THE looming cap on benefits will disproportionately affect Croydon's black and ethnic population, community leaders have warned.
From April, Croydon will be one of only four local authorities to trial changes to the welfare system which will see overall benefits capped at £500 per household per week.
The cap will affect as many as 900 families and has led to fears that Croydon's housing crisis could deepen.
Nero Ughwujabo, chief executive of Croydon Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Forum, believes the majority of those at risk of homelessness are from the communities he represents.
He said: "I am told that a significant proportion will be black or minority ethnic households.
"Many of the people who are already turning up at the council because they have nowhere to sleep are African-Caribbean. My concern is that others aren't aware the cap is happening."
Croydon Council says it has written to all the families likely to be affected by the cap when it is introduced in Croydon in April, before later being rolled out across the rest of the country.
It is not clear, however, how many households fall into this category – and it appears even harder to predict their ethnicity.
Last month, when warning the cap would increase homelessness, council chief executive Jon Rouse said 800 households would be affected.
Last week, however, the council's housing department said 657 families had been contacted.
Yet figures from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) put the figure at 900 families, with 300 losing more than £100 a week.
Neither the council nor the DWP could provide a breakdown of ethnicity, although the latter said that, nationally, 40 per cent will contain someone from an ethnic minority.
Mr Ughwujabo said: "The Government has brought in these changes with little debate and little understanding of who will be affected. There is not enough time in which to inform, engage and support these families.
"So we have got to take responsibility at a local level. It's in the council's interests to do some proactive work and raise awareness of the potential problems."
The benefits cap, which the Government says will make the welfare system fairer, comes at a time when Croydon is experiencing record levels of homelessness, with 441 families living in bed and breakfasts at the end of last year. Estimates show the number of households presenting themselves as homeless to the council each year will rise above 1,000 by 2014/15.
Adrian Dennis, chairman of Croydon African Caribbean Family Organisation (CACFO), said: "We're in the middle of a serious housing crisis. This can only be made worse by the benefits cap and harm, as with most of the cuts, will clearly fall disproportionately on the poor, those in the BME community – particularly in Thornton Heath – and the disabled."
Mr Ughwujabo added: "If more action is not taken then a lot of people – some with children – will find themselves in a very difficult situation.
"It will be an unacceptable problem for the community, and for the council, because these families will ultimately require more resources."
A spokesman said the council had contacted 657 families and would send out a further batch of advice leaflets.
Officers are also visiting families and will continue to do so until April.
He added: "We are also helping and advising, along with Jobcentre Plus, residents to find employment and manage their finances to prepare for the cap."
The benefits cap will mean households cannot receive more than £500 a week, the equivalent to a £35,000 salary. It will apply to the combined income from out-of-work benefits, such as Jobseeker's Allowance and income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and child benefit. Currently 900 families in Croydon receive more than £500 a week, with 300 to lose out by more than £100. Supporters – including Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell – claim the cap will make the welfare system fairer by preventing families on benefits from receiving more than the average working family. Families including anyone receiving disability living allowance or industrial injuries benefits will be exempt. War widows and widowers are also excluded. If you believe you may be affected by the cap contact the council's benefits team on 020 8726 7000, selecting option two.