Why don’t we just… Listen to Ken Loach?

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Filmmaker Ken Loach is about to finish his film I, Daniel Blake, based on people’s experiences of the benefit system and sanctions. He described the current system as “one of conscious cruelty…bear[ing] down on those least able to bear it”.

Based on our research with homelessness charity Crisis over the past year, I am very inclined to agree with him.

In 1966, Loach’s film Cathy Come Home brought the problem of homelessness to the public consciousness, dislodging stereotyped assumptions about homeless people.

For the past year, I’ve led a team at Sheffield Hallam University researching the experience of benefit sanctions amongst homeless people. The results have greatly concerned us.

Since 2012 claimants can have their benefits withdrawn for up to three years if they fail to meet stringent conditions.

The policy is justified on the basis that no-one should get “something for nothing”, and is premised on unfounded, stereotyped notions of benefit claimants as willingly welfare dependent, unwilling and unmotivated to seek work.

There has been growing concern about the impact of this regime on homeless and other vulnerable claimants, with anecdotal evidence of unrealistic conditions, unfair sanctions and dire consequences for those affected. So Crisis commissioned the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to
research it.

From a survey of more than 1,000 homeless people in 21 cities, along with 42 in-depth interviews, the report we produced provides detailed accounts of people being forced to sleep on the street, coping with severe hunger and going without heating in winter. Our respondents were at least twice as likely to be sanctioned as the total claimant population – 39 per cent had their benefit withdrawn at least once in the past year.

Where people had been sanctioned, 21 per cent reported becoming homeless as a result, nearly eight out of 10 had gone hungry or skipped meals, three-quarters said it negatively affected their mental health and 60 per cent found it harder to look for work. Many were relying on food banks and charities to survive.

Virtually everyone interviewed had done all they could to meet their conditions. But they were sanctioned nevertheless, hampered by a system that places unrealistic demands upon them, fails to recognise their circumstances and vulnerabilities, and practices little discretion or flexibility.

Take Adam, sanctioned for failing to do the requisite job searching. He was seeking work but doing so by delivering CVs in person. Adam is not IT proficient but his claimant commitment specified he must job search online only. Or Ja, sanctioned twice for failing to attend appointments for which he had received no notification.

Maggie was sanctioned because she missed an appointment. She had moved following an arson attack on her previous home that left her homeless. She informed the Job Centre, but the letter was sent to her previous address. There is a very stark contrast between the founding principles of the welfare state and the fact that it withdraws crucial protection from significant numbers of the poorest people at a time of crisis.

My concern is that this punitive approach to welfare will transform the nature of poverty in the 21st century, pushing people out of state support and into destitution. And this was certainly the reality for many of the homeless people who participated in our

Dr Kesia Reeve is senior research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research and has been researching homelessness for more than 15 years. She interviewed more than 1,000 homeless people from 21 cities as part of a year-long programme on behalf of Crisis. For more from Sheffield Hallam, go to shu.ac.uk/mediacentre

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