Rising homelessness risk for families facing benefits cap

Public service cuts, welfare reform and rising living costs signal a ‘social storm’ in Haringey, warns Joe Penny.

It’s a cold and wet morning, and about 50 people are queuing along the street. Sharing umbrellas and pulling up their hoods to shelter from the elements, they’re not waiting for the launch of Apple’s new phone; nor are they hoping to get their hands on tickets for that must-see show. They are queuing for legal advice at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Turnpike Lane. Many of them have been here since 6.30am. 

Demand for legal advice at this centre in Haringey has risen steeply over the past two years and has now started to outstrip the centre’s capacity. In September the centre saw to the needs of 347 people, while having to turn away more than 250. They are struggling to meet 60 per cent of the demand at their doors, not to mention the hundreds who stay at home suffering in silence. 

As bad as the situation is, CAB staff told us they are braced for worse to come. Welfare reform has yet to take full effect, with the majority of changes scheduled for April 2013. The benefit cap and other changes to housing benefits in particular are likely to cause significant issues in Haringey – an area that has long suffered from homelessness, overcrowding and unaffordable house prices.

More than 1,300 local families are predicted to be affected by the £500 per week benefits cap. A modest three-bedroom house in Tottenham, valued within the 30th percentile of local rents, will set you back around £300 per week, leaving families with three children £200 per week to live off – £200 to cover food, clothing, heating, electricity, water and transport for five people. 

Given that the Government’s own estimations for how much money a family of this size will need is around £330 per week, the choices for these families will be stark: either pay your rent and go hungry, or eat and lose your home. For those with more than three children the situation is even worse.

In an area where rent arrears are already rising and where 24 people in every 1,000 received repossession orders in 2011 (the second highest level in London), the likelihood of rising homelessness is very real. Indeed, over 800 young single people relying on housing benefits are set to lose up to £80 per week in support as the age threshold for shared room rate is raised to 35 years. Local supply of shared dwellings is woefully short of demand (suggestions put it at around 20 per cent of demand), so hundreds of young people are at risk of a future sofa surfing or sleeping rough.  

These are just some of the issues that staff at Haringey’s Citizens Advice are worried about. Worsening mental health and rising levels of debt, fuel poverty and hunger are all occurring with alarming regularity. 

It is at places such as Citizens Advice where the warning alarms are first sounded. They are, as the chair of Haringey CAB puts it, ‘the social weather vane’ of an area. 

With public services being cut back more each year, welfare reform in motion and living costs spiralling upwards, all the signs point to a social storm of unprecedented proportions.

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