Thoughts on the violence with which Tories punish benefit claimants who break rules. Don’t think many claimants even get a party out of it

I don’t usually give Tory politicians much thought, except to generally hope they all die. Partygate has roused me though, in what I feel is a very healthy BRING ME MY GUILLOTINE way.

There are 2 allegations I’d like to level at Johnson and Sunak and other party spares today.

The first one I think we can probably describe as murder. This could be hard to forgive.

I think it is possible – let’s call it a dead cert for accuracy’s sake – that Johnson and Sunak et al killed people by holding their parties and mixing with other people at them.

The lockdown concept was straightforward. You didn’t need training to grasp it. The idea was that we distanced ourselves from each other as well as we could so that we didn’t blow this killer virus around. It absolutely followed that if you met up with other people and as a bonus got pissed, you’d pick up the virus and breathe it onto whichever poor bastards had the misfortune to stray into your lethal cloud.

I know this was the idea, because I paid close attention to it. This was partly because I thought it was important for everyone’s health and partly because it was important to my chances of a lasting marriage. My (still) immunosupressed husband was on the extremely clinically vulnerable list. He got regular Stay Inside Or Die emails signed by Matt Hancock, who I now assume was penning these instructions from a dancefloor. Suffice to say that No 10’s lockdowns sounded more fun than ours.

Which takes us back to the parties.

It doesn’t take great imagination to know who’d have been at greatest risk from these parties. Inevitably, the people who take the real hits from these things are the usual disposables: people who clean toilets for and during flash parties, or people who prepare food, or people who worked in nearby shops that sold crisps and party booze, or carers and keyworkers who, during the party months, had to use public transport and/or tend to the sick and who had no choice but to breath in fumes guffed out by roaming Tory swingers and people they’d spread covid to.

There would also have been the family members of all these people – family members who shared the overcrowded and unventilated homes that low-paid people could not self-isolate in. And of course, of course – I realise that some people in these jobs might be migrant workers, so who would really be bothered counting, but still. You could kill people by holding parties and you could make a lot of other people very, very sick. A shit show even for Tory grandees.

I rant on.

Let’s move my second point/allegation – that the Tories let themselves off the hook for rule-breaking, but viciously punish people in poverty who break rules. Hypocrisy is the theme here.

To get a feel for this, let’s go to the DWP – the government department which for as long as I remember has jointly held first prize (with the Home Office, which may be edging ahead today with the Rwanda refugee-dumping idea) for the job of thrashing poor people on behalf of government.

I’ve spent over a decade going to jobcentre meetings with people at the absolute arse-end of poverty – jobcentres being places which deliver an absolute smorgasbord of opportunities for anyone who is looking to watch the state smash people in need.

The state does this by catching people out for “breaking” ridiculous rules – rules that have considerably less point to them than the Don’t Have Parties During Covid ones did.

Here, for example, is Linda – an older woman with learning and literacy difficulties, bawling her eyes out at Kilburn jobcentre. Why was Linda upset? A jobcentre adviser had closed Linda’s benefit claim, because Linda had broken the “missed meetings” rule that the DWP held sacrosanct for the very simple reason that it could trip heaps of people up on it. Linda missed 2 meetings, because she’d been very sick and had had thrombosis.

It was amazingly hard to find anyone who gave a shit about that, though. I searched for quite a while. Jobcentre advisers knew Linda well. The knew she had learning difficulties and was ill. They knew she needed on her benefits to buy food and pay rent (her housing benefit was stopped when her JSA claim was closed, which meant that the eviction threats had started piling up). Advisers knew there’d be a reason for Linda not showing up to meetings. They’d have known for sure she wasn’t at a party. Continue reading

Do letting agents still discriminate against benefit claimants? Of course not! Well – kind of. Well – yes.

One way to piss away a half-hour if you’ve stalled on your pandemic hobbies: ring a few letting agents and ask if they take registrations from people who claim benefits.

It is unlawful now for letting agents to discriminate against people who claim benefits – a ruling which presents awesome chances to get agents on the phone and listen to them try to get round it.

