Our Guide to Helping Rough Sleepers this Summer

As our winter guide for helping rough sleepers in cold weather was so popular, we thought we’d put out a summer version. Heatwaves and hot weather can be very dangerous for people on the streets, so it’s important to be aware of the risks. Here you’ll find some practical ways you can help.

The Dangers of Rough Sleeping

We all know rough sleeping is dangerous and bad for a person’s health. There are risks all year round, but during particularly hot months it is even more crucial to look out for those who are unable to find safe accommodation.

Helping Rough Sleepers

It’s important to remember that even though the government has asked for all rough sleepers to be accommodated during the pandemic, many people are still sleeping rough and new people become homeless every day.


The most important thing to remember, year round, is that rough sleepers can be referred to Streetlink, through their free app or over the phone on 0300 500 0914. This will trigger an alert to local outreach services to go and offer support. Do not assume that someone is already engaging with services. Do not assume that homeless people want to be homeless.

Small Gestures

For those who have access to clean drinking water, it may not occur to them to look out for homeless people who cannot access water as easily. With day centres closed, water fountains turned off for public health reasons, and fewer shops open due to Covid-19, this is more of a problem than ever.

During this pandemic it is crucial that you check that a homeless person is comfortable with being handed water or food before you buy it for them. Respect social distancing as you would with anyone. Some shops will also let you ‘pay ahead’ and allow the homeless person to collect what you have bought for them afterwards, so do check if this is a good solution for you.

Buying someone a bottle of water can make a huge difference, especially on a hot day. Sun hats and sun cream can also protect someone from potentially very dangerous health risks such as heat stroke (see below).

Have a chat

All year round, rough sleepers struggle with loneliness and feelings of being ignored, so a chat (at a safe distance) can make all the difference. In times of extreme weather conditions such as a heatwave, this can be even more important as a rough sleeper’s usual support network may be disrupted and services are less able to keep in touch. This is damaging to mental and physical health – not only does loneliness make many mental health problems more of a struggle, but also regular contact with others is a way of making sure someone’s physical health is ok. If they seem confused and disoriented, it could be a sign of overdose, heat stroke, or severe dehydration, so checking in for a quick chat could help someone avoid a serious health emergency.

Health and First Aid

On that note, this is a brief guide to just a couple of the health risks to rough sleepers in hot weather that might help you recognise if someone needs urgent healthcare assistance. All information is from the NHS website (linked in subheadings).


Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be very difficult for rough sleepers to access drinking water. Also, they may be out in the sun with no shelter for long hours of the day, often without adequate protection. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from alcohol and drug addiction which can cause further dehydration.

Spotting a case of serious dehydration could save someone’s life, or protect them from further health issues. According to the NHS, the main symptoms of dehydration are:

  • feeling thirsty
  • dark yellow and strong-smelling pee
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • feeling tired
  • a dry mouth, lips and eyes
  • peeing little, and fewer than 4 times a day

Members of the public often ignore a homeless person who is lying on the ground, but stopping briefly to check if someone is alright could make a massive difference. If you are able to, and someone seems mildly dehydrated, you could buy them a bottle of water or food with a high water content. You could also have a conversation with them to see if they seem confused or are struggling to stay conscious.

Call an ambulance for someone if:

  • they are feeling unusually tired
  • they are confused and disorientated
  • dizziness doesn’t go away
  • they have not peed all day
  • their pulse is weak or rapid
  • they have fits (seizures)

These can be signs of serious dehydration that need urgent treatment.

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion is usually not too serious if someone can be cooled down in 30 minutes. If it becomes heatstroke, they need to seek urgent medical attention.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • a headache
  • dizziness and confusion
  • loss of appetite and feeling sick
  • excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
  • cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
  • fast breathing or pulse
  • temperature of 38C or above
  • being very thirsty

To cool someone down, follow these 4 steps:

  1. Move them to a cool place.
  2. Get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly.
  3. Get them to drink plenty of water. Sports or rehydration drinks are OK.
  4. Cool their skin – spray or sponge them with cool water and fan them. Cold packs around the armpits or neck are good, too.

Stay with them until they’re better. If you manage all these, they should feel better in 30 mins. If they don’t, seek urgent medical help (call 999). Other symptoms that mean you should call 999 are:

  • feeling unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water
  • not sweating even though too hot
  • a temperature of 40C or above
  • fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • feeling confused
  • a fit (seizure)
  • loss of consciousness
  • not responsive

What else can I do?

There are a number of things you can do to help rough sleepers more generally:

  1. Support local charities. If you can, give money, donations of clothing or food, support local food banks. If you can’t afford to donate, do you have any time you could offer? Could you share their fundraising information online for others?
  2. Download the Streetlink App on your phone so you can easily report a rough sleeper and get an outreach worker to contact them.
  3. Write to your MP. At this particular moment, this is crucial. We need to hold the government accountable and make sure they continue to support homeless people after the pandemic. Read this previous blog post to find out more about how rough sleepers risk being abandoned by the government when the pandemic is over. Also in that post you can find a letter template to send to your MP, making it super easy.
  4. Spread awareness – in winter, we often see campaigns to help rough sleepers which is very important but we often forget about the risks in the summer months. Sharing information (like this blog!) could mean more members of the public are looking out for each other, which can only be good.
Photo by Simon Matzinger

Homelessness After the Pandemic

This morning I read a BBC headline: “Coronavirus: Thousands of homeless ‘back on streets by July'”.

Tragically, this is neither surprising nor unexpected.

When lockdown measures began to be introduced, local authorities were sent an email on a Wednesday, instructing them to house all rough sleepers by the weekend. There was panic at having to carry out such a mammoth task on such little notice. But, there was also a tangible sense of pride and hope that it was possible to get rough sleepers into safe accommodation so quickly when there was the will to do so.

It was also exciting that the government, which had overseen a 141% rise in rough sleeping since 2010, was finally funding and supporting emergency measures to tackle the issue. When rough sleeping became a humanitarian situation, the government and local authorities had no choice but to spring to action.

This begs the question: Was rough sleeping not a humanitarian emergency before?

