How charities are trying to help the most vulnerable from the cuts

5:24 pm - August 20th 2013

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by Abigail Scott Paul

Empathy is the central value at homeless charity The Cyrenians.

And, without doubt, in the two days I have been here in Newcastle, I have witnessed first-hand just how compassionate their front-line workers are: each support worker, manager, receptionist or volunteer goes above and beyond to help the person who walks through the door. No job, however menial, annoying or petty, is too small. This individual and caring approach could not be thrown into more stark relief by the reality of navigating today’s welfare system.

The Cyrenians work with some of the most vulnerable people in society: homeless drug addicts, alcoholics, ex-offenders and people with severe mental health issues. Benefits are a lifeline. Without them they have absolutely nothing: no bed, no food and no prospect of moving forward. Yet the system, often described as a ‘safety net’, is complex, difficult and impractical to access and navigate for people with chaotic lives.

I saw numerous people telephoning call centres to find out if the money they had been expecting was in their bank accounts. Every time they call, they get a different person in a different call centre. And what about those who can’t read or write? Low literacy and numeracy skills are common. Or, what happens if people simply do not have the bus fare to go to the Job Centre? It’s at these points of crisis that The Cyrenians step in to help.

But there is one major new development that looms large over many people: sanctions. Help can now be withdrawn immediately if people do not comply with the conditions of their benefits. This week I have heard numerous stories about sanctions, but these stuck in my mind:

  • A woman in her sixties had her benefits stopped because she only looked for 10 jobs in a week, rather than the required 15.
  • A man had his benefits stopped for not attending an appointment at the Job Centre, because he was working in his job on the Work Programme (set up by the Job Centre).

As part of reforming welfare, sanctions have been put in place to encourage people get back into work. Yet these cases highlight how a breakdown in communication between the claimant and Job Centre Plus can lead to benefits being withdrawn. Clearly, more work needs to be done to improve communication about conditionality.

On the front line, it’s hard to see how such strict regimes and complicated access will help those who need it most. There is still very little evidence on the long-term impacts of sanctions and research shows that the imposition of sanctions can result in criminal behaviour. Certainly support workers are predicting a rise in crime as people are left with no other option to get what they need.

Against a backdrop of hardening attitudes towards people on benefits and a tougher welfare regime, there appears to be little empathy left for the most vulnerable in society. Thank goodness for organisations like The Cyrenians.

Abigail is working on a two-week secondment with The Cyrenians. Follow her tweets @abigailspaul

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I see David Cameron’s policies to promote the big society are coming into fruition. This enables his chums to focus on money making.

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