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Lowering the Complexity Bar

Author: Chris Ware

Homelessness and poverty are clearly linked, but as Chris Ware explains, there are other factors which help explain the growing homelessness crisis in the UK.

I am increasingly being asked about what causes homelessness as friends and acquaintances are shocked to see the rise in people bedding down on the street. My response has always been to say it’s complicated, each journey is different and often combines a range of vulnerability factors and structural factors. Homeless Link states on their website:

“Structural and individual factors are often interrelated; individual issues can arise from structural disadvantages such as poverty or lack of education. While personal factors, such as family and social relationships, can also be put under pressure by structural forces such as poverty.”

This web of factors is very hard to untangle and so distilling the main cause of homelessness into one issue isn’t easy. Whilst the route into homelessness is complex the simplest way I have to describe it is that someone who is vulnerable fails to manage the complex system of managing or obtaining a home. The list of vulnerabilities is long and includes learning difficulty, physical and mental health, addiction, absence of support networks and history of trauma. These and many more are vulnerability factors when trying to navigate the complexity of managing a home which seems to be getting more complicated. These vulnerability factors are exacerbated by the decline in services that used to provide much more support for vulnerable people. Add to that the complexity of managing the benefits system, which has recently become more complicated, and it can become overwhelming. The job of homeless charities, such as the one I work for, is to support people at risk of not managing the complex system of maintaining or obtaining a home. We work to educate and empower people so that we can prevent homelessness. 

Whilst this upskilling of those vulnerable is important and should continue, we could as a society lower the complexity bar enabling those who find it difficult for whatever reason to maintain a home.

To start understanding the complexity of the system we have created, we can look at the bills my clients have to manage. The outcome of our energy market in the uk is that my clients, the poorest in society, end up paying the most for their energy. Those who for whatever reason struggle to understand their energy tariff and give up, end up on famously high standard variable tariffs. The innovation of the utility sector often leads to highly complex introductory offers and headline savings whose small print ties consumers into more profitable contracts. For young vulnerable people, working out which gas and electricity provider to go with is often a step too far. Add to that the other necessities of modern life such as banking, internet and phone and there is far too much to complexity to manage. Consumer choice through it’s complexity has given vulnerable consumers no choice, they stick with whatever they have. They also get reduced protection through weaker regulation. Simplifying these essential services would, in my opinion, help keep some people in their homes and away from homelessness.

Much of this complexity has arisen from privatised utilities, driven by the profit motive to compete in a created free market. Whatever benefit we received from these free markets, they do not protect the vulnerable. Rather vulnerabilities are opportunities for profit. Those who design and regulate our utilities could do more to protect the vulnerable. This drive to simplify the essentials of life doesn’t just help those who are vulnerable to homelessness. I hear many complaints from people who are fed up with the requirement to endlessly switch insurance or internet or other providers. We could start simplifying these essentials of life and allow us all the gift of more time for the things that matter.

Likewise the complexity in our benefits system leads to mistakes which cause drops in income through errors, sanctions and overpayments that are then taken from current benefits. An example of this complexity arises from decisions to cut council tax benefits and then leave them out of Universal Credit. The state now gives benefits to those with no money, some which needs to be paid back to the state or court fines and ultimately prison can follow. There is also an extra benefits application process in order to partially reduce council tax which is separate from other state benefits. We could cut this corner by not starting this entirely unnecessary transaction in the first place. I have also learnt to expect contradictory advice from DWP call centres. This fug of complexity means people often don’t know what they are entitled. 

 According to entitledto, (based on data in 2017) 20 billion pounds of means-tested benefit was left unclaimed. In my experience when the vulnerable people I work with have no money, they borrow, first from friends if they can, next from doorstep lenders then loan sharks. Problem debt is so often part the story for those who get evicted. There are many ways to simplify our benefits which currently seems to use complexity to create a hostile environment for claimants. The simplest of all would be some form of universal basic income, an acknowledgment that we don’t want to see people starve, paid universally to all citizens.

Simplifying systems is not a quick fix or replacement for any other suggestions to deal with rising homelessness. We also need to deal with our housing market and support social services and our NHS, provide mediation early to struggling families and education in our schools. But I don’t hear a call for simpler systems for the basics we need to live. That would help everyone and most starkly the vulnerable that are trying to keep their home.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Lowering the Complexity Bar © Chris Ware 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.