Recent government statistics found that in 2018 there were an estimated 726 registered deaths of homeless people in England and Wales. The average age of death for rough sleepers was found to be 44 for men and 42 for women. Homelessness is and should always be seen as a public health issue, not because of coronavirus, but because of the risks faced by people experiencing homelessness every day of every year.

So why act now?

This government often takes actions that will earn them votes and support – that is, they will champion strategies that have short term, obvious gain for certain groups of voters, things like reducing taxes, increasing “stop and search” incidents, under-funding services with austerity measures to supposedly ‘save money’ in an obvious and weirdly romanticised manner.

This under-funding we have seen since 2010 was marketed as a sacrifice the public had to make to save money – to many, it seemed like an obvious move. Of course, it was the poorest in society making that sacrifice, but this was seen as a direct and logical consequence of financial hardship since the financial crash in 2008. It’s the same with homelessness; we simply ‘couldn’t afford’ to provide services to help them.

The thing is, investing in healthcare, support services, young people’s services, and welfare benefits means saving money and lives in the long term.

There are some fascinating and extremely frustrating statistics on the costs of homelessness; Crisis estimated in 2015 that the cost of supporting a rough sleeper over the course of a year was £20,128, while the cost of successful intervention to avoid homelessness was just £1,426. Getting people off the streets and into stable, suitable accommodation saves money and lives. Avoiding the health problems, mental and physical, of rough sleeping saves the NHS money. Proper support that can help vulnerable people to stay away from drugs and alcohol not only saves money for emergency services and the NHS, but also reduces crime rates, violence, and danger to families. Investment now helps us in the future – but that’s harder to explain and sell to the general public.

One thing this pandemic has shown is that when the government really wants to and has to stop homelessness, it can. When under pressure to take action, they can. The pressure of containing the virus and protecting the general public finally led to action on rough sleeping – the rise in number of rough sleepers has been so visible for so many years that the government advice to self-isolate and socially distance would have been difficult to enforce if they continued to allow rough sleepers to be outside, unprotected and potentially causing further spread of the disease.

The Reasons to be Cheerful podcast recently interviewed Danny Dorling, professor of Geography at the University of Oxford with a research interest in public health. He eloquently explained his view on the government’s response to homelessness during the pandemic:

“[The action to house rough sleepers] wasn’t done because government cared about the homeless – it was done out of absolute fear that homeless people will spread this disease to people like them and their families.” Dorling compared it to the rich elite in Victorian times, terrified that the working classes would spread cholera to them, leading to funding for better sewer systems and water works. Epidemiologically, he adds, the spread of the disease isn’t because of the homeless, but because of rich people moving around the country and internationally.

This is a particularly sceptical view of the government’s take on rough sleeping during the pandemic, but is a view worth considering. Conservative ministers are often guilty of failing to empathise and understand the issues of those in poverty – you can read more about this relating to the criminal justice system in this previous blog post. It could be that without a pandemic, a virus that can infect even the richest in society, the issues of the poorest and most vulnerable would never have been taken seriously or tackled efficiently.

What’s the solution, then?

As Matt Downie from Crisis said in an interview on that same podcast episode, while emergency housing in hotels has been positive, “it isn’t the answer – the answer is a home of their own.” Downie and many others working in homelessness see this as a chance to really put effort into Housing First in the UK.

Downie commented on “the idea that when government is assertive, when it says what it wants, when it funds what it wants, and when it puts principal into action, extraordinary things can happen.” Could this display of assertion and will trigger the chance to finally get Housing First rolled out on a wider scale?

The interview also included a discussion with Maggie Brunjes, from Homeless Network Scotland, who described Housing First as “just a very non-patronising way of redressing the disadvantage that people have often spent a lifetime experiencing, by making no assumptions about them or what they need, and just recognising that most of us, with the right support, can manage our own place.”

This sums up Housing First very well – and there is plenty of evidence to back it up as a scheme that really works; it has eradicated rough sleeping in Finland, for example. Here at Bench Outreach, our team of key workers provides Housing First support for the London Borough of Lewisham. We know first-hand that supporting vulnerable homeless people to have their own space, maintain a tenancy, and rebuild their lives from that space is a crucial and effective way to end homelessness and tackle its main causes.

What can I do?

Write to your MP in support of Housing First. You can find their name and contact details here and a draft letter you can copy across to them just below this. It’ll take you 5 minutes, tops, and will make a difference.

Letter to copy:


  1. Download Streetlink – you can use it online, or get it as an app. It’s a way of reporting rough sleepers (there are still some out there, even at the moment) to outreach teams who can get them somewhere safe.
  2. Donate to/volunteer with homelessness charities and campaigns! If you can’t donate, could you fundraise or share information to others who can? Could you volunteer (either now, if safe, or in the post-pandemic world)?
  3. Donate to/volunteer with your local food bankhomeless and vulnerable families and individuals are struggling at the moment more than ever.
  4. Share this blog – start a conversation about homelessness. Spread information. Homelessness isn’t not going anywhere unless we kick up a fuss.

Thanks for reading.

Living Off the State: What Covid-19 Reveals about UK Attitudes on Claiming Benefits

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and UK lockdown, many in the UK are now left worrying about their jobs, homes and finances. The government has faced a sudden and urgent pressure to support thousands of people as they find themselves without work and income – and suddenly, people who never expected to are living on benefits.

With so many more people having to depend on government grants, benefits, and special payment arrangements, I couldn’t help but think how the idea of ‘living off the state’ has taken a dramatic new angle.

Fascinatingly, the otherwise relatively ‘hands-off’ Conservative Party have been forced to spring into action, providing huge sums of money to try and support businesses and individuals who risk losing everything as they have to adapt or close due to the pandemic. Politicians (including the Prime Minister) who have consistently voted for cuts to benefits, implemented austerity measures that put huge strain on the NHS, as well as under-funding health and social care, education, and social housing, are taking actions we never would have expected.

