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Alice Ashworth @ashworthalice Senior Policy Officer

Universal Credit: coming to a jobcentre near you, even if you’re homeless

Just over a month ago the Department for Work and Pensions widened its eligibility criteria for Universal Credit to include homeless people for the first time. In this blog we explore what this means exactly and take stock of how the roll-out is looking so far.

Just to recap, Universal Credit rolls six existing benefits into one and is being gradually rolled out across Great Britain, with the full roll-out expected to be completed by 2021.

Until now most people walking into the jobcentre to open a new claim for benefits have only been put on Universal Credit if their circumstances are straightforward– generally meaning they are single, out of work and don’t have a disability. This is because jobcentres have only been running a reduced version of Universal Credit called the ‘live’ service. Jobcentres have had a whole list of factors meaning that people are put on the old benefits system rather than the ‘live’ service. This includes being homeless.

As of last month, however, a handful of jobcentres around the country have started offering the ‘full’ Universal Credit service. This is the all-singing, all-dancing version of Universal Credit where people manage their claim online. Unlike the ‘live’ service, this is open to all people making a new claim for benefits, regardless of their family status, disability– or whether or not they are homeless. The list of jobcentres offering the full service is here, along with the timetable for the next phase of the national roll-out.

So what does this mean for homeless people? Well, while there has been much public scrutiny and criticism of Universal Credit, much of this has focused on the chronic delays to its implementation. Crisis has always been broadly supportive of the principles of the project– simplifying the benefit system and making sure people are better off if they move into work.

That said, we do have longstanding concerns about some of the details of Universal Credit. One of these is the fact that Universal Credit is paid in one monthly payment, including any funds intended to cover housing costs. We have long been concerned that this may lead to people with a history of homelessness racking up rent arrears once they secure accommodation. Under the old benefits system social tenants have always had their housing benefit paid directly to their landlords and mechanisms have been in place to enable direct payments to private landlords.

The good news is that measures are in place to allow this under Universal Credit. They’re called Alternative Payment Arrangements and allow direct payment to social and private landlords of funds intended to help with housing costs, as well as fortnightly payments where needed. They’re not intended to be the norm, but guidance for DWP staff makes clear that people who are homeless, or have a history of homelessness, should probably have these arrangements put in place. So far, so good.

It’s frustrating, then, that the availability of these measures has been so poorly publicised. So poorly, in fact, that a recent report from the National Federation of ALMOs and the Association of Retained Council Housing found that almost four in five tenants in receipt of Universal Credit were in rent arrears, compared to less than one third of tenants overall.

We’ve outlined in more detail how Alternative Payment Arrangements work– as well as all sorts of other details about Universal Credit– in a new Frequently Asked Questions briefing. Please share this with your networks, so we can spread the word about the support available to vulnerable claimants as the full service rolls out across the country.