I did this on Friday afternoon on behalf of N, a homeless mother of 2 whose story I’ve been documenting. N is the woman who in earlier this year was trying to stop her council from evicting her and her 2 kids from their homelessness hostel even as she was in hospital giving birth to her second.

The good news is that the council seems to have parked the Let’s Evict A Woman And Newborn Into the Snow idea. Probably a good shout.

The less good news is that this returns N to the part in the Ask Your Council For Housing Help process where homeless people must impress council officers by performing useless self-help homefinding activities.

Chief among these, of course, is the inevitable council instruction to the homeless person to ring around local letting agents to find ones who accept benefit claimants onto their books and who have properties that claimants can afford. I imagine that current statistics show that benefit claimants have a better chance of winning a house than finding a private landlord who will rent them one, but through the motions we must go.

And went.

I rang 3 East London agents on Friday afternoon and am happy to report that there has been a degree of evolution since discrimination against benefit claimants became illegal. In the good old days – pre 2020 – letting agents would just tell you to piss off the second you said “benefits.” Things have advanced to the point where they start with an enthusiastic Yes, You Can Register! before they ask you fuck off to Gumtree.

Some ok chat between those points, though, and as I say, the approach to rejection has really improved. Letting agents have certainly learned to say the right thing before moving onto the reasons why they’ll have to do the wrong one (main reason: the landlords on their books say Absolutely Not to universal credit in as many words. They don’t say those actual words, because nobody is allowed to, but there’s more than one way to say No, as we’ll see. You do come away with a feeling that landlords would prefer to torch their property than see someone who receives universal credit on it).

But as I say – 10 points for agent attempts to find a line on this side of the law.

First agent I spoke to could not have sounded keener on the idea of signing up people who he knew his landlords would shoot him on sight for presenting.

“We do indeed!” he trilled when I asked if his agency accepted universal credit claimants onto its books. “In all honesty [I bet] – us, as a company, we got no problem…”

Sadly, what the company did have was a lengthy roster of landlords with a problem. In as many words, the agent conceded that he’d have a better chance of homing a carcass than someone who signed on. Landlords on agent books were just less likely to consider universal credit tenants, “for various reasons… [can’t get] insurances things on their mortgages, blah, blah, blah… but yeah.. happily take your details…”

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Missing universal credit payments, unanswered journals – give it up for the forever useless DWP

We head today to the world of single motherhood, crap wages and the useless DWP! – a world where the boons of #MeToo are taking a while to trickle down.

I give you L, another low-paid woman who knows too well that if you’re not born rich, any system designed with your needs in mind will be garbage.

L did not have one of the fun pandemics – ie didn’t really get the headspace to fully focus on cranking out bread and bottled pickles, or finally tackling the mandolin, etc. Much of L’s pandemic was spent trying to work out why the DWP seemed eternally incapable of paying her landlord the right amount of universal credit – or indeed any universal credit – for her rent each month. The rest of her emotional energy was spent hoping she wouldn’t be evicted because her rent arrears grew each month that her landlord wasn’t paid.

This had been going on since before the pandemic, of course. Nobody who earns too little to live on (a category that is now widening to include almost everyone) ever gets a stress-free period.

L has kids, rent of well over £1000pcm for the standard overpriced rented shitehole and an inadequately-paid, part-time job of a type she is doomed to forever attend. Like so many since the dawn of time, L’s role in society is to live out that eons-old (aeons? – whatever) political-class fetish about the character-building nature of low-paid work and its ever-accompanying threats of eviction and homelessness. On the bright side, answers to questions about the real meaning of life are in here somewhere. Ever lain awake wondering why you were ever born? Wonder no more. Like just about everyone since time began, you were placed on earth to play a small role in an enduring conservative fantasy about insecure housing.

Speaking of a key role in homelessness: let’s go to the DWP. Because her job doesn’t pay enough, L needs universal credit each month to meet her exorbitant rent. Unfortunately, relying on the DWP for anything other than negligence is a path to anticlimax.

Although the DWP is meant to pay L’s rent to her landlord via her local council each month, there have been months since 2019 and at least to the end of 2021 when it just hasn’t. Those months, the DWP paid absolutely nothing in the housing costs portion of L’s universal credit. Just – zero.

