Chapter 5: Poverty and homelessness (Martin Vye)
SDG Target 1. 2: By 2030 reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions
SDG Target 2.1: By 2030 end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round
SDG Target 4.4: By 2030 substantially increase the number of youths and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and employment
SDG Target 11.1: By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe, and affordable housing and basic services, and up-grade slums
A significant number of children in Canterbury live in poverty
beautiful natural setting. However, many, too many, of our residents live in poverty. Figures published since the first ‘Residents’ Vision’ show that a significant percentage of children in the wards of Northgate, Barton, Wincheap and St Stephens live in households whose income is below 60 percent of the median income for households. This means that by the government’s own classification they are in poverty. Before housing costs are taken into account 25 percent of children in Northgate, 21 percent in St Stephens,18 percent in Barton, and 16 percent in Wincheap are recognized as suffering from poverty.
In July 2018 there were 1,295 people unemployed and claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the district, 1.2 percent of the workforce. This is a relatively low figure. However, one reason that so many children are in households with incomes below the poverty level is that there are many people in work, but not earning enough to cover basic needs. Many are on zero-hour contracts, or in intermittent employment. Too many entrants to employment in Canterbury have insufficient basic skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and cannot progress beyond the bottom of the job market. Poverty is also a problem for those who cannot take a paid job because they are lone parents. In effect, they are already in work, albeit unpaid. Lone parents are now penalized when a child becomes 3 if they do not take a paid job.
The state benefit system is not solving the problem of poverty
Over the years a wide range of state benefits has been created, to cover a variety of needs: Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Income Support, etc. Working Tax Credit has been added to this list, in recognition of the fact that many jobs in our present economy do not pay a ‘living wage’. These benefits are now being combined into the new Universal Credit, rolled out in Canterbury in July 2018. However, for many people this safety net does not work. In 2013 a cap on the total amount of benefit households can claim was imposed. One of the reasons given for this was that ‘thousands of claimants’ can claim large sums ‘to live in large houses in expensive areas’. The problem is that many families need at least three bedrooms, if not more, and if they have to rent in the private sector in a place like Canterbury then the cost they face will be high.
In addition, the regulations relating to claims have been increased and tightened; and the use of ‘sanctions’, refusal of benefits, has become much more common. The new Universal Credit tightens the system even more, with the six-week delay before benefits are paid, and the ‘two-child’ limit which financially penalizes families with three or more children.
Housing costs are a major factor contributing to poverty in Canterbury
Changes in benefits have increased pressure on the budgets of many families, to the point where something gives way. The high level of housing costs in Canterbury makes this pressure worse. The City Council’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy states: “Canterbury District remains one of the most expensive districts to rent or buy in East Kent. It is estimated that, based on typical household incomes, between 35 and 45% of overall households are unable to rent even the cheapest market housing.” There is social housing, provided by the City Council and Housing Associations. However, over the past four years just 47 dwellings have been converted into social dwellings. A further 61 are being converted. The Council’s housing officers are planning for 167 more by the end of 2021/22 –but because East Kent Housing had not accurately surveyed council-owned properties, there is an urgent need to inject millions of pounds into maintenance and repairs, and these properties will be let at ’affordable’ rents, higher than the social rents normally charged for council dwellings. Yet there is still a waiting list of 1,982 households for social housing. The consequence is that many families have to turn to the private rented sector.
The growth of demand for student accommodation has pushed rents up to a high level, making it difficult for these families to make ends meet. The effect of this on the levels of poverty can be seen from the following figures. Thus, if housing costs to households are taken into account, then the percentage of children in Northgate Ward recognized as being in poverty goes up from 25 to 40 per cent, in St Stephens from 21 to 33 per cent, in Barton from 18 to 29 per cent, and in Wincheap from 16 to 26 per cent.
Poverty leads to debt, and homelessness
Families often have to decide which bill to pay and which not. This results in rising levels of debt. There is also the ‘inconvenient truth’ that many people lack the capacity, whether to find a way into work, or to navigate the complex benefits system, or to manage a budget. Some people are not aware of their liabilities (for example, to pay for water). These are issues CAP (Christians Against Poverty) is working on. In many cases this incapacity is a result of poor mental health.
Many parents/carers have to resort to the Food Bank. Nearly 3,400 food parcels were given out by the Canterbury Food Bank in the year to 31st July 2018, and 80 per cent of recipients were families with children.
