Food banks and homeless shelters preparing for 'bleak winter' with trepidation amid NHS warning

Food banks and homeless shelters are preparing for a “bleak situation” this winter, while the NHS will be preparing to take in vulnerable people who are freezing in their homes, a poverty organisation has warned.

Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warned government action was ‘just tinkering around the edges’ of the poverty crisis as fuel bills spiral and Universal Credit is set to be cut.

The UK Government’s furlough scheme is also set to end this Thursday, which many believe could see huge swathes of people made redundant.

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Mr Birt said: “There will be food banks preparing for extra people coming through their doors, there will be homeless services and councils, getting prepared to be busier over the winter.

Food banks are bracing themselves for a busy winter.

"The NHS will be dealing with old people who are coming into them because they're too cold. It's a bleak situation for a really wealthy country.

"The UK Government has got to first of all, can this cut to Universal Credit, again, does that fix some of these more fundamental issues? No, we need to get on and do that work.

"But the way to start that work is not by throwing hundreds of hundreds of thousands of people into poverty over winter.”

Mr Birt said the Scottish Government could further increase bridging payments for those in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment or increase the winter housing allowance – but warned their hands were tied when it came to more fundamental approaches to tackle poverty.

However, he warned more deep-rooted measures need to be taken to tackle poverty, such as creating a minimum universal income.

Mr Birt said: “Fundamentally, the energy market is controlled by the UK Government. Things like Universal Credit are controlled by the UK Government and they have to play their part too.

"The Scottish Government are certainly doing more than the UK Government, but they’re kind of tinkering around the edges of what is a more substantial economic, deep-rooted problem.”

He added: “People have been describing it as a ‘perfect storm’, but to me that's not a particularly good analogy because a storm is a natural event where there’s nothing you can do, whereas this is kind of designed by people, and we could do something about it.”

Charities warned that poverty would push more people into homelessness.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “We are deeply concerned that as the economic impact of the pandemic takes effect, more and more people who are currently struggling to make ends meet could be pushed into homelessness.

“With vital lifelines such as furlough and the Universal Credit uplift expected to come to an end, thousands of Scots will be left worrying about how they will afford their housing costs. But it is vital that we act now to prevent a rise in homelessness in Scotland.”

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Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland said that a recent YouGov poll had found almost 300,000 people in Scotland are unable to their pay rent or mortgage and warned that financial pressure was likely to increase that number in coming months.

She said: “The coronavirus pandemic has shown that good housing is a matter of life and death. But we must not forget that Scotland had a housing emergency before the pandemic hit.

"With thousands of people losing their jobs, and many battling with rent arrears, we need action to make sure this economic crisis doesn’t deepen our housing emergency.”

Ms Watson said a £10 million tenant grant fund announced today by the Scottish Government was welcome, but that further action needed to be taken.

She said: “Thousands of families and individuals urgently need this to help them get out of debt, and keep the roof over their heads, especially at a time when the £20 [a week] cut to Universal Credit and a likely energy price hike are about to bite.

“We're also asking Cabinet secretary for housing Shona Robison to reinstate the eviction ban, so that no-one is made homeless as a result of the pandemic.”

Recent figures from Energy Action Scotland showed Scots will be facing higher energy bills than the UK average – an estimated £375 rise compared to around £250 elsewhere, and an additional 150,000 people are expected to be plunged into fuel poverty.

Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, warned thousands of older people in Scotland could be plunged into fuel poverty this winter.

A recent survey by the charity found energy bills are the biggest concern for more than eight in ten people over 50 who feel financially squeezed.

Mr Sloan said: “We’re extremely concerned that many older people are already putting their health at risk by not heating their homes properly and this is only going to get worse. This is especially true if they have existing health conditions, or live in remote, rural areas or hard-to-heat homes.

“Cold temperatures can be very dangerous to older people, exacerbating respiratory problems, heart disease and other health conditions, and increasing the likelihood and severity of flu and chest infections. This could lead to increased winter deaths, as well as GP visits and hospital admissions.

“We are urging the Scottish and UK governments to seriously consider extra payments to older people on a low income this winter to make sure they can afford to use their heating.”

Garry Lemon, director of policy at the Trussell Trust, said that without intervention, the number of people in poverty will rise this winter.

He said: “The news about soaring fuel prices underlines just how devastating the £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit will be for millions of families on low incomes.

“Our research shows that more than 1.3 million people on Universal Credit already fear they’ll struggle to switch on the heating this winter if the UK Government goes ahead with this cut – and worryingly, some 670,000 people say it’s very likely they won’t be able to afford to switch on their oven to cook hot food."

MSPs are set to today debate the cut in Universal Credit in the Scottish Parliament, with Ms Robison saying the UK Government had a “last chance” to reverse the plan.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are already taking a wide range of actions within our powers to support people, including bringing in the Scottish Child Payment and bridging payments for families on low incomes.

"Our £130 pandemic payment will also reach everyone in receipt of council tax reduction in October and last week we announced plans to extend Child Winter Heating Assistance to reach 5,000 additional families.

“Our efforts will be undermined by the UK Government’s plans to remove more than £1,000 per year in Universal Credit payments from the lowest income households. Many of those who will lose out are unable to work due to ill health and disability and more than a third of UC recipients are already in work, but rely on the payments to make ends meet.

“We continue to call on the UK Government to reconsider this decision and do more to protect the most vulnerable.”

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