Housing benefit delays and homelessness

Benefit delays and inaccuracies are contributing to the increase in homelessness. It’s something we’ve been concerned of for a while, and now the Work and Pensions Select Committee has flagged the risk to government.

Government stats show that over the last 5 years there has been a steady growth in the number of households at risk of being made homeless due to problems with a housing benefit claim. This often means a problem in the accuracy and/or timing of the payment, which can lead to rent arrears, the threat of eviction, or debt, such as that owed to pay-day loan companies or family/friends. Families often go without food, and are forced to take a referral to a Foodbank, or go without gas and electricity so they can afford the rent on their homes.

Sadly we hear from people all the time who have been made homeless because of problems with their housing benefit claim, such as Trevor, who told us:

“I lost my privately rented flat a few months after becoming unemployed. I had applied for housing benefit but it still had not been processed. When I asked about it and said I was being forced into homelessness they said if I enquired it would only delay the process. Because I used my savings to pay the rent I do not have any money for a deposit. Consequently I don’t see a way out of homelessness. All my savings were used up and I also had to borrow some in the end so now I have debt as well.”

It’s not inevitable that benefit problems lead to homelessness, and one of the things councils do to try and prevent homelessness is sort out these issues before they escalate. As our graph below highlights, they’ve had to do this more and more over the last 5 years. Sometimes councils can get this problem sorted before a family are evicted, but other times the intervention comes too late.

HB Prevention
Source: DCLG Live Homelessness Tables

Evidence from landlords further highlights the link between housing benefit problems and homelessness. Issues with a housing benefit payment can undermine an on going tenancy, or deter landlords letting to claiming households in the first place. 21% of respondents to our landlord survey who had let to a household in receipt of housing benefit in the last five years had experienced delays in the local authority making a payment, which subsequently affected their tenant’s ability to pay the rent on time.

So why are delays and inaccuracies happening? Our evidence points to a number of different reasons:

Increase in the complexity of cases: while the total housing benefit caseload has generally remained the same over the last 5 years, the types of cases have become more complex due to households moving in and out of employment, or increasing their earnings/hours worked. A growth in self-employment and the use of zero-hour contracts by employers has also added to this complexity.

Welfare reform: the implementation of significant reforms to housing benefit entitlement over the past five years – including the Bedroom Tax, the Benefit Cap and changes to Local Housing Allowance – have added to the complexity of cases and the likelihood of delays and inaccuracies.

Pressures on councils: local authorities are subject to unprecedented funding pressures. As well as housing benefit departments being reduced, many are being outsourced, sometimes out of borough where local knowledge is lost. Furthermore, a move away from face-to-face and telephone contact, to online claims, means some households will find it more difficult to submit a claim or clarify the details required.

In the future, we are concerned that as the rollout of Universal Credit progresses over the next couple of years, the policy of ‘waiting days’ mean that a claimant will have to go without financial support for the first 6 weeks of their claim (excluding certain high-vulnerability groups); this is before delays or inaccuracies with a claim are taken into account.

So how can the government and councils improve things and help prevent homelessness? The Work and Pensions Committee have highlighted a number of our recommendations to the government. There needs to be better joint working between housing benefit and local agencies to prioritise those cases that are at risk of being made homeless. There also needs to be careful consideration of how Universal Credit will impact on homelessness, with greater flexibility around direct payments to landlords and the 6 week ‘waiting days’ for the first payment of benefits. We are also calling for better recording of delays and inaccuracies to gauge the full scale of the problem; improved communications from local authorities between themselves, claimants and landlords; and established aims for reducing inaccuracies.

The government has a graspable opportunity to help lessen the increase in homelessness – we hope they take this opportunity.