A lack of understanding of the harsh realities of the so-called safety net of social security is not confined to those who are privileged enough to never have had to make use of it. Even those who have depended on social security of some form in the past are often not aware of just how much things have changed for the worse.
This is why the myth persists of people lazing around on the dole picking up vast cheques every fortnight. In reality benefits have shrunk far faster than even the lowest wages over the years and now barely pay for a subsistence lifestyle. Far from sitting around at home, unemployed people are now forced into endless and often demeaning ‘job seeking activity’ or workfare, not to help them get a job, it rarely does, but designed to make life on the dole as unpleasant as possible.
The idea that someone made homeless can seek help from the council is another common misconception. Only those with children or deemed ‘vulnerable’ are eligible for help, which in practice means only people who are seriously unwell, over pensionable age or who are severely disabled. Even parents will only usually be offered support if they are actually on the streets or there are bailiffs at the door ready to evict them. And only then if they are judged unintentionally homeless.
If the council decides their homelessness is their own fault, due to rent arrears for example, then they have a duty of care towards the children only – which could mean the threat of an interim care order or other social services intervention unless the parents can find a home. Even those who are accepted as ‘priority homeless’ may merely find themselves referred to a slum landlord, a B&B, hostel or nightshelter for months on end.
Often people believe there must be other forms of support for people facing homelessness or destitution. This is the UK after all, a supposedly civilised place where welfare spending is not just comprehensive, but out of control.
Yet the reality, for someone on benefits, who does not have hundreds or even a couple of thousand of pounds to spend on a deposit, a tenancy coming to an end for any reason can mean homelessness. And those who can manage to beg or borrow the required cash, are still a long way from secure. They are unlikely to have any money to move their possessions to another property and no money to furnish a new property. No money to pay for fares to go looking for a new home. No phone credit to ring potential landlords. No money for the reference checks some letting agents ask for just to accept potential tenants on the books or the eye-watering fees many of them now charge.
And that’s even if they make it through the front door. The vast majority of landlords and letting agents have a policy of No DSS. This ludicrous phrase – the DSS hasn’t existed for over a decade – means no-one is accepted on any form of benefits whatsoever. That can include disability benefits – possibly rendering this policy illegal but no-one seems to care - or in-work benefits such as Housing Benefit. If you are poor you are fucked when it comes to the UK rental market.
And throughout this process, if the Jobcentre find out you are looking for a home, rather than carrying out jobseeking activity, you might find your benefits stopped altogether.
So the idea that people on low incomes can easily just move, as if all that is required is nipping into Foxtons and then ringing a removal firm, is nonsense. That is why there are homeless people.
It is in this context that Iain Duncan Smith’s gleeful announcement that 65% of people think someone should move to a cheaper property if they are affected by the benefit cap should be considered. IDS was referring to a survey carried out by Ipsos Mori before the Summer which questioned the public on the benefit cap.
The question however did not reveal the whole story. Move somewhere else could mean move next door. It could mean move into a Local Authority property, or five miles down the road. But that is not what will happen to most families hit by the Benefit cap.
When people were asked should a someone be forced to move to a ‘different area’ due to the benefit cap, only 44% agreed. Had they been asked should people move to a different city it is likely support for the cap would evaporate.
The question that should really have been asked is should families affected by the cap have to run up rent arrears and risk harassment and illegal eviction, and then, when the landlord finally kicks them out, go down to the council and spend the whole day in a housing office arguing over whether they are intentionally homeless or not.
If they manage to convince the council they have a case then the public should have been questioned whether they and their children should be put up in a grotty B&B for six months until they are finally socially cleansed to a cheap private sector property 200 miles away from friends, family, school, job prospects and even their job if they work part time. Because that is what is happening now to many families hit by the cap.
The number of properties affordable to low income families on out of work or in-work benefits – and the benefit cap applies to part time workers – is vanishingly small in many parts of the UK. Just like for those affected by the Bedroom Tax, there is nowhere for people hit by the benefit cap to move to. The cap is set so low that it is not just Central London that is now unaffordable to families on benefits, but Greater London and increasingly the entire South East of England. As Osborne’s house price bubble swells this problem is likely to be exported further and further afield.
The Tories have convinced themselves that the Benefit Cap is a popular policy and on the surface that seems to be the case. But this cap has been introduced without any real alternative for the families currently losing their homes. Rent caps would almost certainly have been equally popular, as would a massive extension of social housing. And unlike the Benefit Cap, these two measures might even have saved some money. Already the benefit cap is costing a fortune to administer and homeless families cost much more money in the long term than allowing people to stay in their homes. It was reported earlier in the year that families evicted from their homes due to the first cap on housing benefits were being placed in hotels at the cost of £3000 a week in some cases.
Until something is done to rein in the out of control private rental sector then any cuts to Housing Benefit mean homeless children. In the case of the Benefit Cap that could, by the DWP’s own estimate, mean 200,000 homeless children. It would be interesting to know what those surveyed would have answered had they been asked “Do you support a cut to the welfare budget that will not save any money and could lead to up to 200,000 children becoming homeless?”
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