Nobody who is involved in this has been able understand what the problem is. This confusion is almost as big a problem as the missing rent – you look at month after month of sums and statements, and you absolutely cannot grasp how or why the DWP has arrived at the figures before you. The DWP is wielding 3 weapons of torture by this point – the confusing sums and payment amounts, the piling on of fear about rent arrears because people’s landlords aren’t getting their money, and what appears to be an evergreen failure to answer journal questions about any of it.

This is my point, really – it’s just so HARD to sort these things out, even when you come at it from all angles.

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Begging a council not to evict you as you’re about to give birth. Behold! – the war against women

Nobody wants to overblow these things, but there are times when council abuse of homeless women really goes next level.

You really do get standout moments.

Here’s the one I want to talk about: An activist friend and I in a whatsapp chat about emergency housing with a pregnant homeless woman while she was lying in a hospital bed waiting to be induced.

That’s how far homelessness goes these days. You can have a situation where a homeless woman lies in a delivery room wondering how she’s going to house the new baby in the weeks after it arrives. Thanks to whatsapp, people can still try to message about sorting things out while they’re starting labour, or counting contractions, or whatever it is. You see this and wonder if the basic human dignities for women are things of the past.

Probably, we never had them.

On with this story:

Before she gave birth, the woman, N, had been told by her council that she and her toddler would be evicted from their emergency hostel place at around the time the baby was due. Her husband – for those who feel that this is their business – was not contributing much. His main job in recent times had been to keep to terms outlined in a non-molestation order. I have a copy of the order here.

After a few taut emails with housing activists, the council agreed to put N’s eviction date back a month or so until her baby was born and then a bit perhaps. Good to find out there was a line, I suppose – that a council wouldn’t throw a woman with a newborn onto the streets. Useful intelligence, but it didn’t change the fact of the eviction, or N’s panic about being homeless and on the street with a toddler and a newborn baby.

Membership of our whatsapp group of 3 (me, the housing activist and N) put that panic into real time. Distanced by digital and disease we may often be, but we also have front-row seats to it all. You can join a homeless woman in her last weeks of pregnancy and then in a delivery room on your phone. She, in her turn, can message about a new application for homeless help from a council even in hospital.

N spent time in hospital before she gave birth. Stress caused by her pending eviction put her there. The week before her baby was born, N’s midwife sent her to A&E because the stress was affecting N’s blood pressure and her baby’s heartrate. It was somewhere around here that someone should have called time.

Here are some of our whatsapp messages:

January 2022:

Shall I start to do new Homelessness application while I’m here so they can process in time during my delivery as they (the council) r not agree to change there decision. Also make sure they will provide me with further temp accommodation.

Friday I have midwife appointment.

 

January 2022

Hi Kate this is for u, as I told u last Friday I went in emergency…

(“Triage today for review of hypertension, maternal and fetal tachycardia,” read N’s hospital notes. “High risk pregnancy.” “Very stressed with limited support at home.”)

 

January 2022

Can u send it please (an email to the council to ask for an urgent zoom meeting to talk about N’s nearing eviction). I’m in hospital. Induction. Soon I will deliver baby.

Tell you what.

———————————————————-

I talk as though whatsapping about council meetings with a homeless woman who is hooked up to heart machines and/or in labour is extreme. It isn’t extreme. What else would anyone expect. This is what it is like. There are people all over who can’t find and/or pay for a home.

The point is that there is no break from it. There’s no night off with a box set, or civilised day of wind-down and rest if, say, you’re about to give birth. There’s no way to keep the world out. People who are homeless don’t get time off from it, even when they’re in hospital with a baby crowning. There’s no such thing as a breather – not in low-income land.

All day every day people are filling in forms to try to prove to councils they have nowhere to go, or they’re searching for landlords who will rent to people who claim benefits (good luck with that), or they’re trying to find places with rents that they can meet with universal credit (good luck with that as well).

And during all of this: people must navigate a delicate relationship with the council that they hope will help them with emergency housing and then, if they’re lucky, something longer-term.

It’s a delicate relationship, because councils are always looking to end it. That’s because stone-broke councils can’t afford to house everyone who turns up homeless at the real or virtual town hall. They just about can’t afford to house anyone who turns up homeless at the real or virtual town hall. The maths is simple from there. Councils cut costs by cutting the number of homeless people they have to help. They do this by tripping people up with the rules. People who don’t know the traps fall into them.

