I have been speaking with people who are homeless and who don’t have a fixed address.
They say that they can’t get or keep the benefits that they need.
The DWP says – of course – that things there is a system that homeless people can use to claim benefits and that the system works well.
I have doubts about that.
Last week, I spoke with three street homeless men in Manchester who all said – separately and adamantly – that they couldn’t and didn’t sign on for jobseekers’ allowance, because they didn’t have an address. I wasn’t actually looking to ask people about that in the first instance. The subject just kept coming up. I’ve been out in various parts of Manchester in the evenings talking with some of the people here who are street homeless. There are longer extracts from a couple of these interviews at the end of this article. We talked about housing benefit too, which obviously has address implications, but we were discussing JSA and ESA in this context:
“I’ve got nothing. I can’t claim benefits, because I’ve no address…You used to be able to sign on and they would give you so much money every day. Not any more. That’s all gone. Doesn’t exist anymore, that. Doesn’t exist.” Paul, 56, Deansgate, Thursday evening.
“You can’t claim dole, because you need a letterbox to get ID, but you need ID to get a letterbox…So all is as left is to beg, yeah…[I’ve been doing this for] five years…At the beginning, I had bags and bags of stuff. I had all me ID and that…[but] because you can’t look after it all the time, you stash it and other homeless people find it and… [shrugs].” Darren, 44, outside the Arndale Centre on Tuesday.
“I’m not going to get any benefits until you (sic) get an address.” Tom, 24, near Piccadilly station, Tuesday evening.
These conversations got me thinking. They got me thinking about exclusion, mainly – the ways in which people who really are on the rough end of things can be excluded from the income and support that might make a difference. I want to know more about the systems that the DWP and the government that is overseeing this mess have in place to make sure that people aren’t excluded from that support (yeah – I know. Don’t laugh). I get that people on the street can lead chaotic lives. I get that some people can have serious drug and alcohol problems, but so what. People with serious substance abuse problems should not be denied essentials such as housing and income. You adjust a system to meet needs, not the other way around. Readers of this site will know that the systems that people must use to claim benefits – benefits systems run by the DWP and jobcentres – can be extremely hard to navigate now and are in meltdown, even for claimants who do have an address. Readers of this site will also know that there is often a mile-wide gap between the way that the DWP says things work and the way that things actually work (if they work at all, that is).
So I rang the DWP. Needless to say, the DWP said that there was a functional system in place for prospective benefit claimants who don’t have an address. I rang the DWP’s New Claims line on Monday to ask (and spent 20 minutes on hold, just FYI. I’m keeping track of this aspect of service access). I spoke to an officer who insisted that there was a robust claims system in place for homeless people and that many used it. The officer seemed annoyed that I suggested otherwise. A Care Of address could be used, or a friend’s address (Why can’t he use your address if you’re a friend? this officer said to me at one point). The DWP said (when I asked) that people could use their local jobcentre as their Care Of address for DWP mail if they wanted (I wonder how many people want that).
This all sounded so functional and helpful. Their systems usually do when the DWP describes them. The problem is that the reality is often the exact opposite of functional and a very long way from helpful. I’ve interviewed people who have lost benefits, because the holder of their Care-Of address wasn’t reliable and they missed DWP letters (see Dean’s story here). The DWP also assumes that everyone has supportive family and friends who a) have an address and b) are happy to share it with a friend or family member who has fallen on hard times. Then, there is the DWP’s famously punitive jobsearch regime. Without a stable address, people face the very real possibility of missing one of the many letters that the DWP fires at benefit claimants – letters which call people to courses, or to the work programme, or to work-focused meetings. Miss a signon meeting and your benefits are stopped if you don’t show up at the jobcentre very quickly to explain. God knows I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen it happen to people whose very difficult personal circumstances were well-known to their jobcentre advisers, just in case you thought the DWP always cut slack for people in hardship (it does not).
As for using your jobcentre address as your Care Of address – I went into Stockport jobcentre on Friday to ask if there was a system in place for people who were homeless. The woman I spoke to said Yes, that person could use a Care Of address. No mention was made of using the jobcentre as an address. The DWP didn’t mention that on the phone until I asked, either. A key feature of jobcentre meetings I attend is the DWP’s failure to inform people of their rights and entitlements, and systems that are supposedly in place.
