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Homeless hostels and the jobless trap

The Big Issue investigates the absurd Catch-22 that means a move into work can cause even more problems...

A hostel for the homeless


The success of The Big Issue is built upon the idea anyone, given a fair chance, can work his or her way out of poverty. It’s the ethos behind the motto, ‘A hand up, not a hand-out’. Yet many of the tens of thousands of people stuck in Britain’s emergency hostels feel they have precious little chance to work their way out and move forward in life.

Last week we investigated the costly hostel system, mostly run by charities and housing associations, and looked at why so many Big Issue vendors found them unhelpful places to address their problems.

One vendor, Paul Jones, told us he preferred to spend his daily earnings on a private backpackers’ hostel, £17.50 a night, rather than sleep any longer at the “chaotic” night shelter hostel run by a charity.

I sent my first payslip off to the council, and they stopped my housing benefit very quickly – they cut me off straight away

This week, we uncover the problems homeless people have in trying to move on from the hostel scene, even once they have managed to find full-time work. Most of the difficulties happen because of a frustrating inflexibility with housing benefit.

Jason Petch spent almost six months in a Salvation Army hostel in Hull after splitting up with his partner. Like most supported-accommodation providers, the charity claimed housing benefit on Jason’s behalf – £866 a month. Jason managed to find work while living in the hostel, earning £235 a week as a service engineer for a vacuum cleaning company. But the job meant his housing benefit claim stopped, making him immediately liable for paying his own rent at the hostel.

“I sent my first payslip off to the council, and they stopped my housing benefit very quickly – they cut me off straight away,” he explains. “When I explained to the staff at the hostel, they said to me, ‘Well, you need to pay for your full month here or you’ll be evicted.’” Although Jason has since moved on from the hostel and found a one-bedroom house with a housing association – and has found work as a counsellor – he is left puzzled by the rigid nature of housing benefit claims.

It is a system, he thinks, that incentivises people to remain jobless. Having written to the Salvation Army about the lack of understanding at this critical transitional period, Jason had his complaint upheld and received a letter from the manager saying lessons would be learned when ‘service users are actively seeking employment’.

“People living in our Lifehouses who aren’t employed will have their full rent paid through housing benefit; once they start working their entitlement to housing benefit will reduce as their earnings increase,” a Salvation Army spokesperson explained. “The Salvation Army recognises that living in supported housing can be expensive for people in employment and may not actually be the most suitable option.”

In practice, the removal of housing benefit need not be as sudden as it was for Jason but the system remains fairly crude. If you get a job and stop getting employment support benefits, you might be entitled to carry on getting housing benefit for only another four weeks – a so-called ‘extended payment’. Other supported accommodation providers told us about the training and employability schemes they run to encourage people to find work. St Mungo’s offers the London STRIVE programme to help residents address barriers to employment, as well as the Recovery College – free weekly courses.

Work can be the best long-term route out of homelessness

Beatrice Orchard, head of policy, campaigns and research at St Mungo’s, says the transition into work “can be a challenge because work can cause changes to people’s housing benefit claim”. She adds: “But we try to help people through that, and ultimately try to encourage clients to see a sustainable route out of homelessness.

“There is a perception that working can leave you worse off, which is sometimes just a perception rather than the reality,” says Orchard. “But if people can get through the transition, financially, then work can be the best long-term route out of homelessness.”

The Big Issue also believes in the power of work as a route out of homelessness. We will continue to look at problems in the supported accommodation system and highlight forward-thinking ideas and solutions.

Have you found yourself stuck in the supported housing system? Have you been employed in the sector and know what works, and what doesn’t? The Big Issue wants to hear about it. Contact Adam Forrest or @BigIssue

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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