Young people experiencing homelessness are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They may have experienced abuse or neglect within the family home. They may be battling poor mental health or addiction. They may be trying to move on from the care system. Universal Credit should be a lifeline for these young people during what is undoubtedly a hugely traumatic time in their lives.
However, the five-week wait between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a payment pushes them into severe hardship before they have taken their first steps to independence. One frustrated Centrepoint resident told me: “The world doesn’t stop, your bills don’t stop, and the bus doesn’t suddenly let you on for free because you’re waiting for your payment.”
The main cause of youth homelessness is family relationship breakdown; two thirds of the young people accommodated by Centrepoint are homeless due to this reason. The factors leading to family relationship breakdown are many and complex, but mean that the young person cannot stay within the family home because it is not safe or possible to do so.
Last year, 103,000 young people in the UK approached their local housing authority because they were homeless or at risk. Some of those young people find themselves at Centrepoint, where we provide accommodation but also the other support that young people may need including health and learning services. One of the first things that a young person needs to do when they arrive in Centrepoint accommodation is access support through the welfare system. For them, Universal Credit is a lifeline.
One of the justifications of the five-week wait has been the notion that people making a new Universal Credit claim are likely to have just left employment, so they will have received their final month’s salary and this can keep them going while they wait for their first payment.
But most homeless young people just aren’t in that position. Many of the young people supported by Centrepoint have never had a job before, they may have only just left school. Some aren’t even 18 yet. They do not have a final pay packet, savings or the financial support of family to support them during the five-week wait. They have no financial safety net at all. For them, the five-week wait is five weeks of destitution, and they face an impossible decision – get into debt or go hungry.
Being homeless already puts you at greater risk of going without food. In our services, 60% of residents surveyed reported that they had skipped meals, slept hungry and eaten less because they couldn’t afford food. Young people frequently have to rely on food donations because they don’t have enough money to eat while waiting for their first payment.
At Centrepoint we have also seen that the five-week wait isn’t always five weeks. For some young people it has been much longer. While DWP’s figures show that the proportion of new claims paid on time and in full is around 76%, we believe that it is the most vulnerable people often with the most complex circumstances who fall within the 24% not paid in full and on time.
We have highlighted the impossible task that homeless young people face in managing during the five-week wait for years now, and we are proud to support the Trussell Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign to abolish it. The government’s response to concerns raised has thus far been that claimants should simply take out an Advance Payment to cover their needs.
But all too often, the debt generated by Advance Payments adds to other debt and deductions which push homeless young people towards breaking point. Young people often fall foul of the complexities of Universal Credit because they just don’t understand what they are expected to do. One resident moved into work for the first time but did not realise he was required to declare this, assuming tax and national insurance payments were the equivalent to declaring income. He got into almost £1,000 of debt which he is now paying back along with Advance Payments from his five-week wait. He told me, “The current system is ridiculous. I haven’t got enough money to live on. I receive another benefit payment, and if it wasn’t for that, I honestly don’t know where I’d be. I would have probably killed myself [by now]. I am trying my best to work. People shouldn’t have to live like this.”
The choice between a five-week wait and mounting debt is damaging lives. It’s time to get rid of it and give people the support they need, when they need it.