One-in-five people made homeless in the last year were forced onto the streets after the Government stripped them of welfare payments, a survey has claimed.
The homelessness charity Crisis found so-called benefit “sanctions” also caused homeless people to sleep rough, go hungry and undermine their mental health.
Benefit claimants also had their payments suspended or docked because they broke the rules for trivial reasons as well as missing appointments because they had cancer.
Labour called hit out at a “broken sanctions regime” and Public and Commercial Services union said sanction should be scrapped. But minister Iain Duncan Smith's Department for Work and Pensions said the report was "misleading and has inaccuracies".
John Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive of Crisis, said: “They’re hitting vulnerable people hardest and preventing them from finding work. Many will be trying to rebuild their lives or coping with trauma or illness. At times like this, losing the support of benefits can be disastrous.”
Its conclusions have been drawn from a survey of more than 1,000 people from homeless hostels and day centres in 21 cities.
The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, which led the research, also carried out 42 in-depth interviews.
The report shows that where people had been sanctioned in the past year:
- 21% reported becoming homeless as a result;
- 16% said they had been forced to sleep rough as a result;
- 77% had gone hungry or skipped meals;
- 75% said it negatively affected their mental health;
- 64% had gone without heating;
- 60% found it harder to look for work.
Those spoken to were also at least twice as likely to be sanctioned compared to claimants as a whole, often because the system failed to take their needs and circumstances into account.
The report discovered homeless people are being sanctioned because of illness and poor literacy, numeracy and IT skills. One woman was sanctioned despite losing her home in an arson attack and another missed appointments as he was ill with cancer.
Mr Sparkes said a Department for Work and Pensions proposal for a two week period of appeal “doesn’t go far enough”.
He added: “Sadly, the vast majority of people we spoke to wanted to work and agreed there should be some sort of conditions attached to benefits, yet too often the system didn’t take their circumstances or aspirations into account and instead seemed to treat them with mistrust. It’s clear that the regime isn’t working for the most vulnerable.”
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Adam was sanctioned for failing to do the requisite job searching. He was actively seeking work but was doing so by delivering CVs in person. Adam is not IT proficient, but his Claimant Commitment specified he must job search online only.
Christina was sanctioned for failing to attend the Work Programme. Full details (directions, map, telephone number) were not provided, although the letter indicated they would be, and so she did not know where to go. She contacted the Job Centre and they promised so send her full details, but when the second letter arrived this information was missing again.
Emergency childcare issues prevented Fred from signing on. He was asked at short notice to collect his daughter from school because his older daughter had gone into labour and her mother wanted to be at the hospital her. He went in person to the Job Centre the next day to explain.
He had previously been sanctioned for failing to do the required job search online. Robert is not computer literate and was doing his computer searching with the help a worker at a local day centre, but could not get enough time with the worker to fulfil his conditions
Ja was sanctioned twice for failing to attend appointments for which he had received no notification.
Joe was sanctioned for failing to meet his job search requirements. He was clinically depressed at the time and had no motivation to seek work. A few months later he was deemed unfit for work and awarded ESA because of his mental health issues.
Lee has had three sanctions, all for missing appointments. Lee had been very ill during this time, with cancer amongst other things, but struggled to get the necessary medical evidence (mainly through being too ill to pursue it) to prove he was too unwell to attend.
Lewis was sanctioned for failing to attend the Work Programme. Lewis did not attend because he had a job interview. He informed the Work Programme Provider of this but did not inform the Job centre and was sanctioned as a result. He successfully appealed.
Luke was sanctioned for missing an appointment. He was in hospital at the time having been assaulted.
Maggie was sanctioned because she missed an appointment. She had just moved following an arson attack on her previous home that left her homeless. She informed the Job Centre, but the letter was sent to her previous address.
Matthew was sanctioned several times for failing to attend the Work Programme. He cares for his partner who has mental health problems and, because of this, he finds it difficult to consistently attend.
Melanie was sanctioned because she forgot to sign on. She is 18 years old and was being evicted that day from the hostel where she had been living since leaving care.
Pete missed an appointment to sign on. He has numeracy and literacy issues and did not understand the electronic claim system.
Philip was sanctioned for being 15 minutes late for signing on, having been stuck in traffic.
Ross missed an appointment due to confusion about the location. He went to the wrong office, was told he had no appointment there, contacted his advisor immediately and was told his appointment was elsewhere. Once he arrived he had missed his allotted time.
Tim has been sanctioned for missing appointments and for failing to do the requisite job search. Tim was sleeping rough and has mental health issues and found these requirements too difficult to meet. Soon after he was deemed unfit for work and awarded ESA, being placed in the Support Group.
William was sanctioned for failing to apply for enough jobs. He has borderline learning difficulties, mental ill health and poor computer literacy. A couple of months later William made a successful claim for ESA and was placed in the Support Group
Recommendations include suspending rules until housing is resolved and assessing finances to determine if a sanction is likely to result in homelessness.
The report focussed on punishments for the two main “out of work” benefits: Job Seekers Allowance for people who are fit for work and Employment Support Allowance for those not fit.
Reforms introduced in 2012 by the coalition Government included more targets and increased severity of sanctions. Some claimants can have their benefit withdrawn for up to three years if they do not meet the requirements placed upon them.
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Employment Minister, responding to today’s publication of a new report, commissioned by Crisis, said: “This report is a damning indictment of a broken sanctions regime.
“Instead of dealing with the rising benefits bill, by tackling low pay and building more affordable homes, the Tories introduced a new regime of benefit sanctions which brought a culture of fear into jobcentres, pushing people into extreme hardship and in many cases out onto the streets.
“The Government says that sanctions are supposed to help people into work, but clearly in these cases, where the most vulnerable are being hit hardest, that isn’t what’s happening.”
Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "These are truly shocking findings that should provide a wake-up call to ministers about the damage their benefit cuts and sanctions are doing to people's lives.
"This kind of treatment has no place in a modern employment service and the sanctions regime should be scrapped."
A Government spokeswoman said sanctions are only ever used as a last resort and claimants are given every opportunity to explain why they failed to meet their agreed commitments.
She said: “This report is misleading and has inaccuracies. Homelessness is a highly complex issue, and our priority is to ensure that those individuals affected get the right support.
"That is why the Government has made over £1bn available to prevent and tackle homelessness, and support vulnerable households since 2010.
“We know that the most important thing for homeless people is to get a roof over their head.
"This is why we make allowances, for example we don’t expect them to be looking for work while they are focused on finding living arrangements. This means that it is highly unlikely that any homeless person would be sanctioned.”
A Government source questioned the case studies, suggesting in those circumstances a sanction would have been applied and "snapshots don’t provide the full story".