As a benefits advice worker, I have seen countless working-class and extremely poor individuals struggling to get by on Universal Credit. Before the pandemic, for over-25s the standard rate was £317.82 a month, while under-25s got just £251.77. It is no surprise to see food bank numbers on the increase and street homelessness up by 141% over the last 10 years. Now, with the outbreak of coronavirus forcing almost 10 times as many people to apply for Universal Credit, Rishi Sunak has announced that Universal Credit will rise by £1000 a year. Meanwhile, Statutory sick pay has gone up (as of 6th April) from £94.25 to £95.85 a week.

Obviously in times of crisis the government has to take unprecedented measures to keep the economy afloat. However it is particularly hard-hitting looking at Boris Johnson’s voting record, showing he has voted to reduce spending on welfare benefits 19 times – that’s every single time he has voted on benefits spending. He has literally always voted for benefits cuts.

Why should this bother me? It’s increasing and that is wonderful news, right?

It is indeed wonderful news that those claiming benefits will have more to help them in times of poverty and need. I am bothered by the conditions it took for this spending to take place. Because it wasn’t until people that our government could relate to, those they knew and, crucially, respected were having to rely on state intervention to survive, that they decided to increase the amount available. It wasn’t until the economy on a larger scale was at risk that action was taken to alleviate financial hardship.

In British society, as far as I have seen, there is a common idea of what ‘kinds of people’ are on benefits. So many clients of mine are embarrassed that they have to ‘live off the state’; they know the stigma and they are aware that others will think they are lazy or even immoral. Because usually the poorest people are on benefits, many middle class people and professionals do lead very different lives to those claiming benefits. They think of them as other, often as less intelligent or not hard-working enough. Right wing politicians often push the idea that if only you try hard enough, you can overcome hardship and become financially comfortable. One look at the benefits system shows that their philosophy is based on the theory that if you make life on benefits as difficult as possible, and if you tell those with severe disabilities and illnesses they must work, then they will be forced to do so.

The thing is, the welfare state was always meant to be a safety net. It is supposed to support those in need, who struggle to find work or maintain work due to health issues beyond their control. Yet still, the stereotype of benefits claimants is lazy, less intelligent, rough, or even violent.

Covid-19, however, has imposed just a couple of the adversities so often faced by those in this country who live below the poverty line onto ‘the rest of us.’ That is, onto those who have been lucky enough to find themselves in work over recent years, or with good enough health to sustain employment.

With Covid-19, the safety net that helps those in times of sickness, or lack of job opportunities, is suddenly needed by a massive percentage of the population.

It was this extension of job-instability and financial anxiety to ‘the rest of society’ that partly prompted the Conservative government to finally raise benefits to something resembling an amount you can survive on.

It’s not just benefits; the government has offered to pay 80% of the wages of those being ‘furloughed’, those made temporarily redundant due to lack of available work. Again, this is really great and necessary to keep people going and the economy functioning – but I can’t help recalling other times in history when people lost their jobs due to workplace closures beyond their control and were given no support by the government. Think of Thatcher and the mine closures in Wales and the North of England; work became nonviable, and to this day entire towns built around collieries are still suffering the consequences of the government failing to provide alternative opportunities. There are countless other examples of industry and factory closures that have taken people’s livelihoods and have followed the same path.

Where was this compassionate safety net then?

It takes the middle classes to be hit, even for Johnson himself to be infected with Covid-19, for the welfare state to kick into action properly.

Where has this compassion been for the last 10 years?

As people have starved to death from benefits cuts, relied more and more on food banks, and struggled to feed their children, austerity-enforcing politicians turned a blind eye and allowed the NHS, homelessness support services, addiction services, social services, and endless other amazing facilities to be starved of resources. I can’t help but think this is related to the class backgrounds of the majority of those who run our country. They have been irresponsibly detached from the realities of daily life for those who usually experience intense poverty. It took a pandemic and the extension of some of these difficulties to ‘everyone else’ for the welfare state to be taken seriously and supported properly.

If one good thing comes from this crisis, I want it to be an increased understanding of the instability, anxiety, and distress experienced by benefits claimants on a regular basis. As more and more people have no choice but to rely on the state, I hope they realise how lucky we are to have the welfare state, and how difficult it can be psychologically and financially to be forced to live off it. I hope this will lead to a revitalised approach to the welfare state and its importance as we finally recognise that we would be nowhere without it.

Do people choose to be homeless?

Recently, Conservative MP Adam Holloway received criticism for his claims in parliament that many rough sleepers choose to be on the streets. What is it that fuels this idea? To what extent is it true?

As Bench Outreach’s resident Gen Z, I’m the one responsible for managing our twitter and keeping up to date with what’s being said about homelessness online. One thing I can say for certain is that with rough sleepers constantly visible and growing in number, almost everyone has an opinion on homelessness. *sigh*

One of the strikingly common opinions I’ve noticed is that if they really wanted to, there are services that rough sleepers could access that would give them somewhere to stay. The problem, these people profess, is that homeless people want to be homeless. They simply would rather be on the streets and won’t accept help. So, here’s my explanation of why these arguments are overlooking some pretty serious details. (Can you tell I’m fed up with all the dodgy tweets?)

“There are PLENTY of places for homeless people to go if they really want to

If you work in housing or homelessness, you’ll know this is not the case. Because charities are doing great stuff and publicising it well, and the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act sounds like a very exciting and helpful thing, there’s a misconception that there is a whole bunch of options out there for homeless people – if only they put their minds to it.

Here’s a tweet I came across just the other day:

Right, let me debunk this old chestnut.

Night Shelters

Having only worked for Bench for about 10 months in Lewisham borough, I was appalled to find out how few night shelters open year-round. We are INCREDIBLY lucky to have the 999 Club who run a night shelter that goes on for the whole year. It’s one of about 3 in the whole of London, as far as I know. It’s the only one open year-round in South East London. There are others open in the winter, but they fill up very quickly.

Even with the 999 Club around, it’s only those with a solid connection to Lewisham Borough that can use it. Outside of the winter months, if we get rough sleepers from Greenwich or Bromley, our neighbouring boroughs, they will not be allowed access to the night shelter. That’s because it has such limited space, and is funded by the local authority. And, the 999 Club is constantly working to find funding to keep it going all year. (Click here to find out how you can help.)

