This was our home for 7 weeks after UC swept us into poverty

Tony & Sue’s shocking story shows why the system needs to be more flexible


Sometimes, life’s currents go against us, and we unexpectedly find ourselves in a crisis.

Tony and Sue were in live-in accommodation at a pub where they worked in York. They left there, but then their planned move to a new pub fell through and they found themselves both out of work and homeless.

They signed on to Universal Credit, but instead of helping them back out of the rip-tide and back on to dry land, they found themselves getting into deeper difficulty.

They initially moved into a council-run hostel but struggled to keep up with the rent there, due to Universal Credit being paid monthly and in arrears. Dogs are also banned from the hostel, and when Tony and Sue’s dog-sitting arrangement fell through, they and their pet Buster moved into a tent beside the River Ouse for several weeks.

This is their story, and it shows clearly why Universal Credit can and must be fixed.

Tony says: “Universal Credit does not work, and it’s the fault of the system. It doesn’t help you get back on your feet, it traps you. The staff at the York Jobcentre have been helpful but they have to fulfil their duties and the system does not work.

“We receive Universal Credit of £465 a month. The DWP also pay towards housing costs, but their assessment for two people in a single property in York is £430 a month and you cannot get anywhere in York for that. The rent in the hostel is £128 a week plus £35 amenity charges.

“So we get £465 a month of Universal Credit and from that we have to pay £98 a month to top-up our rent at the homeless hostel and £160 a month in amenity charges, so we’ve only a few pounds a day left for everything else. For several weeks we have been feeding ourselves and Buster, our dog, for £4 a day, picking up vegetables and reduced items. Sue was working miracles on the camp stove and we have been just about managing but we have been running out of money and we are probably going to have to bite the bullet and go to the food bank. In the middle of August, we had £23 to last us 11 days until our next Universal Credit payment and we had to buy washing powder and gas for the camp stove.

DSC05551
Tony, Sue and Buster, when they were living in a tent beside the River Ouse in York. They found the fly-tipped sofas nearby.

“We went on Universal Credit in January when we became homeless. We stayed with my mum in Selby for a few weeks but she’s elderly and we couldn’t stay there long. We got a £400 advance loan for Universal Credit, but that gets deducted from us over ten months after that.”

Sue says: “Universal Credit is not the only cause of all our problems. We had both had bad past relationships before we met and had both lost a lot, but Universal Credit has swept us further into difficulty because you can never, ever, be in credit with Universal Credit.

Tony: “The system is potentially killing people. We found a chap collapsed on a lane near us. We thought he had died. When he woke up, he produced this big bag of swan mussels that he’d been collecting from the Ouse. He had just been smashing the shells and eating them raw because he was so desperate. We cooked him a meal, but the system isn’t looking after people. That guy said he just felt lost, being moved from one hostel to the next.

“We set up the tent down here in June. We took it in turns at first, because Buster wasn’t allowed in the hostel and we didn’t have anyone to look after him. Then we were told to leave the hostel completely at the start of August as they found out we had been sleeping here on alternate nights. We spent three more weeks there, both of sleeping in the tent. We cleared a little area and we found a couple of sofas that people had fly-tipped.

“The council had initially said we had made ourselves intentionally homeless, but we won our appeal and we have now got a council flat quite near the Bar Walls. The Salvation Army in York gave us a lot of help, they were fantastic. It was such a relief to get somewhere. Sue has asthma so if the weather had turned, and we had been in the tent in autumn or winter, it would have been a really bad situation.

“We both want to work, we were each doing 80 hours a week in our previous posts but circumstances at the moment are against us. But once we get a property, we can get back to work. I have qualifications in web work and went for a job nearby and got it, pending disclosure checks. But then they could not do the disclosure checks because I had no address. If I had got that job we would have been out of the system sooner. Now that we are in a flat, we will have an address and should be able to find work and steadily get back on our feet.

“We’ve had other problems with Universal Credit as well. I managed to get some work one month, so they took 63p in the pound out of the Universal Credit and our payment that month was £253 – but then they assumed we were getting that income again the next month, when we weren’t, so we were short until they resolved it.

“They also expect the system to operate entirely online but if you are homeless you can’t charge your phone up whenever you want, you often can’t afford to call someone, and if they send a message to you and you don’t receive it, then straight away you’re under threat of being sanctioned. They insist on doing everything online but then obstruct you, by not letting you charge your phone while you wait for the appointment or not letting you upload a doctor’s note but saying you have to bring it in.

“The idea of Universal Credit as a one-size-fits-all system is a nonsense. It needs more flexibility built into it; it needs to allow for people’s circumstances.”

The bigger picture

Tony and Sue also shared their story with The Yorkshire Post, as part of the paper’s recent series on Universal Credit, to which Church Action on Poverty contributed.

They are far from alone in finding that Universal Credit is not working as it should.

We have heard from many other people who have also experienced problems, and who have been swept deeper into poverty as a result.

Tony and Sue call for more flexibility in the system. That is one of the key demands in the Fix Universal Credit petition. The policy can and should be fixed. We call on the Government to:

  • Take action to improve the flexibility and support for people on Universal Credit.
  • Make improvements to Universal Credit, to ensure it does not leave more people at risk of debt and destitution.
  • Make a long-term commitment to ensure Universal Credit provides people with enough income to afford good food on a regular basis.

To help Fix Universal Credit, you can sign or download the petition here.

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