And then – back to the beginning – there were the guys I spoke with last week. All three were very strongly of the view that their access to support was compromised because they were homeless. They all talked about exclusion in its various forms. Didn’t seem to be an obvious way back for any of them at the moment.
Here are two views:
Paul, aged 56. Deansgate on Thursday. Carrying his bag and sleeping bag on his back.
“The council closed most of the hostels down, so there’s only a couple of hostels now. There’s a couple of places that are really, really bad. You know what I mean. Mice-infested and they want to put people in them places.
There’s a church on tonight. They do a meal – give you food, a meal, things like that. You can have a shower there. You can see a doctor if you need to. That’s pretty good, but that they only do that once a week on a Thursday. There’s only a couple of places for people to get emergency accommodation. Simple as that.
And that goes for when it’s raining and cold?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I try and make enough for a B&B wherever I can.
People are saying that B&Bs are like 17, 18 quid a night.
Yeah… I have had so much stuff stolen over the years…I’ve got my sleeping bag and everything [turns around to show me]. My life is in that bag
So things get pinched at the hostels?
Yeah, it’s really bad, so I go to get a decent B&B.
Do you get anything towards it [your costs]?
My sole income… [he was selling magazines] I’ve got nothing. I can’t claim benefits, because I’ve no address…You used to be able to sign on and they would give you so much money every day. Not anymore. That’s all gone. Doesn’t exist anymore, that. Doesn’t exist.
Have you tried to go to the jobcentre and ask…?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I tried to go to the jobcentre and get emergency payments …Nothing like that. It’s all gone.
…won’t help me. Council – I’m on a waiting list [for housing], but I’m a single male. You work on a points system [to bid for council properties to rent], so you have to build so many points up before they even consider giving you somewhere to live. I go to the library – I use the library, me, and every time I look at a flat [on the council’s online council house bidding system], I get so many points. You have to build your points up…
It’s just a joke. It’s just a joke, love. It’s just a joke…I’ve been on the streets now [for] 16 months. Yeah, I had a job. I’d been with the missus for 17 years. I walked in and she’s in bed with my best mate, so my head went and I started drinking really, really badly. Losing my job, losing my flat, getting into arrears, because I couldn’t pay the rent.
Darren, 44. Outside the Arndale Centre on Tuesday evening. Carrying a dirty sleeping bag. Very thin, very drawn and very pale.
I got to try and find £18 to get a B&B – so for a shower, a bed…You can’t claim dole, because you need a letterbox to get ID, but you need ID to get a letterbox.
So, you can’t sign on for JSA?
No, so all is as left is to beg, yeah…[I’ve been doing this for] five years…At the beginning, five years ago, I had bags and bags of stuff. I had all me ID and that…[but] because you can’t look after it all the time, you stash it and other homeless people find it and… [shrugs].
All as I did right. My dad used to [word unclear] me and my brother when we was younger and I got put in care. My brother brought me up…but he killed himself and he was like the only family I had. It hit me hard, so I went off the rails a little bit and lost everything.
I do the right thing. I’m trying to looking after myself. I don’t buy drugs and alcohol. I’d rather buy clothes and get new… get a proper bed – a few nights’ sleep.
With the B&Bs, if you don’t have £18, you don’t stay.
[In] Manchester… they are building all these brand new flats up, so people who can’t stay are put further and further away. It’s just become a business place…
It’s all a bidding system now [to get a council place], so you have to go and bid at a certain time. You go in these places. They see you’re homeless, they put your head down and it’s straight out. Same with the [shopping centre]. You walk, Security throw you out.
There’s soup kitchens, but the Eastern Europeans coming over, they get into everything now. They have all got houses, they’ve all got jobs. All they do is take, take, take, take. They sit there [outside the soup kitchens] four hours prior to it opening, so that they get the best of everything. We get pushed to the back.
Did you vote in Brexit [in the EU referendum]?
[Laughs] Did I vote? I can’t vote. I’m homeless…Do you know what Darren means? It means The Great One.
Back out this week, so more soon.