Sanctions and homelessness: What does the latest evidence tell us?
In October 2012 the Government introduced a new sanctions regime, with tougher rules for people claiming benefits. People who miss an appointment at Jobcentre Plus (JCP) or do not comply with other requirements, e.g. to take certain agreed action to find work, can now have their benefits stopped or reduced for longer periods.
Today the government published the latest statistics revealing the number of sanctions imposed on benefit claimants, but what do these statistics tell us and what is the impact on homeless people?
The graph below shows that the number of people being sanctioned during the first three quarters of 2013 rose steadily. Although numbers dipped slightly in Q4 2013, figures were still 7% higher amongst Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants than Q4 2012.
The most notable increase has been amongst Employment Support Allowance (ESA – support for those unable to work due to illness or disability) claimants, which was 188% higher in Q4 2013 compared to Q4 2012.
These figures show that sanctions are affecting a growing number of claimants. This is particularly concerning for homeless people, as our own research has shown that they are more likely to be sanctioned than the general population.
Number of sanctions October 2012–December 2013 by quarter
Sanctions are intended to encourage people on benefits to actively search for work and improve their situation. However, meeting the conditions for receiving benefits is more challenging for people with complex and multiple needs, including homeless people, who are one of the groups furthest from the job market.
Homeless Link’s 2013 research into sanctions and homeless people, A High Cost to Pay, showed that clients of homelessness services are at greater risk of being sanctioned; a third of homeless people on JSA and nearly one in five on ESA were being sanctioned, which is disproportionately higher than the general population.
The research also revealed that many homeless people who had been sanctioned were not aware of the reason why or what they had to do to avoid it happening again. Some people felt that they had been sanctioned unfairly. Rather than encouraging people into work, sanctions are setting homeless people back in their progress to employment. Worryingly our research found some homeless people had experienced severe hardship as a result of being sanctioned.
Sanctions not only affect homeless people, but also have an impact on the services that provide them with support. Evidence from our Annual Review of Support for Single Homeless People highlighted the work that our members are doing to support their clients facing sanctions.
Day centres described seeing an increase in poverty and destitution as a result of welfare changes and over two thirds (68%) reported offering advice to clients affected by sanctions.
This is also an issue for accommodation services. Sixty-nine percent reported sanctions being an issue for their clients, by far the most common benefits problem experienced by people using their service. Rent arrears and risk of eviction had increased as a result of sanctions because homeless claimants did not know to notify the local authority of their circumstances, and consequently lost Housing Benefit.
The extra work this is creating is illustrated by one of our member organisations who are now employing a benefits adviser to help residents understand and appeal decisions to reduce or stop their benefits.
Sanctions can have a devastating impact on those already living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. Since the publication of the above report, Homeless Link and its members have been working to try and reduce the impact of sanctions, and ultimately the number of sanctions that homeless people receive. More needs to be done to ensure sanctions are applied appropriately and help motivate people find work without increasing their risk of experiencing severe hardship.
One of the reasons that homeless people may face a disproportionate number of sanctions is due to the fact that JCP advisors may not know if someone is homeless or understand the barriers they face. Improving relationships between homelessness services and JCP is therefore key in avoiding unnecessary sanctions.
JCP workers should be more flexible when working with homeless people and the Government should work with them to improve their understanding of homelessness and the issues they face, such as by offering specific training. With this in mind, Homeless Link is running a number of events in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) called Working Together with the aim of facilitating networking and increasing joint working across organisations.
We have also conducted a short survey of our members to look at how homelessness services and JCP work together. These findings will be fed back to the DWP to highlight areas for development and good practice to ensure they filter down to frontline service delivery and improve the lives of homeless people navigating the welfare system.
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