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Housing

Universal Credit benefit cap left Londoner ‘surviving on £0’

Saci Kumara Nimai Das was left on the brink of homelessness for the second time in his life after losing his office job in August 2020

Londoner Saci Kumara Nimai Das slept rough at Heathrow Airport six years ago until he was rehoused as part of Sadiq Khan’s No Second Night Out scheme. He never thought he would be facing homelessness again – until the Covid-19 pandemic came along.

The former Hare Krishna monk, 57, lost his job as an office manager for personal growth development company Landmark Worldwide in August last year after spending five months on the furlough scheme.

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But when Das, from Kensal Green, north-west London, joined six million others in applying for Universal Credit during the pandemic he was stunned to find he would be living on £0 a month from November to January.

Das told The Big Issue: “I called them up when I read £0 and asked them if there had been a mistake and they told me: ‘No, you have been benefit capped’.

“I must have called back two or three times to ask if it was a mistake. How am I supposed to survive on zero? That’s when I got that something wasn’t working.”

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After receiving an initial payment of £300 in October, Das found out he had fallen foul of the benefit cap in November when his statement read £0.

The benefit cap limits the total amount of benefits a claimant can receive. And because Das’ monthly rent on his studio flat was £1,200 all of his Universal Credit allowance went straight to his landlord, leaving him with nothing to live on.

“I thought ‘I’m going to have to move out, I cannot afford to stay where I am’,” said Das. “I thought that if I could get a cheaper place and all the money won’t go to the landlord then I would be able to afford my personal living expenses.

“It was then I contacted Shelter and that was a challenge. I guess there was a stigma attached to it – I’m not really a homeless person in the traditional sense.

“Christmas was challenging as I didn’t have any funds available. I got to experience what it’s like to queue at a food bank. I, thank god, had some savings because I had been working. I don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t for that.”

Das contacted Shelter for support in December after being left with “the challenge” of surviving over the Christmas period on dwindling funds.

Shelter solicitors uncovered that Das was eligible for the benefit cap grace period as he had applied for Universal Credit when he had stopped working. The grace period means the benefit cap is not applied to Das’ account for nine months – but had been applied to his account initially.

Shelter was able to point out the “administrative error”, according to Das, and the benefit cap was overturned. The Department of Work and Pensions paid £1,300 in payments backdated to October last year.

I tried to work it out myself, but I really don’t see how that would have happened

Shelter also helped Das write to Brent Council for support under the Homelessness Reduction Act.

The two vital steps have saved Das from being forced from his home and out on to the streets once more.

Now, he has been able to secure a new rental property with the help of Brent Council’s Single Homeless Prevention Service and will start a new job as an Amazon delivery driver next week, comfortably before the benefit cap grace period is due to end in July.

But Das is all too aware that others in his position are facing homelessness – new Shelter research warned as many as six million people in England fear being forced out of their homes through no fault of their own due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He added: “It’s been an amazing journey – I would not have thought of myself as a homeless person in that time but Shelter do help people in different situations. A lot of people would have been unaware of the benefit cap and that it was not applicable.

“I tried to work it out myself, but I really don’t see how that would have happened. I would say that even if you think you aren’t eligible for support, reach out to Shelter and other organisations because you never know how they may be able to help you.”

Shelter has answered double the amount of phone calls on its helpline – Lives on the Line – during the pandemic with two-thirds of calls from people who are already homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The charity is appealing for the public’s support to help them meet rising demand as Covid-19’s economic impact continues to affect jobs and incomes.

The charity is a member of The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance to protect jobs and prevent rising homelessness following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Through our helpline we have seen just how scared people are about their homes and their futures. People’s lives are literally on the line. They are desperately struggling, and the threat of homelessness is very real,” said Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter.

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