Universal Credit leaving charities scrambling to help people in Sheffield, food poverty campaigners claim

The introduction of Universal Credit in Sheffield has left voluntary services and charities scrambling to help people who have fallen through the cracks of the benefits system, food poverty campaigners have claimed.

Monday, 17th February 2020, 11:45 am
Updated Monday, 16th March 2020, 2:31 pm

The controversial new social security payment was introduced in the city in November 2018, but the charities say changes such as monthly payments and five-week waits for cash have left some people struggling to pay for basics like food, electricity and heating.

One of the new ‘social eating projects’ which have stepped into the breach to fill this unmet need is Universal Cafe, a joint project between Open Kitchen Social Club and the Sheffield Foodhall Project.

Funded to the tune of £10,000 by the Big Lottery Fund, they started around six months ago, and have since helped around 30 people at their weekly sessions at the Foodhall’s Matilda Street base.

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Universal Cafe is held in the Sheffield Foodhall on Matilda Street every Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the cafe was in full swing with organisers, volunteers and service users chatting before lunch was served.

One of those getting help was Raimond, a middle-aged man who until recently had been living under a bridge in Sheffield city centre, but through the help given to him by the Universal Cafe, had recently been able to move into a flat.

Volunteer Katelyn McKeown said Raimond’s case was not unique but extreme, and most were people with housing issues, addiction problems, gambling debts or mental health difficulties.

These problems, she added, were difficult enough to deal with on their own, but make the already difficult task of navigating the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ that is Universal Credit almost impossible.

Universal Cafe is held in the Sheffield Foodhall on Matilda Street every Wednesday.

She said: “Most of all we just want to provide an understanding environment and give people a voice. We want people to know they’re all in the same boat and to allow people to say this system is rubbish and I am struggling with it.

“There is a big element of Universal Credit that is punitive so people are being left with virtually nothing in their payment. And if they are sanctioned they can end up owing the DWP money.

“People can be left without money for weeks at a time so that is why we are seeing the rise of foodbanks and social eating projects like this one.

“But that is not a social security system, it is charity.”

Universal Cafe is held in the Sheffield Foodhall on Matilda Street every Wednesday.

As well as a good meal, clients can get help with maintaining a claim, getting online, using the DWP website, managing money and bidding for accommodation.

“It is so confusing,” says Becky Greenwood, another volunteer.

“No one seems to know why they get what they get and what they are going to get from month to month.”

These difficulties can often mean volunteers spend hours helping just one person, with each claimant needing hours of help on the phone and online just to navigate the system.

Universal Cafe: Volunteer and clients at the Sheffield Foodhall's Matilda Street base.

“We’d like to get more people in but each person needs such a big time commitment,” said Katelyn.

“The time we spend with them is totally disproportionate to what you are able to achieve.”

And Katelyn added that while the current situation in Sheffield was bad, it would only get worse as more and more people were moved onto Universal Credit over the next few years.

“The more people go onto Universal Credit the higher the demand is going to be,” she said.

“And it is being left to the voluntary sector to plug the gap but there is a limit to what can be done. Food banks are overwhelmed and they are having to cut back.

“It just feels like the most vulnerable people being put in a situation that is unmanageable and unsustainable.”

Universal Cafe: Volunteers Katelyn McKeown and Becky Greenwood.

However, Katelyn added that while foodbanks can help people unable to feed themselves or their families, they can’t do anything if people have no food or electricity at home.

“Their only option is to access social eating projects to sustain their daily lives,” she added.

“But these volunteer projects can’t just keep growing exponentially and the demand will start to outstrip supply.”

The Universal Cafe takes place every Wednesday at the Foodhall Sheffield on Matilda Street from 11am-3pm.

A DWP spokesman said: “The UK government continues to spend around £95 billion a year on working age benefits, with Universal Credit supporting more than 2.8 million people across the UK. It gives people financial help if they’re unemployed, low-paid or unable to work.

“People can get paid urgently if they need it and 95% of payments are made in full and on time. We’ve changed the system so people can receive even more money in the first two weeks than under the old system.”

Universal Cafe is held in the Sheffield Foodhall on Matilda Street every Wednesday.