Benefit trap and end of ‘grey economy’ explain lack of jobs for homeless people

A survey by London charity St Mungo’s has revealed a startling
increase in unemployment among homeless people over the past 20

The poll of homeless people found that less than 5 per cent had
some form of paid employment, compared with the 83 per cent in

Reasons cited included employers’ unwillingness to give homeless
people a chance, not being able to find work that paid enough to
cover rent and bills, and the cost of work clothes and equipment.

Andy Shields, director of work and learning at St Mungo’s, says the
stark rise by the change in the employment situation for homeless
people since the 1980s.

“You’d go down places like the Strand and you’d find 30 to 40
people sleeping rough, because [the local hotels] would take
kitchen porters every morning”, he says.

But Shields says this kind of work in the “grey economy”, where
people were paid cash in hand daily and often claimed benefits as
well, has long since dried up.

While it was not hard to see the advantages of employment when cash
payments would supplement  benefits it becomes harder to justify
for some when it begins to interfere with their housing

Jeremy Swain, head of homelessness charity Thames Reach Bondway,
estimates that homeless people would need to earn £200 a week
to begin to cover the £100 a week or more that hostels charge
in rent.

Twenty years ago rents were low enough to make work seem
worthwhile, he says.

Homeless Link’s director of policy, practice and campaigns, Dominic
Williamson, says the profile of hostel users has also

“In the early 1990s there were lots of single men knocking round
the hostel system who did not have that high a need. It’s not like
it is now where the vast majority of people in hostels have high

Issues such as mental health problems or drug dependency all make
getting a job much more difficult. But some homelessness agencies
are tackling the barriers.

St Mungo’s runs a work and learning programme and Connection at St
Martins has set up Connection Crew, an events crewing service
staffed by young homeless people.

Connection Crew operations director Jamie Clark says coming off
benefits can be an “administrative nightmare” which projects need
to help tenants navigate, as well as selling the benefits of

Homeless Link is lobbying to make the provision of pre-employment
support for vulnerable groups a feature of welfare reform.
Williamson argues there is no government funding for such schemes,
making it difficult for homelessness agencies to provide

Shields believes that the government must make work pay by tackling
the problems with housing benefit but he also feels there is work
to be done in changing attitudes.

He says: “We need to work harder at persuading people that you
don’t just go to work for money, you go to work for social contact,
to do something worthwhile.”

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