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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.