Which was exactly what happened to N. Her “mistake” was to say No to a temporary flat that the council said she should move into from her hostel. Councils can say that they don’t have to help you if you say No to a reasonable home.

N had a good reason to turn this flat down. It seemed a place that her ex could get into. The flat was on the ground floor and the front door wasn’t strong. The building was ringed with thick scrub and grass. N told me that she didn’t feel it was secure. You could say that it looked a good bet for a man who might want to lie in wait for his ex-partner and then shoulder through a flimsy front door to tear a non-molestation order up in her face.

The problem was N didn’t tell the council about that. People fear fallout if they drop others in it. N did tell the council when her relationship broke up. It doesn’t seem that anyone asked for more details. Even if they did, this is hardly a scene where trust abounds and people feel they can open up. Councils have neither the time to draw people out, nor the resources to protect them. They don’t generally ease women into a homelessness office and slowly build up trust over a fortnight’s coffee afternoons.

There’s also the general fact that women with children worry about telling councils that things have become dangerous on the home front. Absolutely everyone you speak to worries that councils will send social services in to take the kids into care if councils think the children are threatened. That can be as much of a concern as the aggressive partner.

Whatever the case, this council stuck to its decision to evict N when the baby was born.

And how. “Stuck to its decision” doesn’t begin to describe this council’s ardour for this eviction decision. They literally couldn’t be prised from it. As time went on, the council’s commitment to eviction seemed to move from the procedural to the sadistic. The council refused to back down even when N began to beg.

Fearing eviction, N said that she’d take the flat after all (and, by definition, the fears that went with it). Too Late, the council said. N asked the council for a formal review of the decision to cut her loose. The council did that and stood firm.

The council did throw N the earlier-mentioned small bone just before she gave birth – they said they would delay the eviction for a bit. They also told her she could take comfort in the fact that eviction takes a while to go through the courts, so she could enjoy a few months in the hostel with her new baby before they were chucked out.

From an officer email:

“I have spoken to the service and it is clear that delaying possession proceedings until after you have given birth provides a much longer period of adjustment than it seems as the Council will need to obtain a possession order from the County Court which is currently taking more than three months.

In the interim the Council will provide appropriate support for you to investigate your housing options…

I hope that the above provides some reassurance…”

So, that was nice.

————

N’s baby was a girl. She had to spent her first week in a hospital on a monitor. Which was somewhere to live, I suppose.

From our whatsapp group:

January 2022

Just delivered my baby… (picture). Have you heard anything from council…

 

February 2022

I’m still in hospital. My baby on monitor (picture)

I asked:

Is she ok?

N said:

I don’t know

Link to download of my book

People have been asking for copies of my book as the previous pdf link has expired.

Have set the pdf here for download. Many thanks to everyone who has downloaded and read it. The response has been incredibly encouraging.

The book collects interviews with people who have relied on the benefits system in austerity and goes behind the scenes to jobcentre & homelessness meetings to show people’s experiences of the austerity state.

 

 

 

Homelessness: the plague that voters are happy to live with

They say that you should keep to your routines in lockdown, so I’ve been getting at Newham council about standards in temporary housing for homeless people – and going nowhere much.

Habit aside, there has been a point to this often-pointless exercise: to ask what the council was doing to protect homeless families from coronavirus in crowded temporary housing such as the Brimstone House homelessness hostel in Stratford.

I recently wrote about Marsha D, a 30-year-old homeless woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in that hostel. The two share that small space and one bed in it – a living arrangement that is replicated across the hostel and across emergency and temporary housing everywhere. They have their own tiny bathroom and kitchen. It’d be hard to isolate in those. Theirs is the sort of cheek-by-jowl setup that would have any contagion licking its lips. Even in so-called normal times, people feel entombed in such places. When there’s a plague on and a stay-at-home lockdown in place, people in these hostels talk about being buried alive.

You should hardly pin hopes on a virus, but I have wondered if this one might spark new sympathy (or even some sympathy) for people who must live in these hellholes.