Case studies provided by the Canterbury Housing Advice Centre show people at risk of being evicted, by social as well as private landlords, with the consequent risk of homelessness, because of mounting rent arrears (see Case Studies One and Two). The Centre, and Canterbury Citizens’ Advice Bureau, do excellent work in providing advice to tenants in extremity, and in helping them to access benefits to which they are entitled. If homelessness is to be abolished by 2027 there will need to be much closer collaboration between East Kent Housing (the City Council’s social housing provider), the East Kent Revenue Services (who manage Housing Benefit) and the department for Work and Pensions. The task of preventing families from becoming homeless should not be left just to the excellent not-for-profit organisations, which anyway are suffering from austerity. Terry Gore, general manager of the Catching Lives charity, which concerns itself with homeless people, believes that the situation is actually going to get worse. “People are starting to have to choose between living and paying the rent. As gaps get bigger, you will see families rough-sleeping. We will see American-style rough-sleeping.” In one night between October 2018 and March 2019 33 people were counted rough-sleeping in Canterbury. However, night shelters are open in these winter months, therefore the overall figure of homeless people is greater. Catching Lives says that the main reason for homelessness in Canterbury is now eviction at the end of tenancy. In 2018/19 1,846 households made an approach to the Council regarding homelessness. In 2019 the number of households put into temporary accommodation in Canterbury was 133, of which 107 were outside the district.
Case study (1) – ‘Jane’
Jane, now at university, comes from a poor background on a London estate. She remembers school as a ‘place of chaos and uncertainty’. At 12 she was separated from her blood family and put into foster care. At 15 foster care ceased, and she was put into a house shared with others of the same age, having to deal with ‘independent living’, with a weekly allowance. She was given no guidance and no encouragement for the future.
She wanted to make more of her life than many from her background who went down the path of drugs and depression. However, lack of knowledge and contacts led her twice into dangerous accommodation. In one flat she and her partner and baby all suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, and the gas company took two weeks to investigate. In another flat she was forced out one day with no notice by a potentially violent landlord and his accomplices.
In both cases by leaving the accommodation she was deemed by the local authority that she had made herself ‘intentionally homeless’. That meant that they would not be rehoused, and that consequently their child would be put into care. Fortunately a good local councillor took up her case. The family was rehoused and their child stayed with them.
Jane is an intelligent young woman, determined to fight. However, if it had not been for making the right contact at the right time, the worst could have happened.
(Source: personal interview)
Poverty is transmitted to the next generation
Poverty means poor nutrition for children. The stress of poverty can lead to relationship problems, to domestic abuse, and to break-up of families: all of this creates a poor environment for children to grow up in, and affects their ability to learn at school. In this way the conditions for transmitting poverty to the next generation are strengthened.
In the 19th century civic societies were established to eradicate the blight that widespread poverty was causing to their cities. In the 21st century poverty in Canterbury is much more out of view. It nevertheless exists, and blights the lives of many. We in the Canterbury Society believe that ‘A Residents’ Vision of Canterbury’ must have regard to the needs of residents who suffer from it.
Case study (2) – ‘MS.D’
Ms D was a single parent with 4 children under 16. She found it difficult to pay the rent on her council house, and got into difficulties with arrears mounting. She began paying off the arrears at £20 per week, and brought down the arrears from £1300 to just over £600. However, the housing benefit to which she was entitled, and which was enabling her to bring down the debt, ended. Her cash-in-hand job ended when her employer went bankrupt, but because he could not provide a P45 or payslips, she was refused housing benefit. Her rent arrears began increasing, and East Kent Housing (the City Council’s housing agency) went to court to request permission to evict.
She went to Canterbury Housing Advice Centre for help. They went to East Kent Services, which provides Housing Benefit on behalf of the City Council, and managed to negotiate backdated Housing Benefit to which CHAC proved she was entitled.
CHAC then approached East Kent Housing, saying that Ms D. would be receiving this money, which would pay off more than half of the outstanding arrears, and that Ms D. would be paying back a regular amount each week after that. However, despite this and the fact that Ms D. had four children under 16, East Kent Housing sent a barrister to court to request that the judge agree to eviction. CHAC went to court on Ms. D.’s behalf. Fortunately the judge ruled in favour of Ms. D. thus preventing a family from becoming homeless.
(Source: Canterbury Housing Advice Centre website)
- By 2025 the City Council, in partnership with housing associations, should ensure the building of 1000 homes for letting at social rent.
- The new City Council Homelessness officers should ensure that all tenants at risk of eviction because of rent arrears have access to the benefits to which they are entitled.
- The City council, through its community grants programme, should make it possible for not-for-profit organisations such as the Canterbury Housing Advice Centre, the Citizens Advice Bureau, Porchlight, Catching Lives and others, to increase their caseload capacity by 10% year-on-year.
- Canterbury Lettings, set up by the City Council to broker tenancies at an affordable rent between private landlords and people on benefit, should be strengthened and developed by the City Council, and an annual report on its achievement should be made public.
- Use of the Kent Credit Union by people in financial difficulty should increase year-on–year, and the use of commercial lenders charging high rates of interest decrease.
- The County Council should commit to at least maintaining the current budget of the Kent Support and Assistance Service, for emergency help to people suffering from destitution.
- After all inspections between now and 2030 all schools in Canterbury should be judged ‘Good’ by OfSTEd regarding the progress and attainment of children and young people eligible for the Pupil Premium.
- The City Council, KCC, BID, the Canterbury Society, the Marlowe Theatre, the cathedral, the universities, schools and faith organisations should work together to make the idea of ‘One City’ a reality by opening up the wealth of cultural provision in Canterbury to children in households in poverty.