As a social worker, I know that welfare sanctions trap homeless people in a circle of poverty

Welfare sanctions don’t ‘motivate’ homeless people - they grind them down as a message to the rest of us.

A million families at risk of becoming homeless in next three years, according to new research from Shelter. Aneurin Jones discusses his experience working within the system. 

I work in a homeless day centre. Every day, I see the benefits system grind people down. And I know that punishment by the state only acts to exacerbate the problems faced by those without a place to live.

In 2011, David Cameron gave a speech in which he attempted to blame Britain’s welfare system for what he identified as the ills of the country:

“For years, we’ve had a system that encourages the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work … above all, that drains responsibility away from people.”

Welfare, once seen as a social and moral effort to provide destitute people with the most basic material well-being, had become a dirty word.

Now, with conditions placed on access to it, welfare has become a tool used to mould people’s behaviour, as anyone who has seen the film I, Daniel Blake will know. People are offered the very minimum in terms of subsistence in return for being a good citizen; they are severely punished when they fail to jump through these hoops.

Homeless people, with whom I work, are at the worst end of this treatment by the state. They are twice as likely to be sanctioned than other welfare recipients; 39 per cent of homeless people will experience this punishment at some point.

The aim of sanctions, according to the Department for Work and Pensions is to ‘motivate claimants to take the necessary action to find work’. However, in the case of the homeless these sanctions often have the opposite effect.

Yet rather than giving people the ‘kick’ needed to pursue employment, a 2015 Crisis report found that the hardship created by sanctions, as any thoughtful person might guess, makes it more difficult to travel to interviews, buy suitable clothes and can lead to people losing places in hostels and shelters, making finding employment yet more difficult.

Working in a homeless day centre, I see peoples’ daily battles with the DWP’s stringent conditions for receiving welfare – they’re given no leniency for the fact that they’re homeless.

Chaotic lifestyles and a lack of permanent address mean key paperwork is often lost or simply never received. One man even told me he was sanctioned for missing an appointment whilst receiving treatment in hospital.

People become embroiled in a seemingly never-ending fight to prove they are either looking for work or can’t work due to medical reasons. There is a constant queue for the phone to ring the DWP, with conversations rarely ending well.

The stress and despair of negotiating the system only serves to exacerbate underlying issues: mental health conditions, drug abuse and alcoholism.

In her book Hand to Mouth Linda Tirado argues that poverty ‘cuts off your ‘long-term brain’’, removing your capacity to plan and hope for a future because ‘if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken’.

This lack of hope makes short-lived pleasures the only option, intensifying people’s alcoholism or drug addiction. People become reticent to engage with services due to an understandable distrust of authority.

Rather than creating model citizens, the horrible irony is that conditional welfare actually accentuates all the worst characteristics of homelessness.

The only explanation as to why this clearly failing system is allowed to continue can only be ideological. The homeless individual is held responsible for their condition, their bad life choices are to blame. This, of course, is to ignore any number of systemic issues, out of the individual’s power, that lead to homelessness: from the astronomical cost of housing to domestic violence and family break-up.

In a liberal economic and moral system, individualism and individual choices are king. Homeless people are held up as examples of the wrong choices made, their continued presence on the streets a warning to the rest of us to make the correct decisions. Welcome to the 19th century.

Aneurin Jones is a freelance writer and social worker. He tweets here.

2 Responses to “As a social worker, I know that welfare sanctions trap homeless people in a circle of poverty”

  1. Mike Stallard

    Our Church is right into this. The strange thing is that we are very good indeed at sorting out the people who have just been punched, by life, in the face, and those who have just given up and want to see what they can scrounge out of other people.
    I could give a lot of examples, over more than ten years about this. I won’t though.
    Just having a set of comfy chairs where people who have slept rough can have a kip in front of the tele. Just making sure that everyone who needs it is offered a cuppa or a sandwich. And a bed in the nearby Christian hostel.
    All they need to give in return is their Christian name. And usually we can talk to them in their own language too.
    The State? Yup, we get money there too. And from other sources. But the key thing is that we run it.
    I have been on the dole for ten years myself and I know that you can so easily swindle it. You can so easily sink into total dependence too. With a very few notable exceptions, it does not care. You are just an NI number. In our Church you are your Christian name.

  2. Chester Draws

    The only explanation as to why this clearly failing system is allowed to continue can only be ideological.

    Or cost. You never mention that these things have to be paid for.

    That’s why every country, of every ideology, struggles to avoid the homeless and the destitute. It’s not like the Socialist and Communist attempts worked any better at alleviating poverty — they just kept them destitute in “jobs” that weren’t needed (and weren’t valued).

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