Temporary Accommodation

Aside from the night shelter, some homeless people can get immediate and urgent access to temporary accommodation (TA) through the council, while they find somewhere more permanent. This is very expensive for the council and they have extremely limited spaces. To be eligible for TA, a person has to have several complex support needs as supply is so small. I have had countless vulnerable clients rejected for TA; they are turned away and sent back to the streets. This is largely because there are not enough accommodation units, and because local authorities are seriously underfunded by the central government.

Private Rental

Most landlords do not accept people on benefits. I cannot stress this enough. If they do, they’re often exploitative and try to squeeze as much housing benefit out of the system as they legally can, for the smallest and dirtiest rooms in London. Furthermore, without ID and a bank account, it’s almost impossible to sign up for a flat – a really common problem for those who have moved around a lot and lost their ID, and have no proof of address to open a bank account with.

Sustaining a tenancy

As a benefits advice worker, I can tell you that even when rent is paid from benefits, it can go wrong. The system breaks, and rent goes unpaid. This often leads to eviction.

Section 21 evictions, or ‘no fault’ evictions, are still legal despite the government promising last year that they would be banned. This means landlords can evict tenants with very little notice for very small things.

Those suffering with mental health problems may simply be incapable of keeping track of their tenancy. Severe anxiety can mean warning letters aren’t opened. OCD can mean a dirty property that the landlord doesn’t care for gets abandoned. Depression can mean council tax and utility bills go unpaid while a tenant struggles to cope. It’s not as simple as just getting a flat. You have to be well enough, or well-supported enough to keep hold of it.

“People would rather do drugs and drink than have somewhere to live – it’s their decision!”

A couple of weeks ago a video was circulating of MP Adam Holloway saying this very thing. He spent time researching homelessness by rough sleeping around the UK, and said he met people who were on the streets because they depended on begging to fuel their alcohol and drug addictions.

He reported the claims of one rough sleeper that:

“If the public were not so generous and didn’t allow the people to buy the alcohol and buy the heroine, then he would’ve got off the streets an awful lot earlier.”

A similar argument is made by many large charities; by giving money to homeless people, you are likely to be enabling them to stay on the streets because they will be able to buy drugs and alcohol.

Obviously it can seem like people choose to be homeless because they have addiction problems. However, it’s crucial to understand that it’s just not that straight forward.

Why it’s not that straight forward…

One big issue with this rhetoric is the implication that being addicted to drugs or alcohol is a choice. Each time someone says that rough sleepers would rather be outside and able to get hold of drugs or alcohol, they are suggesting it’s a rational decision-making process. First of all, it wasn’t a choice for them to be in this situation in the first place. When you’re in a position where you’re making a decision between a roof over your head and being able to maintain your drug or alcohol addiction, you are already in a really tricky place. People from poorer backgrounds are disproportionately affected by drug and alcohol abuse – you can’t choose the family and neighbourhood you grow up in, and it’s easier to fall into these issues for some than others.

If you’ve ever struggled with addiction or worked with those who do, you’ll know it doesn’t allow people to make rational decisions all the time. In the depths of alcohol or drug use, I’ve seen clients time and time again prioritising things that seem ridiculous to others. It’s scary how quickly addicts can lose control of everyday things – from leaving their rent for so long they get evicted, to forgetting to shower and eat.

You’ll also know that those suffering from addiction will find a way to get hold of drugs or alcohol, whether you give them money or not. You not giving someone change on the overground isn’t going to save them from addiction. Well-funded and dedicated services might. (Radical idea, I know). So sorry, Adam Holloway MP, you’ve not quite got that right.

Crucially, without drug and alcohol services and experts, it can be impossible to recover from addiction. Furthermore, without a home to live in, it’s even harder. This is why it becomes a vicious cycle; people struggle to get clean because they have no stable home, and lose opportunities for housing because they can’t get clean.

For others, the only available housing may be in a hostel where other people are using drugs or drinking. Many find it would actually be a step back to live with other users, scared that they’ll be vulnerable to the influence of others. In our current system, because funds are very low, most of the highest-risk and most vulnerable people are generally put into the same hostel. Local authorities simply can’t afford to pay enough support staff and rent for tenants to have their own space.

Finally, some people are simply not ready for support. We can’t force people to engage with mental health support and drug and alcohol services. Sometimes, these services aren’t even available; with funding cuts they are frequently buckling under financial pressure. In short, tweets like this are missing the point:

What does work, then?

Here I am, preaching Housing First again.

If you’re not aware of Housing First, it’s a programme where a person is given a flat and a support worker who helps them access all the services they need to sustain their tenancy. They aren’t put in a hostel, they aren’t left to circulate systems that haven’t worked for them before, and they have a stable base to build up their lives from.

The problem is, it’s expensive. Ideally, everyone experiencing long-term homelessness would get this kind of support. That’s what they did in Finland – and it basically eradicated rough sleeping. People were housed unconditionally, and provided with support with their issues instead of being denied housing BECAUSE of their issues.

We do this at Bench Outreach. Our Housing First team is constantly hard at work, helping those who have been through the system too many times who have finally been given a place to call their own. It’s an answer to many of the issues discussed in this blog. Sadly, it’s really limited; most boroughs don’t have it, and the council is struggling to procure properties that can be used for the programme. But it’s a start, and a great model for future services.

To conclude…

Sure, this is true:

But it’s much more complicated than just refusing help. Those experiencing homelessness aren’t stupid, ungrateful, or stubborn when they say no to support. We can’t know everything going through someone’s head when they deny opportunities for housing. We can only support them until they are ready to take it on.

So what can I do?

  1. As always, WRITE TO YOUR MP!!!!

You can find out who they are, and their contact details, here.

Tell them how great Housing First is, and how important it is to fund projects like it. Tell them drug and alcohol services need to be a priority.

If your MP is Adam Holloway, send him this blog. Thanks!

2. Support local charities. Support the 999 Club! If you’re local, you could even volunteer- they could do with the help.

