As part of the Laws Connections Homelessness Case Study, first year students were asked to write a blog post reflecting on their experiences. We selected two of the most impressive entries to share with you here.
Author: Rubika Ramachandran
Throughout the homelessness case study, it was not all that shocking to learn how the welfare state system has suffered over the past few decades given that I am aware of the austerity cuts made after the 2008 global financial crisis. However, something I did not previously consider was how doing this has led to a major reduction in access to free legal advice; it is truly alarming to see how this leads to such detrimental cases of accumulated problems and a country where many disadvantaged citizens are unaware of their rights and have no means of accessing them.
Underfunding of the welfare state system and legal aid
Before unpacking the issues regarding legal aid, it is important to initially analyse government cuts to the welfare state and benefits in general, and how this has enabled the suffering of many in this country. Upon learning about the proceedings in which someone can claim housing under the Homelessness Reduction Act or ESA, I was initially shocked as to how rigid the criteria and system is. I initially thought change should be made for a wider scope of people to access these resources, but upon second thought I realise this is easier said than done when the demand for things like housing is so high, especially in London, and the supply is so low, there must be a cut-off point somewhere to ensure the most vulnerable do not suffer. It is very unfortunate that those who are just out of the threshold have to suffer in such manner, however I believe this system is better than random allocation. Perhaps a reasonable conclusion could be that it is up to the government to implement more drastic reform and invest in a larger supply of housing and more money into the welfare state to facilitate to this demand.
I learnt that as a result of such high demand and the use of priority need, local authority workers are often the ones having to turn people away from claiming any sort of benefit/housing. It is easy to villainise them, often times it is observed that they are wrongfully turning people away, enforcing penalties on benefits for trivial reasons and are often simply just rude and uncompassionate. However, upon further reflection I cannot help but sympathise with these workers; often they are simply the faces of government policy. They do not create the rules, it is simply their job to enforce them and in such a field where they are understaffed, overworked and underpaid, many have often become desensitised to such matters, or experienced trauma as a result if having to turn many people away.
A consequence of such cuts to the welfare state has resulted in the further need for accessible legal advice. This leads us to the next problem: Organs and Sigafoos state in the article ‘What about poor people’s rights?’[i] that ‘the reduction in access to free legal advice and problems with the welfare rights system have had interrelated impacts on people, as manifest in the financial, physical and mental health, emotional, and social impacts on participants in the study’. As per the article, this has resulted in many people not resolving their legal issues as going through such a system is too mentally strenuous, especially for those who may have some sort of illness or disability. I believe this results in a system where people are unable to exercise their legal rights and thus form a mistrust in the system. Perhaps this could be one explanation as to why things like welfare law and homelessness have such a strong link to the criminal law; those who are unable to provide for themselves may resort to illegal means such as stealing, or they may become disengaged and get involved in violent crime as an act of rebellion.
How this leads to problem clusters
As a result of such defunding and people being unable to enforce their rights, perhaps the most significant problem the case study made me aware of is how this often leads to problem clusters. The aforementioned article describes in their study how ‘although the boundary between issues was sometimes unclear, these participants reported having 206 different welfare rights problems in the past two years, with 80 per cent (75) participants having more than one.’ For example, someone could have problems with an illness or disability, which leads to them seeking ESA which they are denied, they physically cannot do the 35 hours of research needed for the JSA, they have been unfairly dismissed from their job and they are in need of a carer. Perhaps they cannot fill in the online forms due to this ailment, thus cannot receive the benefit on time, leading to possible eviction, homelessness and cases of going hungry. This is just one example of the many problems people go through, which often accumulate as a result of the initial problem going unsolved. This is why I feel it is important for issues to be solved at the initial stage before cases become detrimental, however this is easier said than done when many have no access to internet, cannot afford the travel fair to make it to their LA or law centre/CA. Hence, the only plausible solution I can think of as of right now is that more funding is needed in the welfare state to provide an adequate amount of staff and money in both LAs and legal aid.
Shift in socio-political opinion
One thing I had not considered until reading this article was the reasons behind the cut to funding in the welfare state as they mention ‘In recent decades, the conception of a community-focused, inclusive form of social citizenship has shifted towards a more individualized and privatized form of citizenship based upon neoliberal thinking, more akin to earlier Anglo-American liberal conceptions of citizenship. This has led to a focus on the active citizen and work, and the framing of welfare rights and support for access to justice in terms of those who are deserving of these social and civil rights.’ I believe in recent times there has been a shift towards ideas of individualism and contribution to society; there is often a lot of media surrounding those who claim anything from the welfare state as they are perceived as ‘lazy’ and ‘stealing taxpayers’ money’, rather than people who are genuinely struggling. It seems as if many believe housing, food, money, and stability etc is something you should earn by contributing to society, rather than an inherent right. This is where I believe the problem stems from, and 12 years of Conservative rule has done nothing but fuel that fire.
[i] Sigafoos, J., & Organ, J. ‘What about the poor people’s rights?’ The dismantling of social citizenship through access to justice and welfare reform policy. J Law Soc. 2021;48:362–385