The number of rough sleepers in Greater Manchester could at least double this winter unless Theresa May halts the much-criticised rollout of universal credit, Andy Burnham has warned.
The Labour mayor said it was the unanimous view of the region’s public officials that the homelessness crisis would “dramatically worsen” if the welfare programme was not halted urgently.
Speaking after a meeting aimed at tackling the region’s homelessness crisis, which was attended by a Department for Work and Pensions official, Burnham said: “This is not a political point from me. I’m speaking here for the NHS, public health colleagues, police, fire.
“The entire public sector in Greater Manchester has supported what I’m about to say, which is a plea to the prime minister and the government to suspend the rollout of universal credit. It was the unanimous view of the meeting that if the rollout goes ahead as planned it will make our problem dramatically worse.”
Concerns have been raised that claimants are being forced to use food banks because of the mandatory six-week wait to receive money under the scheme, which aims to simplify the welfare system by rolling six benefits into one.
Speaking after the meeting of public bodies from across Greater Manchester, Burnham said those in the room believed that the region’s estimated 400 rough sleepers could “at least double” if the rollout is not postponed.
“I do say in all sincerity, no politics at all in this, please listen to what those experts are saying and put that rollout on hold because if it goes ahead as planned we will see a much greater problem unfold before our eyes,” said the former MP for Leigh.
“It’s a genuine statement that represents the feelings of those public bodies, and secondly I’d say to the government that they need to give it some credence because many of our public bodies volunteered to be pilots for universal credit.
“It’s not done out of lack of knowledge – they know what is happening. They know that many of the people who went on to universal credit are in arrears. There’s a high, high level of rent arrears among people receiving universal credit. This isn’t just an off-the-cuff comment. They are deeply worried about it and the government needs to listen to that.”
Burnham, who has pledged to end homelessness in Greater Manchester by 2020, made the appeal as he announced a nearly £2m bond to support “well over 100” rough sleepers into supported accommodation within weeks.
John Rouse, Greater Manchester’s chief officer for health and social care, also announced that people with no fixed abode would now be able to register at GPs’ surgeries – lifting a longstanding barrier to accessing health support for rough sleepers.
He also promised to work with housing services to ensure that homeless people receiving hospital treatment would never be discharged on to the street. The region’s fire service has said it will let rough sleepers use its community rooms for food and shelter on evenings over the winter.