the last question that really hit home to me.  I was miles out.  I thought the family would be just marginally better off with a job that pays the national minimum wage.  It shows that benefit levels are well below even the national minimum wage.

So much for life on benefits being a party!  No doubt an intelligent sub-editor wrote that headline, and other intelligent people will have framed the debate in such a misleading way.  I feel we, as a society, lost some integrity last week.

Welfare Benefit changes and cuts to Legal Aid are creating a ‘Perfect Storm’

A report by Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) highlights government plans to reform housing benefit will price low-income households out of a third of local authorities in England, pushing them into areas of high unemployment.

This is something BHT has been warning about for many months, and I was on BBC Sussex talking about the issue this morning.

What is happening is that a ‘perfect storm’ is being created, the coming together of several measures that will result in households being forced out of accommodation and high rent areas, with Brighton and Hove being particularly badly hit.

But first the good news. The government is listening. A proposal to reduce housing benefit entitlement by 10% for those who have been on Job Seekers Allowance for 12 months has been withdrawn. What we hope for now is that the government will listen to concerns about the ‘£500 cap’. This cap is the total amount, equivalent to the average household weekly income, that a household can be paid in benefits. The first benefit to be withdrawn will be housing benefit.

This will result in unemployed households having to make difficult decisions about priorities – new shoes for a child or making up the shortfall in rent. We can expect to see rent arrears increasing and, consequentially, an increase in evictions for rent arrears. The duty, and the cost, to house a family with children will then pass to children services of local authorities at a time when cuts are having to be made. This, together with changes to the eligible amount of housing benefit payable, is part of the ‘perfect storm’.

Some say that these households will have to move to areas where there is cheaper housing. The Department for Work and Pensions says that it is trying to achieve a “fairer” system. But given that there will not be rented accommodation in the Brighton area that is affordable under the new model (other than social housing and under the new social housing arrangements that soon will not be ‘affordable’) I have to ask if it is fairer to expect households, born and brought up in Brighton, to have to move out of the south east. Children will lose contact with grandparents, have to change schools, lose friends, have their lives really disrupted.

The other key aspect of ‘perfect storm’ is the cuts to legal aid. Going is entitlement to receive legal help for welfare benefit and debt problems, and legal help for housing issues will be limited to avoiding imminent homelessness. Going will be the skilful brokerage between landlords and tenants that seek to mediate solutions acceptable to landlords and affordable to tenants. Greater burdens will be placed on local authorities. The cuts in legal aid will be a short term financial gain for the Treasury but a loss – loss – loss situation for landlords, tenants and local government.

But to finish on a positive note, I am confident that government will continue to listen, and I am full of praise for local MP’s such as Simon Kirby, Mike Weatherley, Caroline Lucas and Amber Rudd who have been raising various issues with Ministers and in the House. There is time for a rethink, although I recognise in testing financial times it will be difficult to make a change, but a change is needed otherwise the cost, financial and human, will be too great.

Two simple suggestions for government to prevent homelessness and increase workability

According to research published by the National Landlords Association (NLA), nearly half (47%) of possessions by landlords are due to tenant arrears.  It follows recent data released by the NLA showing a fifth of private-residential landlords had tenants in rent arrears during Q2 2010.

I have two simple suggestions for government.  First, make direct payments of housing benefit to landlords the norm and, second, don’t proceed with the reforms to housing benefit eligibility. The first will ensure that payments where eligible and paid reach the landlord; the second will prevent the massive increase in evictions, homelessness and rough sleeping that many, including BHT, are predicting. The government’s stated aim of encouraging JSA claimants to move off benefits will not be best served if the financial consequences are felt, primarily, by landlords.  Increased homelessness will move those affected further from employability.

Reduction in youth homelessness in Brighton and Hove will be undermined by cuts in housing benefit

In today’s world, it is great to celebrate a remarkable achievement. Youth homelessness in Brighton & Hove has fallen by almost 80 per cent as targeted initiatives prevent the city’s most vulnerable residents becoming homeless.  Highlights include initiatives that intervene early to help prevent family breakdown, a new supported housing project for teen mothers and tackling the underlying causes of youth homelessness such as mental illness, drugs or alcohol dependency.
Congratulations are due to all concerned, particularly Brighton and Hove City Council, whose Youth Homelessness Strategy action plan contained 76 actions, of which 69 have been achieved since January 2007, and seven partially achieved. 
At risk of souring the celebration, the fantastic achievements recorded above could be undone by the recently announced changes to Housing Benefit entitlement.  While young people are already restricted to a room in a shared house, the changes to entitlement would see those living in an ordinary room in a shared house in Brighton and Hove lose up to £13.09 per week from their housing benefit which they would be required to make up from their Job Seekers Allowance of £50.95.  This would leave them just £37.86 to live on – food, heat, light, clothes, and everything else.
It is likely that they will not make up all their rent, resulting in arrears and the possibility of eviction.  But for many, young and old alike, the prospects of securing private rented accommodation might become a lot more difficult.  As Chris Norris of the National Landlords Association said in the Telegraph on Saturday, “Landlords will have to look at their profit and loss and decide how much they can afford to cut their rents by.  If they are not going to do that, they will have to seek non-housing benefit tenants or sell up”.