3. Be compassionate – remember you don’t know the whole story behind someone’s homelessness.

4. Spread the word! Share this blog. Be annoying and go on about it. Use whatever influence you have to make a difference.

The Benefits System is Causing Death and Distress- Here’s Why

The UK’s benefits system is poorly funded, and designed without empathy or knowledge of the real lives of those living in poverty. Here’s one Bench Advice worker’s experience of what happens when the system goes wrong.

The death of Errol Graham was widely reported last week, a vulnerable man who died of starvation after his DWP benefits were stopped. His body was found by the bailiffs who had come to the house to evict him.

For advice workers like myself who assist vulnerable people to enforce their welfare benefits rights, this story is awful, but not surprising. Every single week I see clients with physical and mental health problems whose benefits have been stopped, sanctioned or reduced for reasons that are unfair, unclear, arbitrary or unlawful.

One of them has agreed for me to share his story. All names have been changed.

John is a long term client at Bench Outreach. He has significant mental health problems and poor levels of literacy. He is a vulnerable adult who cannot use a computer and needs support to access his Universal Credit (UC) account. 

Just after the New Year, John attended the office in a distressed state. He asked me to look at a letter he had received from the council tax department. It informed him that because his Universal Credit claim had been closed, his council tax reduction had been automatically stopped (see previous blog post The Domino Effect). Because John was not able to log onto his online UC account on his own, he had had no idea the claim had been closed. When we logged on to his UC account we discovered that his claim had, indeed, been closed and his payments stopped.

John is too unwell to work; he is not expected to look for work or participate in “work related activity”. His claim had been closed because he did not log on to his UC account and digitally accept his “claimant commitment.” His so-called “commitment” was zero hours of work. 

Despite a note on his journal from me explaining that John is a vulnerable claimant who does not have digital access, only one telephone call was made to John before his claim was closed and his only source of income stopped.

I assisted John to lodge a “mandatory reconsideration” asking the DWP to reconsider the decision in light of the circumstances. It took three weeks of telephone calls and emails to get his UC and council tax reduction reinstated, during which time he had no income and was reliant on the food bank to eat.

The system is not working for vulnerable, unwell clients like John. With a Conservative government likely to be in power for the next 5 years it’s obvious that Universal Credit is not going anywhere. At Bench Outreach we’d like to see the following changes, as a minimum, to support vulnerable and low income clients:

  • A much shorter wait for the first payment. Five weeks without any money is too long and the advance payment system just means that clients have a reduced income for months as they pay it back
  • A clean slate with regard to previous overpayments. The majority of our clients have crippling deductions from budgeting loans or tax credit overpayments, some of them from over 10 years ago
  • Fewer or no medical re-assessments for people who have long term conditions that are not likely to change or improve
  • If a client is vulnerable due to mental or physical health problems, homelessness, domestic violence etc the DWP should make be obliged to speak to the client, their support worker or agreed family members prior to stopping their payments 

John has his UC up and running again, he’s managing. He knows that if there’s a problem he can come to our office to get help and support. Bench Outreach shouldn’t have to exist, a compassionate society should support and protect vulnerable people like John and Errol Graham. Unfortunately the safety net is threadbare and our work is more important than ever.

“Not Quite Disabled Enough” – proving you need benefits

Many disabled people are struggling to survive on benefits, meanwhile the DWP is constantly pressuring them to prove their disabilities ‘deserve’ benefits.

I’m writing this blog at the end of our third work week of 2020. While it’s great to be back and to check in on my lovely clients, some of them are really struggling. By the end of my first working day of 2020, three people had already told me they simply aren’t coping with their disabilities.

Before I worked in benefits advice, I just didn’t realise how many people who physically or mentally are not able to work are barely surviving on benefits. I think for those who don’t have any experience of the system, the first thing that comes to mind when you mention benefits is unemployment. Obviously for many people, benefits are there to tide them over until they are able to find work. But for so many disabled people who are unable to work, those who can’t rely on family and friends and have no other source of income, benefits are all they will ever have to live on- and it is exhausting.

To be allowed to claim disability benefits, you have to prove that you’re disabled enough.

And not just once. Even if you have a life-long condition, you may have to be re-assessed for your ‘capability for work’ as often as every year.

The process of being assessed can be extremely stressful for claimants, many of whom are terrified that their money could be taken away, which would leave them destitute or forced to work when they physically or mentally are not able to manage (You can read about these medical assessments in this previous blog post). It’s also not straight forward- you are sent a booklet full of questions that are supposed to apply to disabilities, but of course disability can be so varied that half the questions won’t make any sense to some people. Then, if you are late sending the booklet back, your benefits may be reduced as a punishment. If claimants can’t get an appointment for support to fill out the booklet, or if they are too ill to get to a post box, they might not be able to get it in on time. A few weeks later, they invite you to an assessment. For our clients in Deptford, the nearest assessment centre takes at least an hour to get to on the bus.

You can get travel expenses to the assessment repaid afterwards, but no help in advance. For claimants who are unable to use public transport, the cost of a taxi both ways to an assessment centre from Deptford can cost £70, a huge amount for those on benefits (Universal Credit standard allowance is around £317 a month), leaving some people out of pocket until they can be refunded.

Mental Health

It usually takes a lot to convince the DWP that mental illness can be a disability. The questions they ask on disability benefit forms are so clearly geared towards physical disability that often, claimants just don’t understand how to answer. Often, when people with mental health problems are assessed for work capability, their needs are not properly understood. For example, an assessor may see that the claimant can physically walk and move their arms. They may therefore write on the report that the claimant can get up, get dressed, and brush their teeth. In reality, however, they might never brush their teeth or get dressed if they are too depressed. This is one example of the many ways in which the impact of mental health on daily life simply isn’t understood properly. (Read more about the lies and misrepresentations in medical reports here.)

I’ve attended an assessment where the client told the assessor they were having suicidal thoughts and had almost taken their own life, only turning back at the last moment. In the report, this intimate and tragic detail that had been told with difficulty was summarised as something along the lines of “the claimant says he is suicidal, but has no suicidal intent.” Effectively, this means they did not consider this vulnerable adult suicidal enough. It begs the question, what more does it take to convince them?

