More views on politics and benefits outside the bubble:
Each Tuesday from 11am, a group called The Ark puts on a few hours of free sandwiches, coffee, cake and bible readings at the Salt Cellar resource building in Oldham. There’s a pool table in the room which is popular as well. People from all walks attend. Some are in and out of street homelessness. Some have alcohol and drug addictions. Some have mental health problems. All worry about money.
Image: A sign at the Salt Cellar
Many people at the sessions are affected by welfare reform. They have problems with housing, benefits and paperwork. I attend the Tuesday sessions every few weeks to record interviews on these and other issues. We talk about all kinds of topics: politics, Brexit, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, benefits, service cuts, housing, street homelessness, addiction, jail, family, aspirations – the works.
The transcript in the second part of this post is from a February interview with James, 50 and Paul, 47. I’ve spoken with James and Paul at length before.
For this post, I wanted to ask the guys for their views of people who must live exclusively on benefits – people such as themselves. Everyone else in the world has very strong, and often very negative, views of people who receive benefits. I like to ask people on the rough end what they think.
This can be hard. Not everyone wants to talk politics. Westminster is a world away much of the time.
When I arrived at the Salt Cellar, James and his friend Vance, 43, were out the front of the building, pushing bottles and belongings into their rucksacks.
Vance, James and I have known each other for about six months (you can read more about their stories here). They often ring me very late at night for a chat.
We all laughed as they put their bottles in their backpacks.
“It’s my Lucozade,” James grinned.
We sometimes meet outside the building. People who drink must drink their alcohol outside and behave when they go in. They don’t always. They get chucked out of lunchrooms if they’re pissed and/or aggressive, or when they bring in booze in backpacks. Different lunchrooms have different views on enforcement.
I’m for turning a blind eye to the boozing. I understand that people who run lunchrooms need to keep order – people bring babies and little kids to these places and you can’t have people smacked out on spice or booze or whatever – but there are dimensions that are hard to ignore. Sickness is one. Vance is definitely getting sicker. He’s lost so much weight in the past six months that I don’t like to ask him how he’s going any more. It’s obvious how Vance is going. His health sits in the mind. He’s skeletal. He looks pinched and pained around the eyes.
There was something else going on around Vance’s eyes that Tuesday, too. He had deep, bloody scratches under both of them.
“Jesus,” I said, pointing at Vance’s face. “What happened?”
Vance laughed. “Fuckers threw a cat at me,” he said. “If I find that cat, I’m going to fucking eat it.”
“He coulda lost his eyes,” James said. “That cat is really scared of the owner.”
“Bet it is,” I said.
Vance and James have neighbour problems. They live in a central Oldham flat. Vance was placed there by the local homelessness office in 2016 after years on the streets. James has lived at Vance’s for several months. Before he moved into Vance’s place, James was street homeless. Vance found James trying to sleep on the concrete landing outside of Vance’s flat, so Vance invited James in to stay. Says Vance: “He [James] was sleeping outside on the landing. I can’t see that, because I’ve been homeless meself…It is very cold and wet. You can’t sleep.”
There are dealers, users and all sorts in the neighbourhood. Smooth sailing is rare. A few months ago, a bunch of guys beat James up and threw him out of the flat (you can read about that here). I don’t know how the cat incident came about. I do remember that a couple of weeks after it, James turned up to lunch with a black eye.
“Relationship breakdown,” people usually say when I ask how people end up street homeless.
Image: Pool table at the Salt Cellar