‘Hidden issue’ of temporary workers at risk of homelessness revealed by St Mungo’s

30 September 2020

  • Research highlights plight of the ‘nearly homeless’ who want to work but are at risk as they struggle to meet living costs.
  • Findings show COVID-19 has further increased the risk of homelessness for those in transient work
  • Recommendations include making the increase in Universal Credit permanent and increasing the Local Housing Allowance rates to cover average rents and lift the Benefit Cap

The hidden issue of temporary workers at risk of homelessness has been revealed in new research by leading homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

Today (30 Sept) St Mungo’s has published a report entitled “Tackling transient work and homelessness” which examines the link between those in temporary employment and homelessness. The research was supported and funded by the Wates Family Enterprise Trust (WFET).

The term ‘transient work’ covers employment that is typically not secure, including zero-hour contracts, agency and gig-economy work, as well as self-employment and temporary employment, which is often away from an individual’s usual base.

One of the report’s seven recommendations is that the increase in Universal Credit should be made permanent; a call being echoed by a group of 50 other organisations which is warning that millions of the UK’s poorest households could see their incomes cut by £20 a week from April unless the “lifeline” payment continues.

The study ran from August 2019 to July 2020 and gathered evidence from 172 people through focus groups, semi-structured interviews and a survey which was undertaken after lockdown and specifically focused on the effect of COVID-19.

Those who shared their experiences mainly worked in three key employment sectors: construction, hospitality and care.

The research found that among the transient workers interviewed:

  • Insecure housing and issues with the benefits system were common experiences
  • The cost of travel often negated the positive benefit of working, with some evading fares or even sleeping rough near their work sites to cut costs but continue working
  • Migrant workers, including those with no recourse to public funds, faced particular challenges including working unreasonably long hours while sleeping rough on the streets, or on trains, or sofa surfing, with some subjected to employment malpractice including incorrect pay, bogus self-employment and work ‘off the books’ and no right to challenge for fear of losing their job
  • Workers who were homeless tried to conceal their situation, and some experienced discrimination.

Between June and July 2020, the team surveyed people in transient work to find out how COVID-19 has affected their housing security. The results showed, of those surveyed:

  • 59% of survey respondents reported that their housing circumstances changed as a result of COVID-19
  • 10% of people who were experiencing housing insecurity were sleeping rough or sofa surfing
  • 75% of survey respondents continued to go into work – if their sector wasn’t locked down – during COVID-19, citing that they needed money for housing
  • 87% of people reported losing working hours
  • Before COVID-19, 78% of people reported being able to pay for their accommodation comfortably. This fell to 40% during the period of 23 March – 4 July 2020.

The report makes seven policy recommendations:

  • Increase Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates to cover average rents and lift the Benefit Cap.
  • Make the increase to the standard allowance of Universal Credit (UC) permanent.
  • Provide flexible travel grants for people starting new work with low-income.
  • Invest in services that help prevent and end homelessness.
  • Suspend No Recourse to Public Funds conditions for 12 months, allowing people with this requirement on their leave to remain agreements to access welfare and homelessness assistance from local authorities.
  • Fund specialist employment support programmes tailored to people experiencing homelessness.
  • Ensure people living in supported housing can earn more before their benefits are affected, helping them to experience the positive impact of work without putting their housing at risk.

The 15-month study was conducted by former or current St Mungo’s clients, all of whom have experienced homelessness themselves. They were trained through a new Open College Network Peer Research programme delivered at the charity’s Recovery College and overseen by St Mungo’s Senior Research Officer Dr Hayley Peacock.

The 12 peer researchers helped co-produce the research including designing research materials, conducting interviews, sampling, analysis and contributing to the final report.

The researchers heard compelling stories of people experiencing serious financial hardship, having to work extremely long hours for pay that barely sustained housing plus travel, with no stable accommodation leading to them falling in and out of rough sleeping, and making it even harder to hold down a steady job.

On man said: “On site, nobody shows any real emotions, you know. You’re all sat in the canteen, you’re having a laugh and a joke, you know. You could walk out of here and, you know, you could be sleeping in the car. It’s always very hard to tell because our environment is… you don’t show emotions when you’re talking to your friends or colleagues on site. You don’t give that information away, really.”

Research participants also experienced problems with the benefit system and felt trapped in poor quality jobs.

A woman agency worker said: “I was paying two council taxes in one year.  One was a £100 [per month], one was £104.  The current one was £104 and they missed when I wasn’t working, because you know when you’re not working you don’t pay your council tax, and then they kept sending these letters.  They turned around and said, ‘You owe us £2,000 to £3,000 in council tax.’  So, since I started working, that’s when the pressure came.”

Steve Douglas CBE, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, said: “This report shows a harrowing but not unsurprising picture of people hanging on by their fingertips, wanting to work and doing extremely long hours but for wages that sometimes barely cover the cost of the travel, never mind housing. For these people the system does not work and it is clear, that for many, homelessness is a real and immediate threat.

“We often hear an average person is three pay cheques pay away from losing their homes – well, our research reveals there are some people already homeless despite working. The stress caused by such a precarious situation was evident from those who generously took part in our research. And we know this can easily be a hidden issue with those experiencing difficulties reluctant to disclose their situation for fear of discrimination or stigmatisation. Thanks go to our researchers who were able to sensitively undertake this important research.

“Employers have recognised some of these issues, which is encouraging. The pandemic and its impact is likely to increase this group of people who are vulnerable to homelessness. There is an urgent need for more awareness, understanding and action and the Department of Work and Pensions has an important role to play in developing longer term solutions to prevent future homelessness,” he said.

The project was supported by Wates Family Enterprise Trust, which was set up by the Wates family, owners of the Wates Group. The Trust is integral to the Wates family’s approach of being responsible business owners and its vision of being a force for good.

Tim Wates, Trustee of the Wates Family Enterprise Trust and Wates Group Director, said: “Through the work of the Wates Family Enterprise Trust we are seeking to create insight into housing issues, influence policy and help further best practice. Housing is a huge and complex issue for the UK with no silver bullet available to resolve it. However the work that we support, combined with many similar initiatives, can help to move things forward.

“Our work with St Mungo’s is a great example of this. After discussions with their excellent team, we felt further research into people in a precarious housing position – the ‘nearly homeless’ – might provide insight that would enable us to educate society on what is happening, help with the development of good practice, and positively influence Government policy around homelessness.” 

The full St Mungo’s report Tackling transient work and homelessness can be accessed here.

Notes to Editors

St Mungo’s

To request interviews please contact Press.Office@mungos.org

St Mungo’s is a homelessness charity and housing association, which provides housing and support to around 2,850 people a night in addition to a range of  emergency services for people sleeping rough, and health, education, employment and training services for people who are, or have been, homeless to rebuild their lives. Last year we worked with more than 32,000 people across the south and south west. While working locally we also seek to influence nationally through advocating for policy change, research and increasing public understanding of the issues faced by people who are homeless.

More information about St Mungo’s Recovery College can be found here.


Wates Family Enterprise Trust

The Wates Family Enterprise Trust is an independent charity set up by the Wates family, the owners of the Wates Group. Launched in 2008, the Trust is integral to the Wates family’s approach of being responsible business owners and its vision of being a force for good. The Trust has three strategic themes Life Opportunities for Young People, Housing and, a third, Sustainability. Through these themes, the Wates Family Enterprise Trust funds new ideas and charitable programmes that make a difference to disadvantaged people’s lives.