What happens when you have to wait four months for Universal Credit?

“I thought I might as well give up.”

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When 21-year-old student Camilo went into his final year of college, he had to work fewer hours to dedicate more time to studying. He had less money to pay rent, and fell into arguments with his landlord.

Desperate to complete his business course, he stuck to his studies and was eventually asked to leave the flat he was renting in south London with a friend. He had nowhere to go; he doesn’t have a father, and his mother lives abroad – they don’t speak much, and haven’t seen each other in six months.

Eventually, he was referred to a hostel run by the charity Centrepoint. He has been living there for the last two years.

“I haven’t got any parents, what am I meant to do?”

When he finished his course about five months ago, he had to switch from the old benefit he was claiming (Income Support, to help him through his studies) to Universal Credit until he found a job. He had debts to pay, including rent.

“What I wanted to do was pay off some rent, and find myself a job,” he recalls. But the system very nearly led to homelessness, and less hope of achieving this ambition.

What followed was four anxiety and hunger-ridden months of waiting for his benefits, in which he had no money in his account at all.

“I wasn’t working at the time, so my income was zero,” Camilo tells me over the phone from his hostel. “I didn’t have any money.”

With his only friends in “the same situation or studying”, he had to rely on his girlfriend at the time to stop him starving: “She could help me with some food sometimes when she was able.” And a charity would sometimes bring sandwiches and salad to the hostel at night.

“If it wasn’t for the hostel or my girlfriend, I wouldn’t have had any help or any food or anything, to be honest,” he tells me.

“You have to wait and you have to wait and you have to wait”

After four months, Camilo owed £4,000 in rent. The wait for Universal Credit meant his housing benefit – which had been paid directly from the government to the hostel – was severely delayed. He worried he’d have to leave: “If you’re not paying rent or they’re not receiving money from the government, you have to leave the establishment,” he says.

“It makes you feel upset, it makes you feel depressed, because at the end of the day, you don’t have anything to support yourself with, and you’re seeing more and more money [owed], so you’re like, ok, who am I going to call?” he asks. “I haven’t got any parents, what am I meant to do? It does make you stressed.”

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The Universal Credit system has an in-built waiting time of six weeks, and this can stretch to months on end in extreme examples like Camilo’s if there are mistakes in the system. In this case, a glitch in the housing element of Camilo’s Universal Credit claim held up the process.

“You do try and ring them up and they say that, well, due to their policy, you have to wait and you have to wait and you have to wait,” Camilo says. Sometimes he would wait by the phone for two hours for the Department for Work and Pensions to update him on the progress of his claim. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even call back,” he recalls.

As it controversially costs to call the helpline, Camilo would often find his pay-as-you-go phone empty of credit after these calls. “If you’re actually really broke, you can’t find out what’s going on, you can’t contact anyone, you can’t do anything,” he says. “It’s a bit disrespectful that they’re actually charging you for phone calls. It should be a free service.”

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Universal Credit is paid in arrears because it can change each month according to your income. The waiting time is based on the assumptions that you are accustomed to being paid monthly, would be paid a notice period in the event of losing your job, and could survive for six weeks on savings.

“The reality for many people, particularly for the cost-of-living in some areas of the country, is that they’ve just not had an ability to save any money up and suddenly find themselves unemployed,” says Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at Centrepoint.

“The assumption that everyone has previously worked, been paid on a monthly basis and then had some time to save some money up just in case they do find themselves unemployed obviously is a bit of a stretch for quite a few groups in this country,” he adds, pointing out that many young people like Camilo may have been on zero-hours contracts, or never have worked, before claiming Universal Credit.

“It got to the point where I thought I might as well give up”

The DWP stresses that claimants should never be without any money at all, as they can request an advance payment – a cash loan known as a “short-term advance” that can be paid in five days, or even on the same day in an urgent situation.

Camilo did receive this, but found it only briefly deferred his problems rather than solving them.

“It’s very much a sticking plaster solution,” says Noblet. “If people are having to take out these advance payment loans, then it somewhat suggests that there’s a systemic problem with this entire system. If you’ve got to take out a loan, and then pay it back out a small amount of money, it’s still not a good situation to be in.”

If you have no income other than benefits, and you are under 25 like Camilo, you receive a lower rate of the old Jobseeker’s Allowance (up to £57.90 a week) – and even if you’re working, you earn a lower minimum wage (£7.05 an hour). So you are unlikely to have much money with which to repay your advance payment loan.

Camilo no longer receives Universal Credit, having found full-time work in a café in central London. He is trying to save enough money to move out of his hostel and one day go to university. But he urges the government to reduce the waiting time to two weeks, because “people just don’t have the support” to wait any longer.

“It got to the point where I thought they weren’t actually going to help me with anything – I was like I might as well give up,” he says, advising future claimants to persevere. “Always be positive, stand by what you’ve applied for. Try and be strong, morally and emotionally, and that’s it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.