The Hear Us Welfare Benefits Project was set up 3 years ago in response to a growing need for extra support to help the most vulnerable of our service users to claim the benefits they are entitled to. The majority of our clients would struggle to access mainstream support and many face additional barriers in addition to having to navigate an already complex and often baffling welfare system. For example, of the 450 clients we have seen so far, many need additional support such as help to read their letters or complete forms, due to problems with reading and writing. Others face further problems such as having just left the prison system or dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, which mean they may face more hurdles, including the prejudices and judgements of others, which make claiming benefits problematic. Hear Us prides ourselves on helping anyone who needs it – even if that means putting in additional measures such as home visits to people with severe anxiety who are unable to leave their home, accompanying people to assessments outside of the borough and working with people whose emotional and mental health problems mean they struggle to engage with other services.
Helping people to secure their benefit entitlements enables them to feel more in control of their lives and take part in their communities and can also relieve some of the burden of poverty and/or debt that so often leads to a downwards spiral of both mental and physical health. We provide a holistic service, signposting people to other resources in the borough, including Health and Well-being opportunities, Voluntary work and Education and counselling and Talking Therapies.
Our small project, which is run by one full time and two part time staff, receives referrals from CMHTs, GP surgeries, Job centres, Care Homes and Residential Hostels, Probation and other voluntary organisations. Unfortunately demand now by far exceeds resources and we are unable to see everyone as quickly as we would like to.
However, we aim to assist our service users as quickly as possible, as we understand the anxiety created by benefit problems. We can help in the following areas:
- Applying for Freedom passes and other concessionary transport schemes.
- Completing ESA, DLA and PIP forms.
- Accompanying people to their assessments and, where necessary, tribunals (we have been to over 45 Tribunals to date – and have not lost one yet!).
- Successfully supporting people to ask for a Reconsideration if they receive an unfair DWP decision.
- Seeking supporting letters/evidence from GPs and mental health teams.
- Applying for grants to help with utility (water, gas and electricity) debts – we have successfully had dozens of utility debts written off in the past 3 years.
- We have successfully applied to Croydon council to help people who are in arrears with their rent, avoiding eviction in several cases (via the DHP scheme) and to acquire essential items for their homes via the CDS (Croydon Discretionary Scheme).
Recent years have seen massive changes to our welfare system, including migration from income support and incapacity benefit to Employment and Support Allowance, and more recently from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment. We have recently begun to assist people who must claim the ‘NEWEST BENEFIT OF ALL – UNIVERSAL CREDIT’ (UC). UC must be claimed on- line, and since many of our service users don’t have computer skills or access to the internet, this is proving challenging – again, we can help our clients to overcome many (and all)of the barriers that would leave them otherwise floundering. We provide hands on support to apply for Universal Credit, we accompany service users to job centre appointments, assist people to make Universal Credit work for them (as much as is possible) by helping them to apply for fortnightly payments (UC is typically paid once a month) and requesting alternative payments to secure the rent (for people who would struggle to budget by themselves).
As Hear Us is primarily a campaigning organisation we work hard to educate the public and break down stigma and discrimination. Our Reachout Challenge (anti stigma) project, has trained many jobcentre and DWP staff to have a better understanding of the challenges faced by those of us who live with mental illness. We plan to do more campaigning in the coming months and years, highlighting the flaws and injustices in the welfare benefit system and reducing the gap between mental and physical health.
Hear Us informs and educates via our popular Monthly Open Forums where we invite along guest speakers to talk on topical issues – we regularly include talks on Welfare Benefit changes, and these are often our most popular and well attended meetings.