If covid doesn’t do it, god knows what will. For a very long time now, the problem has been to convince the wider world to give a damn about homelessness, or, even, to convince the wider world to give enough of a damn to change things – to really change things, that is. For all that homelessness is seen as a plague in its own right, it still feels like one that the world is happy to live alongside – certainly one that Tory-voting members of the world are happy to live alongside and even enjoy. You don’t have to be too plugged in to know that this is because that for generations now, many voters have felt that homelessness and poverty are beneath sympathy: the individual’s fault. End of.

Government knows that all too well. There can be no doubt that Boris Johnson and his cabinet of sociopaths have felt tremendously comfortable about losing interest in homeless people who must live sardined into tiny spaces as a killer virus rampages through cramped populations. A whole month has passed since government said it would publish new covid guidance for providers of homelessness hostels and day centres, so I think I’ll stop looking for it. They’ve either hidden it really well, or not bothered to write it.

As for government funding for councils during the outbreak crisis – do me a favour. The bits of money and advance payments that government has chucked at councils to sort out a morass of covid-era housing, homelessness and council tax problems barely amount to a fistful of change when you remember the billions that Tory-led governments have removed from councils in austerity (pdf) – a carnage of cost-cutting, mass redundancies (often of experienced staff) and anti-social-security policies which caused the homelessness problems for people in Marsha’s situation in the first place. As everyone on the scene knows, housing and support needs caused by welfare reform have skyrocketed as funding to meet those needs has disappeared.

The most you can say about this government’s last-minute covid-inspired overtures to councils is that they’re less shit than government’s most recent foul insult to covid-era careworkers – the one where Matt Hancock actually tried to sell the idea that the careworkers who government have left working for poverty wages in a swamp of covid and corpses, and with no PPE, would enjoy the day more with a badge. It was hard to imagine how government could top that for repulsive empty gestures, but there have been attempts. One must be last week’s thanks-for-housing-the-1000s-of-rough-sleepers-that-government-created letter to council homelessness managers from Dame Louise Casey, the government’s homelessness “spearhead” (whatever the f that is). What an absolute pile. I can only imagine how thrilled council staff were to see that in their inboxes. Oddly, Casey’s letter didn’t mention the billions wiped from council budgets since 2010, or the experienced staff lost in that blitz, or the LHA caps, benefit caps, out-of-control market rents and Universal Credit delays that have pushed people out of their homes and into the gutter and the hostels where many still sit, waiting for covid. If lockdown lifts, let’s see Casey deliver those letters to frontline staff in person.

As for Newham and councils in general: I could get very sick of the charades on that front, too. I can tell you how those charades go, though, so let’s do that.

The whole moribund process usually starts with me interviewing a homeless family who have been living in a one-room hostel, or some temporary-housing hellhole for month, or a year, or 2, or 3 years, or whatever it is. Next, I’ll email Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and Newham housing lead John Gray and ask what the council plans to do for that homeless family and how much longer the family should expect to languish in temporary housing squalor, etc. Next, there usually comes a lagtime, which Gray and I sometimes use to bitch at each other over email, or, on a couple of memorable pre-lockdown occasions, in person. At some point in this farce, I’ll usually throw in a question about the empty flats on Newham’s Carpenters estate. Carpenters estate residents were kicked out of their homes years ago to make room for a planned University College London campus which never materialised due to a host of planning and financial screwups. The fallout from that shambles goes on. Flats on the estate continue empty while people in Marsha’s situation grind on in Brimstone House. Continue reading

Sacrificing sick, disabled and elderly people for economic gain? This ain’t exactly new

For thrills, I’ve been reading violent arguments for and against ongoing lockdown. I should give social media a swerve on these things, but in lockdown’s longer hours, there is something to be said for focusing on a lockdown thread and trying to decide which side is more revolting.

I’m thinking dead heat at the moment. You have on the one side the righteous types who feel that anyone who breaks lockdown should be tasered out as a human canker and on the other, the (often younger) people who believe that a) their economic chances should trump any flu for geriatrics and b) that covid’s cull of the Boomer and Gen X demographics is one of its selling points (climate and pangolin rescue being the others. I am 51, so am more on board with the last two).