Furthermore, bad mental health can be exacerbated by the benefits system itself. For example, people who suffer from social anxiety will be very uncomfortable going to a new place full of strangers to be assessed by another stranger, especially when the stakes are high. In theory you can request a home visit- in reality, these requests are usually ignored.

I have had client after client describe panic attacks they’ve had when they have been told to go for an assessment, or the dread and depression they face in anticipation. Claimants may be so mentally unwell before an assessment that they feel suicidal or attempt suicide. They might miss an appointment because they are too scared, and be sanctioned for doing so, losing money from an already small benefit allowance.

As politicians go on about how we need to improve mental health care, it’s difficult to see how there is any effort at all to look after the mental health of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals as they go through the benefits system.

Disabled Travel

It’s not just benefits. In our local borough at least, the criteria to get a Freedom Pass for public transport have recently got much tougher. Essentially, you need to not be able to walk at all in order to be allowed one. The process can be extensive, requiring lots of evidence to prove you’re disabled enough to need free transport.

This week I saw Lisa, a client who has to use a stoma bag, which regularly leaks and causes her a lot of discomfort, making her feel extremely distressed and embarassed. Her freedom pass has been taken away because she no longer fits the criteria- she can physically walk more than a few steps, so they have decided she doesn’t need free travel. Now, she feels like it’s not safe for her to go out as she needs to get home quickly if there’s a problem with her bag. She has a very small income because she is on benefits and is really anxious now she will have to worry about paying for travel too.

With a more personalised approach, or with the ability to award discretionary Freedom Passes based on individual needs (these do exist in some boroughs) this client would surely be considered eligible. But because the system is automated, with no appeal system or alternatives for those with needs that don’t fit neatly into the criteria, Lisa is not getting the help she needs.

How can I/those I care about avoid these problems?

There are a few things to bear in mind if you or someone you know are being assessed either for disability benefits or for your capability to work.

  1. Always describe your worst day. If you suffer from depression, describe the days you can’t get out of bed, can’t eat, or can’t talk to anyone. This is crucial.
  2. Take someone with you. In some charities, an advice worker can go with you to an assessment, but you can take anyone with you. Whoever accompanies you should take note of everything that is said and done in the assessment, so you can refer back to it if you disagree with the end result.
  3. If you’re appealing or asking for a mandatory reconsideration, get advice. If you can, submit your appeal/mandatory reconsideration in writing, not on the phone. I would always recommend getting advice from a charity- we write hundreds of appeals and know the right things to say.
  4. Whether you’re appealing or just being assessed, have as much evidence as possible. Evidence includes doctors’ letters, hospital admission documentation, your prescription, letters from any key workers or carers you have etc. Letters from your family/friends who help you with your health condition (e.g. getting the shopping for you, driving you to appointments, helping you with your benefits) can be really useful.
  5. Make sure they do the tests they’re supposed to. In your health assessments, unless your health condition would make these tests too difficult for you, the assessor should do some physical tests (asking you to demonstrate that you can stand and sit, move your arms etc). Make sure they do them- if they look at you and decide you’re not physically disabled, they may say in the report they’ve done the tests even when they haven’t.
  6. Don’t wear your best suit. You will be judged on how you present yourself and how you ‘coped’ with the assessment. Most of the time, they say you were neatly dressed and coped well, whether or not that’s the case. This may be used this to say you are mentally and physically well, even if you’re not.

What else can I do about this situation?

Write to your MP!

This will make a difference. The government constantly go on about how they’re taking mental health seriously- they should be held accountable for the treatment of those deemed ‘not disabled enough’ who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, debilitating anxiety, and isolation.

You can find out who your MP is and their contact details here. Tell them what matters to you- it’s their job to listen and take action. It only takes 5 minutes to email.

Support local charities

Like us! Woohoo! Any local charity that offers benefits advice would LOVE your support or donations. Disability charities are great too, and can literally change people’s lives by getting them aids/provisions they need to go about daily life. For example, if you found the story above of the lady with a stoma bag makes you want to take action, see how you can support Crohn’s and Colitis UK (that particular client has found their online info super helpful).

Offer to help

If you know someone who struggles with filling out forms, carrying shopping, or might not get many visitors, you can help. A lot of my job is just helping people to fill out forms or use their online accounts because they struggle with literacy or computer skills. If you could help someone get onto their Universal Credit (it’s easy if you’re used to using computers) or complete the answers on a disability benefits form, you could really make an impact. If you don’t already know someone who could use your help, you could offer to volunteer with a local charity.

If you live in England, you can find your local homeless services here and get in touch to see if they need volunteers. You may find your skills are really needed!

Be vocal

If you have a story to tell, you can use social media or blogging to get your story out!

If you want your experience to be voiced on our blog, don’t hesitate to get in touch on twitter (@benchoutreach) or Facebook (Bench Outreach).

Our guide to helping rough sleepers this winter

In the festive season, it is not only homelessness charities that are acutely aware of rough sleepers and those in destitute living conditions. It is impossible to ignore London’s growing homelessness problem when you can’t bear the ten-minute walk to the tube, let alone the thought of trying to survive a night outside.

The sight of rough sleepers in the coldest months can also bring a sense of hopelessness for those who can’t see a way to help- so we decided to make a list of things you can do to help homeless people this Christmas and in the following months, from helping them access outreach charities to recognising the signs of health emergencies.

1 – Download the Streetlink App

The best way to get rough sleepers the help they need is to use the Streetlink App or website to alert local outreach teams of rough sleepers. The more detail you can put about where and when the rough sleeper will be bedded down, the better. Describe their appearance and clothing and exactly where they are sleeping for the best chance of them being found. Outreach teams can offer a warm place to sleep and get the rough sleeper on the road to recovery with the support they need to get back on their feet.

You can also volunteer with Thamesreach’s London Street Rescue to go out with trained outreach workers and offer people experiencing homelessness somewhere to sleep. This can make a real difference, and the more volunteers there are, the more people they can reach and take to safety.

