It is increasingly obvious how many systems in the UK are inaccessible to homeless people: not having an address can make it near-impossible to open a bank account, get a job, and safely receive important correspondence.
The problems generally associated with homelessness are those of hunger, surviving the conditions of sleeping outside, drugs and alcohol abuse, and physical and mental health conditions. These are, of course, priorities. But some of the less “talked-about” issues, those that don’t make it onto mainstream news, are the toughest to find a way around.
At Bench Outreach we help people with a huge variety of different problems, from benefits being inexplicably cancelled to evictions and problems with the home. Recently, we’ve been struggling helping those who are homeless to open a bank account.
This is because every bank that has a ‘basic’ account requires proof of address.
The reason this is so problematic for our clients is that even those who temporarily have somewhere to live, for example if they are sofa-surfing with friends or family, they often cannot obtain proof of address with their name on. That means they struggle to gain financial independence and move onto better circumstances.
For some vulnerable people, the lack of financial independence can actually be quite dangerous. Especially for victims of domestic abuse with shared accounts, or those who share accounts with family members or current/ex-partners that they may not be able to trust, not being able to keep money in a personal account can be really nerve-wracking and potentially cause harm, leaving them more vulnerable to financial exploitation.
Moreover, a bank account is usually needed to receive benefits and wages. Now that Post Office Accounts are no longer around, the options for homeless people are often non-existent.
Lots of the people we work with are unable to use a computer or smartphone. When it comes to important letters, some of these clients would prefer to receive paper copies so that they don’t have to worry about dealing with emails and typing. Once again, here the lack of fixed address can be a problem. If someone loses their home, their benefits information, tenancy information, or hospital administration may no longer be accessible to them without help. Furthermore, most employers require an address for tax reasons, so those who cannot provide an address may not be employed.
Some work is being done to help homeless people to access services that would otherwise be impossible to access without an address. ProxyAddress is an initiative that helps homeless or vulnerably housed people to use empty addresses to engage with services. Providing a stable address could really help homeless people with administrative tasks and needs, such as opening a bank account.
Locally, Lewisham Council is working to find a way to make ProxyAddress work for the borough. At the moment, this is a work in progress, so there currently remains this serious barrier to accessing services for those with no address to use. We are hopeful that solutions will arise as currently this problem continues to affect our clients.