There is a disturbing aspect to this reading though. It’s the fact that so many people seem to think that the Time Before Covid was different – that this furious debate about a stark choice between a strong economy and abandoning thousands of inconvenient people to a grim death is, somehow, new.

You see the word “normal” bandied around a lot, and with a wistful note – as in it could be 6 months before we return to normal, or when will things return to normal? I can only assume that by “normal,” people – or whoever thinks or writes this stuff – mean a time when they didn’t know, or didn’t have to know, that there was already a body count on the economy vs altruism front (altruism having been outgunned for longer than I care to recall). To those who know the austerity scene, there’s nothing new on offer in these covid debates. The economy vs lockdown-to-save-lives dispute is just the latest chapter in a bloody years-old battle between those who champion a nation’s economic fortitude (read “the one percent’s right to rampant personal wealth creation”) at any cost and those who are horrified by that cost. The cost has generally been the deaths of thousands of sick, disabled and/or poor people who were and are cut loose from benefits, care and housing, because those people are considered a financial drag.

Sick or disabled people and anyone with an underlying health condition (I count poverty as such a condition) have been sacrificed for years for the purported economic good (see earlier note about the one percent and wealth creation). The coronavirus has simply brought a hot-news angle to situations where you hardly hoped there’d be one. For example: careworkers have been working for next-to-nothing in godawful conditions for years (weekend pay removed, no pay for travel time, sick leave slashed to the statutory minimum where the first 3 days off sick are unpaid, etc). I’ve written about this many times myself over the years and can confirm that absolutely nobody cared. However – things have improved for careworkers – on the visibility front, at least. The working conditions of careworkers are suddenly centre stage, because covid-19 is killing them and wiping out their clientele. Talk about scoring in extra time. Who says that fortunes can’t change? I don’t suppose that many of us imagined the day when reporters would stake out resthomes for retweets and the latest action, but here we are and there you go.

One more point before I return to the forums: whatever happens next, it’ll be people without economic power who’ll pay. We’ve learned this one over the years as well. Lift the lockdown and people who are at increased risk from covid will die. Plenty of people who don’t have the coronavirus will die as well, because the NHS and care systems will be stretched too thin to meet other needs. If lockdowns go on, though, it’ll be people who need to work to feed their families who will sink. Low paid people who have no savings will probably be knocked out altogether.

The real problem is that millions of people were living on the edge before the coronavirus turned up to push them over it. Sick, disabled and elderly people were dying. Millions of low-paid people couldn’t feed themselves and meet the rent. Lifting lockdowns, or keeping lockdowns doesn’t really take us anywhere new. There has to be a structure that gives everyone a chance. The pre-lockdown structure isn’t it.

Has government actually thought about help for people stuck in homelessness hostels and cramped emergency places?

Quick one:

I’ve been searching for updated government guidance on hostel and day centre provision during the coronavirus and can’t find it anywhere. On 25 March, Gov.uk said it would be updated soon. I’m not sure what date the government had in mind for Soon, but I’m thinking that we have yet to arrive at it.

Am also looking for any government guidance for councils and/or others who are housing homeless families in cramped (often single room) hostels and emergency or temporary housing – housing in which people can’t isolate from other family members, because they only have one room to live in. I don’t necessarily mean shared accommodation, although that’s relevant. I mean temporary or emergency accommodation where people have their own kitchen and bathroom, such as they are, but only have a single room to live in. Hostel accommodation is often as cramped as that – several people living in one room. Family members who need to isolate have nowhere to go in those places..

If you’ve seen updated guidance for people in these scenarios – or any guidance at all – along the above lines, you’re welcome to leave a comment, or to contact me here if that is better. I’m hoping that I’ve just missed those things and that they are not actually missing.

All you need to force the DWP to talk civilly to benefit claimants is a plague. Who knew?

I have to point this out:

Last week, the DWP issued a press release for Universal Credit claimants that made me wonder if I was dreaming, still high, or even dead.

Instead of the usual vile, threatening and judgmental dross, this statement went somewhere new. The tone of the release was vaguely respectful and the content – this lightning surely won’t strike twice – a shade better than useless. Talk about novelty value. Who thought we’d see the day?

