Trapped in unemployment
By Steve Barkess, Community Development Coordinator, VOICES
Throughout the UK there are many people who reside in supported housing and may also receive a support element to this to assist their transition to live an independent and fulfilling life. For many, this will mean finding employment, either full or part time, depending on their circumstances. Many housing providers and associations provide intensive support to their customers to help them to develop these new skills; and over the years there have been many work-based programme’s which aim to support people back into education, training and/or employment.
For much of my career I have worked alongside projects of this kind, which are usually aimed at some of the most vulnerable people within our community, many of whom live in supported housing.
So, what is supported housing? The basis of any housing support service is to provide support to people with a variety of needs. Within my own experiences this has focused on multiple and complex needs such as homelessness, addiction, mental ill health and those within the criminal justice system. Not only will support be provided to access appropriate services, but often resettlement or supported housing services will work towards training and employment, which is commonly linked to contractual funding obligations. The time people are able to stay in supported housing can also vary from one organisation to another, but as a rule this can be provided for up to three years with move on support. Another aspect to consider with supported housing is how this is paid for. Many housing organisations claim housing benefit for individuals they accommodate. As we know, there is currently a cap on housing benefit, for single people this is £350 per month, and for couples it’s £500. In comparison supported housing is paid at a higher rate which can range from £190 – £220 per week, and then a further £40 – £50 can also be claimed for the support element. This higher cost of housing benefit and addition of the support element is to ensure that the right kind of assistance can be provided to meet an individual’s needs.
This type of support has been shown to work well and there have been many recorded successes, however there can be some draw backs to this. For those living in supported housing, that are ready to return to work, a dilemma may be faced. When people move into work whilst still living in supported housing the cost of the support element often falls to them. In theory I fully agree with this. The reality however, is very different. When a person in supported housing finds employment, their housing benefit is reduced to that of a standard tenancy, leaving them having to top this up themselves, and as previously stated this could be anything from £190 – £220 per week. If they also have the support element with this which is £40 – £50 per week this means a weekly charge would be at least £230 per week.
Let’s look at the numbers. Minimum wage for adults over 25 is £7.83 per hour. If a person works a standard 37 ½ hour working week their annual wage would be £15,268.24 before tax and deductions. After the rent is paid at the supported housing rate the cost to the person is £9,880 per annum. Their annual gas costs will be £392, electricity £403, water £385 and council tax assuming they are in the lowest tax bracket around £1000 per year, depending on the local authority. After all these deductions a person may be estimated to be left with £4,108.24. Sounds ok so far? Let’s look at other essentials. Let’s assume that a person spends £20 per week on travel, annually this would be £1040 and £25 a week on food which annually is £1,300. Then deduct this from what’s remaining and a person is left with £1,768.24. OK so this still doesn’t look so bad. Remember we haven’t accounted for telephone communication, internet, clothing, medical needs or prescriptions, or any existing debts or arrears. Also, let’s remember, my calculations haven’t taken in to account deduction at source such as tax and national insurance, that still must come out.
So, what does this mean? Firstly, we have an affordable housing shortage, so often people in supported housing need to budget using a similar process as the one I have shown above, which is based on a one bedroom flat. Unfortunately, this is something we are desperately short of within Stoke-on-Trent. Secondly, as someone that has worked with people who are living in supported housing I have seen people become trapped as they simply can’t afford to pay what is expected of them.
For me, this highlights an overwhelming issue that can sometimes keep people out of employment. I have found myself in past roles advising people to think carefully before accepting employment because their primary need is to find suitable and affordable housing. It made me think about how this may affect a person. Imagine if you were accessing support and you were told the following…
‘Yes, you are ready for work, you have a lot to offer an employer, however this is going to be difficult to afford. You need to look for a cheaper place to live. You simply can’t afford to maintain where you are at the current rates charged’
Already you can see the catch 22 situation that a person can become trapped in. Then we also must consider how much of a contradiction this becomes to supported housing approaches. On the one hand we are providing the support that a person needs to live independently, then on the other we are de-incentivising them to find work as they simply cannot meet the financial demands placed on them. What message is this sending out to those who have worked extremely hard to overcome a range of barriers and how could this affect a person’s ongoing development? We also need to be aware that historical debt and arrears could further reduce a person’s income. In what circumstances are previous arrears simply written off or otherwise disregarded for the greater good? So, how could we tackle this and how could we be a little more flexible and creative with how we support people to move forward? Could linking with local credit unions be a potential way for people to manage what little money they have? Perhaps by supporting people to gain access to ethical financial services which help people through those significant transitions in their life, such as a move in to work, that can be otherwise unaffordable or tempt people in to the arms of payday lenders or loan sharks? It is time that we looked at ways to empathise with how these expectations are placed on people who are unlikely to be able to draw on the goodwill of supportive friends or the bank of Mum and Dad.
My experience has demonstrated that people do want to move away from supported housing and live independently. The problem is that, while we do have homes and entry level job opportunities available, people in supported accommodation are often locked out of them by financial exclusion that is built in to the structure of the system. It is a structure that exacerbates the fear of change after being offered a job, knowing that you can’t afford to live where you are if you take the job, and the risk of being sanctioned if you refuse it. It is a structure that appears to be designed to serve and protect the interests of the system rather than the people we imagine will benefit.
With universal credit being thrown into the mix this creates more uncertainty as we are yet to fully understand the advantages or disadvantages of a benefit of this kind. I am no expert in this field and my thoughts are based purely on my experiences of working with people directly. It must be added however that there is flexibility for those that are working part time to reduce theses cost and they often fall within permitted work rules, but not everyone will fall into this category. Some need to be working full time. It’s great that we have a minimum wage system in the UK. However, for those that are living in supported accommodation this doesn’t help. I don’t want this to come across as critical, I simply aim to develop discussion and see how this could be adapted in the future. With many families and single people living in various forms of supported housing we need to look at how we can overcome this. Challenge stigma towards people who are unemployed and demonstrate some of the realities that keeps them out of work.
https://www.uswitch.com/water/price-of-water/ average water bills