2 – Night Shelters

Supporting night shelters can help them to literally save lives by providing a safe and warm space for rough sleepers to stay. When the weather is expected to be below freezing for a few nights, emergency shelters open for extra space. Here is Homeless Link’s list of 2019/20 London winter night shelters, organised by London Borough.

Shelters often rely on volunteers- if you can spare the time, get involved! You can also contact a local shelter to see if you can offer donations of money, food, clothing, hygiene products, or bedding. Make sure you get in touch first to check that your resources can go where they are most needed.

Local to us in Lewisham are the 999 Club in Deptford, and Greenwich Winter Night Shelter. Check out their websites if you want to get involved.

Give clothing or bedding

If someone is rough sleeping, they are at risk of severe health conditions or even death from the cold weather at this time of year. If you are giving clothing or bedding, make sure it’s in decent condition and will last. Good things to give include:

  • Coats, hats, scarves, socks – you can find warm things fairly cheap in high street shops. If you have an old coat in good condition, consider donating it
  • Sleeping bags and blankets – if it’s raining, duvets may not be the best idea as they won’t last long and they can be absorbent
  • Polystyrene or roll mats- these insulate against the cold ground

If you’re not sure, ask someone what they need!

Food and Drink – and a chat!

Buying a cup of tea for someone is a great way of warming them up. Ask a rough sleeper their name and have a chat if you’ve got time- you’ll find you have more in common than you would have expected. Rough sleepers often find they feel invisible and ignored by society, and at Christmas passers by may find it easier to look away due to guilt. You might turn someone’s day around by stopping to chat, and that is well worth your 5 minutes.

Important: it is a myth that alcohol warms you up. If someone is extremely cold, alcohol can be dangerous. Alcohol makes you feel warm as it makes your blood rise to the skin’s surface but away from vital organs. This is why people who have been drinking are more prone to severe illness if they get too cold.

Health Awareness

Homeless people die in winter. According to Crisis, the average age of death for a male rough sleeper is 47. For female rough sleepers, it is only 43.

If you see someone who looks really unwell, don’t assume it’s nothing. Check and ask if they’re ok, and if they are not responsive, call 999.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • shivering
  • cold and pale skin
  • slurred speech
  • fast breathing
  • tiredness
  • confusion

If you think someone has hypothermia, call 999.

People abusing drugs and alcohol are more susceptible to hypothermia- that often includes rough sleepers.

Drug overdose can also kill- according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, signs of opioid (e.g heroin) overdose include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Unresponsive to outside stimulus
  • Awake, but unable to talk
  • Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
  • For lighter skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple, for darker skinned people, it turns grayish or ashen.
  • Choking sounds, or a snore-like gurgling noise (sometimes called the “death rattle”)
  • Vomiting
  • Body is very limp
  • Face is very pale or clammy
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish black
  • Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all

If you see someone who may have overdosed, call 999 immediately and put the person in the recovery position. Death from overdose can be prevented, as paramedics and some police carry a special injection called Naloxone which can save people who have overdosed.

Talk to Frank has a more detailed guide of how to help a drug user in an emergency.

Make sure you tell paramedics everything you know- they won’t call the police if someone has used illegal drugs.

Get Political

The fact this blog post has to exist is an outrage. Homelessness needs to be stopped altogether, which means the government need to do better. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 165%.

We always urge you to write to your MP! Make it clear that this issue matters to you. You can find your MP’s contact details here. Going forward, we must insist that this government keeps their commitment to ending rough sleeping.

Hit social media while you’re at it- share this blog, let people know that these issues are rife in our society.

Any Ideas?

We’re always trying to think of the best ways to help people who are experiencing homelessness. If you have any tips or ideas that we’ve missed, do let us know!

Welfare Benefits: The Domino Effect

A Bench Outreach advice worker talks about the slippery slope of benefits problems and how one DWP judgement can have devastating consequences.

Many of the clients who come to see me are on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This means that they are not currently fit to work due to a mental or physical health problem (or both). Eligibility for ESA is determined through a lengthy form to fill in and attending medical assessments at regular intervals. These assessments usually take place in Marylebone – over an hour and a half on the bus from Deptford on the bus if you are on a low income, or a pricey taxi if you’re not well enough to use public transport.

If you are considered “fit for work” at your medical assessment, or you miss a medical for an “unacceptable” reason then your ESA stops. Immediately.  You can ask for a review of the decision (a mandatory reconsideration) and subsequently appeal but it’s not a quick process. How do you manage when there’s no money coming in in the mean time?

Losing one benefit is bad enough but what I see, time and time again, is that it sets in motion a “domino effect”. Receiving ESA means that you qualify for Housing Benefit which pays your rent (or part of your rent) and council tax reduction which is administered by the council. If your ESA is stopped, the DWP write to your local council who will immediately stop your Housing Benefit and council tax reduction.

This seems like madness. Just because your ESA has been stopped, does not mean you’re actually fit for work and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve got a job and money in the bank to pay the rent. All this does is stack up rent arrears and increase stress and anxiety for clients who are already struggling.

Image result for job centre

The problem is not just confined to ESA. I saw a client, Sandra, last week who is the main carer for her son. He is in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and she is reliant on Income Support, Carer’s Allowance and Housing Benefit. Sandra submitted her son’s DLA form slightly late as she was waiting for medical evidence.

Because the form was submitted late, her son’s DLA was stopped.

Because DLA had been stopped, Sandra was no longer entitled to Carer’s Allowance and this was automatically stopped.

Because Carer’s Allowance had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Income Support and this was automatically stopped.

Because Income Support had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Housing Benefit and this was automatically stopped. Her housing association had written to her to advise her that she was already in rent arrears.

Does any of this make sense as a compassionate and functional system? I don’t believe that it saves anyone any money and certainly not any time – it takes the best part of an hour to get through to ESA on the phone. It pushes the work out to advice services and charities which are already under pressure. It causes vulnerable people endless worry and sleepless nights.

People have asked if Universal Credit (UC) would stop problems like this. The short answer is no. There are hundreds of thousands of people still on legacy benefits such as ESA and Income Support. It is likely that many would be significantly worse off by moving to UC under natural migration.

