Benefits to society: Homeless young people's experiences of the social security system

What you need to know:

  • This peer-led research project found that benefit rates for young people living independently are too low, with young people near-constantly struggling to meet essential living costs.
  • Complicated benefits rules for people in supported accommodation can make accessing work even more difficult and in some cases leave young people worse off after increasing their earnings or taking on more hours.
  • Recommendations include introducing a new Youth Independence Payment, removing the five week wait for first payment, budgeting support and advice for Under-25s, and more.

The social security system is a vital lifeline for thousands of young people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage across the UK. It provides the resources needed to cover living and housing costs, and supports young people to find and sustain work, education and training needed to become financially independent.

However, this peer-led research project into the benefits system from Centrepoint and funded by Trust for London finds that in many areas, the system is falling short of providing the support and resources that young people need.

Key findings

  • Benefit rates for young people living independently are too low. This research found evidence of serious hardship and of young people near-constantly struggling to meet essential living costs. This in turn damages young people’s health and wellbeing, impacts their ability to access employment, education and training, and can put them at risk of exploitation and abuse.
    - Fewer than one in three (31 per cent) of survey respondents who had been or were being supported by social services (n=55) thought that the money they received through the benefits system was enough to get by on.
    - A third (33 per cent) had had to use a food bank or food parcel while receiving benefits.
    - 34 per cent of survey respondents reported doing something they weren’t comfortable with or could put them at risk due to low benefit rates – more than a quarter have done this more than once.
  • Many young people going through homelessness struggle with the initial claims process, and it can still be extremely difficult for young people and staff to contact the Jobcentre Plus or DWP directly about a claim.
  • Young people interacting with the social security system need better access to budgeting support and help with money management, particularly as standard monthly assessment periods leave young people struggling to make their money last.
  • The five week wait for a first Universal Credit payment creates major difficulties for young people, who do not have savings or support to fall back on. Advance Payments mean young people start their claims in debt, and have to survive on even smaller monthly payments.
    - Of the 215 young people surveyed as part of this research, almost half (48 per cent) report having had to take out an advance or loan from the Jobcentre Plus in order to get by.
  • Complicated benefits rules for people in supported accommodation can make accessing work even more difficult and in some cases leave young people worse off after increasing their earnings or taking on more hours.
    - Almost half the young people in our survey (48 per cent) reported that they felt they had had to turn down a job or more hours due to the impact this would have on their benefits.
  • Benefit sanctions push vulnerable young people into even further hardship and can lead them to fully disengage from support.
    - More than one in four (26 per cent) of young people surveyed reported having been sanctioned at least once.
    - Only one in ten (10 per cent) of young people thought sanctions were helpful in encouraging young people to find work.
  • Young people value the support and assistance available from the Jobcentre Plus, but this needs to be tailored to those facing the greatest disadvantages, such as homelessness and mental health challenges.
  • Recent measures to support young people into jobs are greatly welcomed, but need to be sustained in the long term and flexible enough to support the most disadvantaged young people.
  • The stigma around social security and claiming benefits can be damaging to young peoples’ wellbeing and prevent them from accessing support they may be entitled to.

Key recommendations

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should:

  1. Introduce a new Youth Independence Payment of £15.58 per week for young people living independently without family support. This would raise their overall Universal Credit entitlement to the rate that over 25s receive in recognition that they face the same living costs. Annual net impact: -£251m
  2. Remove the five week wait, or provide non-repayable benefits advances to vulnerable young people without access to financial support when they first make a claim. Annual net impact: -£1.1m
  3. Proactively offer all under-25s making a claim for Universal Credit budgeting support and advice, either delivered by the DWP or through partnerships with local providers.
  4. Offer the choice of more regular payments when making an initial UC claim for claimants under 25 identified as vulnerable, rather than leaving claimants having to request this themselves and be subject to a discretionary assessment.
  5. Reinstate work allowances for under 25s living independently to support this group to access work and ease the transition from benefits to paid employment. Annual net impact: +£8.6m
  6. Increase the applicable amount within housing benefit, so that residents in supported and temporary accommodation do not face steep cliff edges when moving into work, and are not disadvantaged compared to those not living in supported accommodation. Annual net impact: +£2.2m
  7. Conduct affordability assessments before applying benefit sanctions to ensure that they do not push vulnerable young people into severe hardship or put them at risk of homelessness, and contact a supporting organisation or key worker where a young person is known to be receiving support. Annual net impact: +£1.8m
  8. Extend the Kickstart scheme for at least another twelve months, and ensure that Kickstart roles are accessible to disadvantaged young people, such as those living in supported accommodation. Total net impact: +£605m
  9. Build on successful pilots and initiatives to roll out training on housing and homelessness for Jobcentre Plus and DWP staff, including Youth Employability Coaches, and utilise youth hubs to provide a range of support services and advice, including on housing and homelessness.
  10. Support a national communications campaign to reduce stigma and tackle misconceptions about the social security system, and help drive a move from the language of ‘welfare’ in favour of a vision of social security as an essential public service.

27 October 2021