Here’s a story about one person who is caught in a sort of three-way systems meltdown. God only knows how many times this sort of situation is being replicated across the country:
Yesterday, I visited Brent Council with Eddie* (name changed), an unemployed 51-year-old Kilburn man who has learning and literacy difficulties. I’ve been accompanying Eddie to his various council and jobcentre meetings for months now. The whole thing has been a right eye-opener, for me at least. It has certainly opened my eyes to the various systemic meltdowns that austerity has left us with, and the people who are on the rough end of the whole shambles.
This guy definitely is at that rough end. Last time I wrote about Eddie, I explained how he’d been shouted at by a jobcentre adviser at his latest appointment. The adviser had signed him up for a work choice course without telling him what it was about, or how to organise his travel to it (it’s on the Caledonian Road somewhere) and then took exception when he started to complain. We’d both sat there as the adviser listed his sins (loudly) as the jobcentre saw them. No concession was made to his learning or literacy difficulties during that unpleasant exchange. The only reason that I’d cut that adviser any slack at all was that she’d been reasonable in the past and looked purely exhausted on the day of the yelling-match. Maybe she’d just been bawled out by some sanctions-happy manager who didn’t think she was hitting targets. I generally wonder where the PCS is at these moments. It’s pretty clear to me that some jobcentre workers are too stressed-out to cope a lot of the time (this adviser told me several months ago that back in the day, she saw about five JSA claimants a day. These days, she sees about 15). There certainly are some sadists working at jobcentres, but there are also people who try to be reasonable. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to be reasonable when you’re working in an utterly unreasonable, punitive, sanctions-driven workplace. Anyway – more on that particular situation soon. We’re picking it up with the jobcentre later this week.
Yesterday, we were at the Brent council offices. We were there because Eddie has another problem – he’s about to be evicted from the crummy studio flat that he’s been living in for a couple of years. He had a meeting with the council to try and get registered as homeless. Eddie isn’t too worried about leaving the studio flat as such and you wouldn’t blame him for that if you saw the place. “Studio” is too romantic a word for it. “Hovel” would be closer to the mark. You can see that in the video here (I took this in about June last year, so the place has deteriorated even further since then):
This single room Eddie lives in is cramped and so damp and airless that it stinks a lot of the time (he hangs his clothes to dry in it). Rodents and cockroaches dart backwards and forwards under the cupboards. I’ve seen a few of those on the go. Neither the fridge, nor the oven provided by Eddie’s charlatan landlord works. Eddie had to buy a second fridge to refrigerate his diabetes medication. That fridge sits in the middle of the room and there isn’t really space for it. The flat is too small. You could swing a cat in it if you wanted, but you’d hit a wall pretty fast. At the council yesterday, Eddie showed a doctor’s letter which confirmed that Eddie’s health was likely to be affected by his living conditions. But there he is all the same. I suppose that Eddie’s landlord has taken the view that you can rent out any old crap to people with learning difficulties and get away with it. The truth is that you can do better than get away with it. You can actually profit from it. You can profit very nicely from it. Eddie’s landlord has been collecting something in the region of £1100 a month in rent for this grotty place. Now, though, he has decided that he wants Eddie out.
So there we were at the council. I wasn’t wild about the way things went there, either. Sure, the homelessness officers did things by the book. They offered the services that the council now offers. The person we saw told Eddie that he might be placed out of London if the council agreed that it had a duty to house him (Eddie is so desperate to get out of his flat that he is now open to the idea of leaving London. He used to want to stay, but now says he doesn’t care. This change in outlook ought to be noted. People lower their expectations as their living conditions deteriorate). If he was still homeless on the day of his eviction, he’d probably be put into a B&B. If he found a place to rent by himself, the council might help with a deposit and/or some rent in advance. It seemed to me that the chances of finding anything better or bigger locally than the flat he was being evicted from while on housing benefit were unlikely. He’s been shown other tiny places in the past. He was frightened of those. He didn’t want to be returned to the sort of cramped situation he’s in now.
So. That’s the part that irritates me most – the fact that whole swathes of housing are now closed off to people. The officer said that alongside his homelessness application, Eddie should continue to search for a property himself and to ask his support worker to help him (Eddie was recently found a support worker by the local unemployed workers’ group. He’d gone a while without one before that).
I wondered exactly how Eddie was going to search for a property and which letting agents he could start with, so I asked the officer if the council had lists of landlords or agents who accepted local housing allowance tenants. The officer said No, We Don’t. “Times have changed so much that many agents have moved away from it. They didn’t want to be on our list any more.”
That didn’t give us much of a starting point. I asked again what Eddie could do to get going. I got a similar reply – ie, that agents won’t look at housing benefit tenants. “There’s no point approaching the high street estate agents, because the majority of their clients do not consider DSS,” the officer said. “There’s a few agents that do, but they’re telling us they are having a lot of trouble sourcing the properties in Brent and London.”
In the end, the officer told Eddie that his best bet was to ask friends, or check local papers, or look for To Rent cards in shop windows. As I say, that’s the part that jars. We have a two-tier system here – a metaphorical Poor Doors scenario where people with no money are no longer allowed over certain thresholds. They can’t go into the majority of letting agents. That’s where five years of coalition government has landed us – five years of coalition government and unbelievably weak opposition, that is.
I’d also make the point that decent and plentiful council housing would go a long way towards solving these situations. The guy in this story finds change extremely difficult and he resists it. He can come across as difficult because of that – but there isn’t a lot of sympathy left for people in his situation. Resources are too stretched. Workers are too stressed. If Eddie was settled in a decent council place locally for the long term, he wouldn’t have to worry. He keeps saying that the whole situation is going to kill him. Maybe that’s the idea.