A York couple who were homeless for eight months say they were swept further into poverty by Universal Credit, but now they want to help others in similar crisis.
Susan Rimington and Tony Carson were in live-in accommodation at a pub, but became homeless when a planned move fell through.
They lived in a council-run hostel then spent seven weeks in a tent beside the River Ouse, feeding themselves and their dog Buster on a total of £4 a day, before securing a house through the city council.
The couple say the Government needs to fix Universal Credit, its new flagship benefits policy, saying its lack of flexibility made their situation worse.
They have also set up a new website, giving emergency recipes and advice to others who may be at risk of starving.
Cooking on a camp stove
Tony said Sue, who has been a chef for more than 30 years, had “worked miracles” on their camp stove, enabling them to have one meal a day, but he said many people without her expertise would have struggled to eat even that much on their income.
Tony said: “Having kept a meal diary and finally found housing, we have created the Eat Well on UC website.
“In association with The Salvation Army the site is intended as a recipe resource for those who are homeless, trying to survive on Universal Credit or just looking for tasty and wholesome recipe suggestions on a very limited budget.
“There are other people who are also put in this situation through no fault of their own, and that shouldn’t happen, but if we can help them make their situation a little less severe, then we want to help.”
There are 20 recipes on the website, with more being added daily. They couple also plan to run food and recipe presentations locally. Donations can be made on the website, to support demonstrations, with any surplus being passed to the Salvation Army.
Universal Credit ‘does not work’
Tony and Sue said Universal Credit lacked flexibility, and was undermined by administrative errors, such as when they had money wrongly deducted from one of their payments. Tony said:
Universal Credit does not work, and it’s the fault of the system. It doesn’t help you get back on your feet, it traps you.
The staff at the York Jobcentre have been helpful but they have to fulfil their duties and the system does not work.
For several weeks we were feeding ourselves and Buster, our dog, for £4 a day, picking up vegetables and reduced items.
Sue was working miracles on the camp stove and we were just about managing but in the middle of August we had £23 to last us 11 days and we had to buy washing powder and gas for the camp stove.
Eating raw mussels
Sue said Universal Credit was not the only cause of all our problems.
“We had both had bad past relationships before we met and had both lost a lot, but Universal Credit swept us further into difficulty because you can never, ever, be in credit with Universal Credit.”
Tony added: “The system is potentially killing people. We found a chap collapsed on a lane near us. We thought he had died.
“When he woke up, he produced this big bag of swan mussels that he’d been collecting from the Ouse. He had just been smashing the shells and eating them raw because he was so desperate.
“We cooked him a meal, but the system isn’t looking after people. That guy said he just felt lost, being moved from one hostel to the next.”
They also expect the system to operate entirely online.
But if you are homeless you can’t charge your phone up whenever you want, you often can’t afford to call someone, and if they send a message to you and you don’t receive it, then straight away you’re under threat of being sanctioned.
Universal Credit needs more flexibility built into it; it needs to allow for people’s circumstances.