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Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities struggle to get financial aid in lockdown

Members of gypsy, Roma and traveller (GRT) communities have had trouble accessing government financial support during the coronavirus lockdown, charities have said.

A history of cash-in-hand work and a lack of IT skills are some reasons why applying for universal credit and help for self-employed workers has been difficult, a worker from Roma Support Group told The Independent.

Mihai Calin Bica claimed people have lost their jobs during the pandemic without being furloughed, and “many were not able to make applications for universal credit”.

“They simply didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough information about it, didn’t have the right skills, or they didn’t have support to make the application,” the campaigning and policy worker tells The Independent.

He says his organisation – which helps people from the Roma community, who hail from different eastern European countries – has found language and IT skills to be the biggest stumbling blocks.

“There is access to the internet in a significant part of the community and people are able to go online at a certain level, for example to use Facebook,” he says.

However, things get more difficult when it comes to “going online and submitting an application with English-only instructions”, even when someone’s spoken English is good, he adds.

“Because people don’t understand the written English instructions, because they can’t navigate to get to application itself,” he says, “that is a big problem.”

While some GRT people live in brick-and-mortar houses, others live on permanent sites in caravans or mobile homes, and some move around the country.

Obviously if you are permanently nomadic – that is, you don’t have a permanent address – that poses an additional problem in terms of accessing financial support

Gypsy and traveller communities are less likely to have a household internet connection than the general population, according to a small survey in 2018, with more than half of those asked saying they felt uncomfortable using digital technology.

The Traveller Movement charity says they are concerned about the “digital exclusion” of gypsy children as schools shut during lockdown, adding parents “whose own educational experiences may have been inadequate” could struggle to help without the internet.

Low levels of literacy – mentioned in a parliamentary committee report on GRT communities last year – and access to technology could be a problem while trying to get financial help during the pandemic too.

“If you don’t have a computer or if you haven’t go wi-fi,” Adrian Jones from the National Federation of gypsy Liaison Groups (NFGLG) says, “if you’re not totally literate – even if you are literate – trying to get through some of these government websites is a nightmare.”

Also, support workers are working from home during the pandemic, which makes giving people advice with technology even harder.

“Trying to go over a government form with someone over the phone, it’s pretty much a non-starter,” Mr Jones, the charity’s policy officer, says.

“Obviously if you are permanently nomadic – that is you don’t have a permanent address – that poses an additional problem in terms of accessing financial support,” he adds.

The Department for Work and Pensions has said people can still claim universal credit without a permanent address. Options include putting down the address of a family member, or the local job centre.

For Roma communities trying to access financial help, Mr Bica from Roma Support Group says literacy can also be a challenge.

“Roma has a long history of discrimination in countries of origin, mainly in eastern Europe. This means they were excluded from education for centuries, and this means there are low levels of education and literary.”

He says lots of people were also “in a situation of functional illiteracy” – which is where people can read a text, but not understand its meaning. “For us, it is a huge problem,” he says.

Mr Bica says he is worried some people who needed assistance applying for help may have slipped through the cracks.

He says his charity has received “quite a lot of requests” for help. “I don’t think we managed to help everyone,” he says. “Our staff is limited in numbers – and how much can someone do in a day?”

The government has set up financial support for people who have struggled due to the coronavirus crisis, such as the furlough scheme – where the government pays 80 per cent of a worker’s wages – and the Self Employment Income Support Scheme.

However, charities have said applying for this support – including universal credit – may also be difficult because of the type of work GRT communities do.

“There are a lot of people working cash in hand, for example working in car washes,” Mr Bica says. “Loads are in this situation.”

Roma people working as Big Issue sellers or as domestic workers may also find themselves getting paid in cash, he says.

“Not all are keeping a record as the government would like them to keep,” he says, adding this makes applications for financial support more difficult.

Gypsy and travellers are also more likely to be self-employed than the general population, according to a government report.

“Trying to access the government’s support for self-employed is hard,” Mr Jones from NFGLG says. “If you don’t have a computer, if you aren’t completely literate or don’t know the information.”

Mr Bica claimed Roma Support Group has seen people told they were not eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and needed help to make a successful application – but was worried not everyone had access to the same support.

Mags Price, a community outreach worker and Romani gypsy in Leeds, tells The Independent she has seen people “struggling financially” who are self-employed.

“They can’t go to work, they don’t know where the next meal is coming from, some of them have a lots of kids, and they have to depend of food banks and stuff like that,” she says, adding: “There’s a lot of that.”

England has started relaxing its lockdown measures, letting more people go to work, travel to public places and meeting friends and family outside.

Travellers were recently accused by the mayor of Western-super-Mare of not social-distancing when they visited the seaside town, which Mr Jones from NFGLG called “rubbish”.

“It is massively scapegoating the community,” he says. Mr Jones added he has been tracking the number of unauthorised encampments in England in lockdown months, and said there seemed to be fewer compared to the same time last year – suggesting GRT people mostly stayed put.

However, “there appears to be more people moving” now some lockdown measures have been relaxed, Mr Jones tells The Independent. “I think part of it is people need to move,” he says. “People need to make a living.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Universal credit claims are largely made online and during these unprecedented times, this has also ensured vital social distancing.

“People who are unable to access a computer can still make a claim over the phone, and extra application support is available, including through our Help to Claim service delivered by Citizens Advice and Citizen’s Advice Scotland.”

They added: “Our jobcentres continue to offer face-to-face appointments for the most vulnerable and where we are unable to assist through remote channels.”

HM Treasury and the Western-super-Mare Town Council were approached for comment.