A disabled woman who spent 37 years living in mental health institutions and hostels, including time sleeping in doorways, fears the flawed universal credit system will cause her to be evicted from her flat back onto the streets.
It is only in the last two years that Jennifer, who is now 57, has finally been able to settle down in a safe, “cosy” flat of her own after a lifetime of living in mental health institutions, hostels and on the streets.
But she has now been left owing hundreds of pounds in rent after she made an error when notifying the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about a possible move to another property.
Now she fears the complexity of the system and the stress it causes will eventually lead to her losing her home.
Her case is just the latest in a series of concerns from disabled people who have been left in despair by the universal credit system.
Last week, a disabled woman who fled a violent relationship described how she was left without any income after DWP refused to ease demands placed on her by its “abusive” universal credit system, and then stopped her payments.
The previous week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
Jennifer contacted DNS after reading these and other reports of the mental distress caused by the working-age benefits system.
She appears to have been forced onto universal credit – against her wishes – after moving into a flat in a sheltered housing complex two years ago.
She found the claim process incredibly stressful and asked at the time to stay on employment and support allowance.
Her concerns grew when, following confusion over a possible move to a flat in another sheltered housing complex, her housing costs were reduced and paid directly to her for two months.
DWP says this was done according to relevant guidance, because she had said her new tenancy would be with a landlord in the private rented sector.
But Jennifer insists she told DWP she would be moving to another sheltered housing complex for the over-55s and not to private rented accommodation.
DWP said this week, after being contacted by DNS, that it had now calculated the extra amount owed to her and would pay her the £680.30 she was due.
Jennifer had told DNS earlier: “I used to live on the streets and in the night shelter and it’s one thing that I fear.
“It nearly drove me over the edge to do something silly with myself because I thought I would be homeless again.”
She said she remembered sleeping in the doorway of a shoe shop in Leicester. “This is the first flat I have had for 37 years.
“Before that I was living in institutions, I was in the system, in homeless hostels, hospitalised, sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
“I went from institution to institution.
“I have lived in this flat a couple of years, and it is my sanctuary.”
She said the problems with universal credit and the fears she had of being evicted had “brought back 30 years of struggles and being injected and placed in every single hospital you can mention”.
She said: “I went from mental health hospital to mental health hospital to hostel, and then to my lovely nice, cosy, warm, safe flat and then they get universal credit to try to underpin me.
“I am worried that it will get to a point where I feel I have to get back to being dependent again and [into institutions], just for the safety and security.
“Even though I didn’t have a normal life [in institutions], I didn’t have any worries because it was all taken care of for me.
“Now I have lived here for two years, and I think I have come a long way and people need to recognise that.”
She said universal credit had added to the stress of coping with life on her own, and she feared the problems with her rent and the complexity of universal credit would see her forced to return to an institution.
Among her other concerns, she has found it almost impossible to contact her work coach when she needs to, because of the complex security checks demanded by the DWP call centre.
She said: “I hope universal credit understand that what I’ve experienced is not unusual but is growing more and more common in terms of disabled people receiving unreasonable demands and unfair treatment.
“I was crying, screaming, and wanting to harm myself over my rent arrears, all because of universal credit.”
But she has praised her MP, Labour’s Margaret Beckett, for supporting her to lodge a complaint with DWP.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, commenting on the recent cases reported by DNS, said: “It is clear that universal credit has been failing people for far too long.
“We need a fairer, more compassionate system which does not let people down and leave them in desperate situations.
“Labour is committed to fundamentally reforming universal credit.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We deliver a supportive and compassionate service supporting millions of people a year on universal credit and our priority is they get the financial support to which they are entitled as soon as possible.
“We have supported [Jennifer] throughout her universal credit claim.”
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