In addition, the link between UC and HMRC means that the benefits system can trawl through all your previous earnings. It can, and will, flag up if you’ve earned even a penny more than eligibility for, say, Carer’s Allowance in the past and claw it back. There’s no limitation period so you can have ongoing deductions for overpayments from 15 years ago.

Of course if you weren’t eligible for Carer’s Allowance, you subsequently wouldn’t have been eligible for Income Support… and the domino effect continues.

The danger of “Tough on Crime” Rhetoric

As gang and knife crime have become ever-present in the news, the government tries to comfort the public with a ‘tough on crime’ agenda. But are more arrests and longer prison sentences really the answer?

Crime has been a growing concern in UK politics recently. With austerity meaning cuts to police forces and the Ministry of Justice undergoing 40% cuts by 2020, services have been struggling. With the administrative load of the criminal justice system alone being a huge burden, the prevention of crime itself has suffered.

In the current political climate (October 2019), political parties are rallying for an expected general election. Each is trying to win over the public after the last few years of difficult austerity and public spending cuts. After Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has been criticised for the ongoing knife crime epidemic in London, the Conservative Party are keen to promote a ‘tough on crime’ image. On his appointment has Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was quick to announce that he would be funding 20,000 new police officers and 10,000 new prison places. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel describes the Tory party as ‘the party of law and order in Britain’.

This stance is clearly popular. For those scared to walk home at night in their own neighbourhoods, those who have lost children and family members to knife crime, and those who are victims of crime, an increase in police numbers sounds reassuring. Putting more people in prison sounds like the best way to keep ‘us’ safe. So far, the government have encouraged this way of thinking by promoting surface-level reforms without tackling the issues at their core.

At the conservative party conference, Patel said ‘we stand against the criminals, the gangs, the drug barons, the thugs, the terrorists who seek to do us harm.’

She went on to say: ‘To the British people: we hear you […] and to the criminals, I simply say this: we are coming after you.’

This kind of language is deliberate and damaging.

It stresses the idea that some people just are ‘criminals’, people whom ‘the rest of us’ have nothing to do with. What does ‘us’ mean in Patel’s statement? I would argue that her use of this ‘them and us’ idea appeals to the middle and upper classes, those who see themselves as totally separate from anyone who might commit a crime. It appeals to those who are statistically less vulnerable to being drawn into or affected by criminal activity. Meanwhile, those young people who are at risk of involvement in gang crime and knife crime, generally those in the poorest areas of the country, feel even more alienated. When the Home Secretary differentiates between ‘the British people’ and criminals, those young people who feel they have no choice but to get involved in criminal activity, who feel unsupported and unrepresented, see their lack of representation in the government reinforced. They are being told they are not valued British citizens. In reality, they need their voice to be heard and to be supported to prevent them from turning to crime.

The idea that people are turning into criminals because they aren’t being punished hard enough is proven to be quite shaky logic. It seems obvious- all criminals are ‘bad people’ who need to be treated as such. That’s why prison is so unpleasant in the UK- to deter people from committing any more crimes, right?

Now, we know that’s not true, but it seems to be the logic applied by he Conservative party and some other politicians to try and get votes. Admittedly, the idea of spending MORE of the public’s hard-earned taxes on rehabilitation and support for the very people who commit crimes is a bit of a challenge to sell to voters.

We already imprison more people than any other country in Western Europe. Inspections of our prisons have found conditions to be shockingly bad; last year, Liverpool prison was found to have the ‘worst conditions inspectors have seen’, with rats, cockroaches, leaking toilets and broken windows just some of the features. Meanwhile, prison numbers are 8,700 above the prisons service’s own overcrowding limits.

You may think these conditions make prison less appealing, reducing crime. But in reality, the poor conditions mean prisoners feel abandoned by the state- once released, they may understandably lack motivation to contribute to the society that treated them so badly. In a previous blog we talked about the lack of support for those coming out of prison and into homelessness, another contributor to feelings of helplessness faced by ex-offenders. As a result, reoffending rates are extremely high:

“Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending—nearly half of adults (48%) are reconvicted within one year of release.”


These shocking statistics prove that we’re doing something wrong. In an attempt to save money through overcrowding in prisons and lack of support for prison leavers, the criminal justice system loses a huge amount of money as reoffenders end up back in prison instead of being supported to live independent and meaningful lives.

You may wonder why we are bothered about this issue as a homeless charity. Well, we work with a huge number of very vulnerable people. At least half of them have been in prison at some point in their lives, many from a young age. It is heart-breaking to think that had they been supported at the age of 17 to find meaning and pursue opportunities in their lives, they may have had totally different lives now. If someone had listened to them when they felt disenfranchised and angry, they may have turned their lives around.

When a 50-year-old comes into my office having been in prison on and off for 30 years and found themselves on the streets, it feels like a waste of a life that could have been much happier.

When someone with learning difficulties gets into a fight or is arrested for possession of cannabis, it seems so obvious that they should be getting support to overcome their issues. Locking them away may be the last straw to turn them to a life of criminality.

When yet another community centre struggles to continue due to austerity’s funding cuts and more kids are left without activities, opportunities and positive spaces to grow in, how can we expect those from poorer backgrounds to work against the odds without a helping hand?

A huge percentage of those in prison have committed crimes out of desperation and lack of opportunity. The government’s ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric simply isn’t going to reduce crime. We know that.

Contrary to what she may have us believe, the criminals Priti Patel talked about in her speech are in fact British people. They are products of a system that doesn’t support young people’s services, support workers, and local communities. They have been let down by those in power.

Photo by 3839153

What can I do to help?

As British citizens in a democracy, we have power. We must draw political attention to these issues that continue to ingrain poverty into our society.

You can write to your MP- feel free to quote from or link to this blog. You can find your MP’s details here, just make sure you include your name and address in your email/letter. It’s important to raise awareness of these issues! Share the blog, talk to your friends, colleagues and families about these issues, and support local charities who support vulnerable people.

Thanks for reading.

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