The Tory housing benefit cuts will make more young people homeless

A young woman in a Crisis shelter in 2000. Image: Getty.

One morning, when Catherine Geddes was 16, her mother dropped her off at college, informed her that she’d changed all the locks, and told her daughter she would never be allowed to return home.

Catherine, who grew up in Huddersfield, had a volatile family life. Her violent father would drag her up the stairs by the hair, and lock her out of the kitchen. Catherine developed mental health problems and self-harmed. The dysfunction was too much for her mother – who had two younger children – to deal with, and she left her daughter to find a new life for herself.

Now 23 and living independently in a council house near Bradford, Catherine tells me how she relied on claiming housing benefit when she was kicked out of her family home. She moved into a hostel, and her rent was paid directly by the government.

“My housing benefit went to them, you also got a housing worker who would help you with bills, set up your property, make sure you were ok, things like that,” she recalls.

Without this assistance, Catherine says she would have been forced to live on the streets – something that she experienced for two weeks when she was waiting for her accommodation payment to come through. “It’s absolutely harrowing,” she tells me. “And it’s not just that – you just lose all sense of your self-esteem, you just feel useless, you feel like you’re better off dead, you can’t see a way out.”

From Thursday 6 April, the government has removed young people like Catherine’s automatic eligibility to housing benefit. Now, the onus will be on 18 to 21-year-olds to prove that they should be entitled to claim the benefit to a member of staff at the Jobcentre known as a work coach. Otherwise they are expected to carry on living at home.

Homelessness charities such as Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint say that this will lead to a rise in homelessness, as vulnerable young people who can no longer live at home fail to navigate the complicated new system – and private landlords become less likely to let rooms to them.

“People’s lives are complicated; they don’t fit into neat little boxes”

The government expects to save £105m from this cut by 2020. It will affect around 1,000 young people in the first year, and 11,000 in this Parliament as universal credit is fully rolled out. The Department for Work & Pensions has issued a list of exemptions, which are supposed to stop young people in precarious situations from losing out.

But it’s not that simple. The concern is that young people will be unable to “prove” their circumstances to a Jobcentre employee. “Some of the things you might have to disclose are very, very sensitive issues, such as sexual exploitation and things like that – things that people might not want to share with their work coach,” Heather Spurr, a policy officer at Shelter, warns. “As an 18 to 21-year-old, you haven’t matured yet, you might not have the confidence that a 30-year-old might have. People’s lives are complicated; they don’t fit into neat little boxes.”

“Most people don’t want to talk about their personal lives, especially young people,” adds Balbir Chatrik, director of policy and engagement at Centrepoint. “Many don’t want to bad-mouth their parents – they probably don’t want to say if their parents can’t keep them because they haven’t got the finances, or are addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s not very easy to admit.”


Chatrik is concerned that young people will “slip through the net” because they either won’t bother applying, believing they’re not eligible, or they will be unable or too traumatised to prove their vulnerable circumstances.

“It’ll lead to a massive increase in homelessness”

Young people will also be less likely to find alternative housing, due to the new policy creating a “Catch-22” renting situation. You can’t apply to be exempted from the housing benefit cut unless you have a tenancy agreement with your landlord. But any potential landlord is very unlikely to rent to you unless you can prove your funds, ie. unless you can prove that you can claim housing benefit.

“If you imagine the journey this young person’s going to go on – even if they do have an exemption, it's going to be incredibly difficult for them, because there’s this negative feedback loop,” says Spurr.

Also, because of this new system, landlords will simply be less likely to let to young people because they are now less able to claim housing benefit. “It’s really hard for 18-to-21s to be able to rent a place anyway, because landlords would prefer someone who’s in work,” says Chatrik. “Now [the new policy] is having a chilling effect on landlords, and they’ll be even more reluctant to rent to 18-to-21s.”

She warns: “Young people will stay in hostels like ours, and they won’t be able to move on. So you’ll have the equivalent of bed-blocking in hostels.”

As a consequence, the number of young people sleeping rough is expected to rise. “It’ll lead to a massive increase in homelessness,” says Chatrik.

“It risks leaving people with nowhere to go but onto the streets,” adds Spurr. “We’ve been warning that this could lead to an increase in youth rough sleeping. While the exemptions are welcome, if you just give them a read, it is so, so complicated to understand whether you’re exempt or not. It’s incredibly difficult for someone to navigate.”

“Everyone needs stability; why would anyone choose not to have that?”

The policy was announced by the Conservative government in 2015, and was a party manifesto pledge ahead of the general election. The DWP worked with charities to come up with the lengthy list of exemptions, and also narrowed the age range for the restriction (it was originally going to withhold the entitlement from 18 to 24-year-olds).

But Centrepoint calculates that up to as many as 9,000 young people who would once have been protected by the benefit will be “left destitute”. And Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, Anne Baxendale, laments the “sometimes impossible burden of having to prove they can’t go home” that some will now face. “Put simply, many young people will slip through the net and end up on the streets.”

Chatrik believes there is a political rationale to the government hitting 18- to 21-year-olds. “Young people tend not to vote,” she tells me. “They’re a much easier target than all the people who do vote.” She adds that government ministers may not realise why some young people cannot stay with their parents. “They [people working in government] were at home, they could live at home,” she says. “So maybe it’s not as easy for them to see that actually it’s unsafe for some young people to live at home. I suspect not many of them have experienced that.”

Catherine, who now volunteers for various charities and does some work for Centrepoint, feels “absolutely devastated” that teenagers with difficulties like she had will no longer have a guaranteed safety net. “I’m really scared about their future,” she says. “It’s a very young and vulnerable age to be at. A lot of people leaving home or being kicked out are for genuine reasons. You don’t want to be putting yourself in vulnerable situations. Everyone needs stability; why would anyone choose not to have that?

“I cannot understand why this is happening, because we’re the next generation. We are going to be the next generation of workers, of parents, of everything. To give out that message that we’re not even worth having a house – people are going to lose faith in the political system.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at our sister site the New Statesman, where this was originally published.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”