In this release, it appeared that the DWP was attempting to reassure Universal Credit’s million-plus new covid-era claimants that the department was working to make its famously useless and nine-tenths moribund Universal Credit claims process easier to use. People would no longer have to phone-queue for hours on the ironically-named Helpline to speak to a Universal Credit adviser. The DWP even said that it was putting on more staff to help people get their claims going and their benefit money paid. I’d put my last fiver on this proving to be the usual bollocks in reality – but who knew the department even had the words? The DWP actually used the phrase “you can rest assured” in this dispatch. There was no way that head honcho minister/front-of-house sociopath Therese Coffey had previous acquaintance with these words. She must have had help finding them.

It was the tone of this statement that really got me. I’ve been attending jobcentre meetings and benefit assessments with people in need for nigh on 10 years. I can confirm that before last week, “Fuck Off, Scrounger” was the DWP’s one and only message for sick, disabled or unemployed people. You do get slight variations on that theme, such as Computer Says No (a Universal Credit greatest hit), or We’ve Lost Your Sick Note/Don’t Believe You Had One, or We Didn’t Get Your Message About Your Hospital Appointment, So We’re Sanctioning You For A Month, or (my personal favourite) Tough Shit – There’s The Foodbank.

It’s been quite a decade, really. Such a time we’ve had. I’ve seen jobcentres close benefit claims for people with learning difficulties because they missed a couple of meetings when they were seriously ill (here’s a video from that event if you can stand it). I watched government close the all-important Independent Living Fund that disabled people who required 24-7 care relied on to live. I sat with people in jobcentres as advisers searched for – and found, as they do – weird excuses not to pay out Universal Credit housing costs and to leave people without rent. How I could go on. I really could go on, and on. I’ve seen little else for years.

Like many (ie everyone) in the field, I could hardly imagine the seismic event that might put the brakes on the DWP’s contempt for its clientele. It seemed pointless to set time aside to try. Still – get this. We’ve arrived. All we needed to force the DWP to realise that it was feeding real people through the grinder was a planet-wide killer virus and thousands of people – probably millions – dead, or thrown out of work. I own to some surprise that even these disasters have given the DWP pause and I wouldn’t bank on that pause lasting, but we take what we can where it falls.

Nobody would deny people who’ve just lost their jobs either money or half-decent treatment by public sector bureaucracies. A member of my own family is now out of work. I’m just trying to say that a lot of us have already seen people die, or crash into poverty while being driven mad by a torturous and unnavigable benefits system. That all went down because of the DWP, not the coronavirus. I wonder if the DWP is working up a press release for them.

There’s no way homeless people can isolate in hostels. Families share rooms and beds

Let me take you inside a homelessness hostel so that you can see how exposed homeless people are to any virus:

In recent days, I’ve talked at length with Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a Newham homelessness hostel called Brimstone House. I’ve written about Marsha’s living conditions and housing problems many times in the last year.

Marsha’s housing situation was a disaster long before coronavirus came into the picture. In the hostel, Marsha and her daughter live in one small room together. There’s no bedroom. There’s just one room. All their belongings are piled up in that one room. They share a bed. They can’t open their main window without a key, which they must request. The two have lived in this tiny space for nearly 3 years.

Marsha and her daughter in their one-room temporary homelessness hostel accommodation

Needless to say, isolation is not a starter in this type of arrangement. People actually laugh when you mention it. However – spreading bacteria and viruses IS a starter, to say the very least. Marsha says that last week, her little girl – who has asthma – had a cold. There was no escaping that for Marsha (who also has asthma) – not least because she and her daughter sleep in one bed together on the same mattress:

“You know how kids are – they cough and they don’t put their hands over their mouth…a few times she coughed and I was like, “oh my god.” I just kind of got used to it… there’s no way of escaping it.”

Great, isn’t it? Doubtless there are Tories around who think that Marsha should just learn to hold her breath. My personal view is that high-ranking party members should trade places with Marsha. Boris Johnson should be forced to see out his coronavirus isolation in one of these rooms with Matt Hancock and a few other colleagues who haven’t got covid-19 yet – Thérèse Coffey comes to mind, as does Iain Duncan Smith, who should be made to stay for the entire length of a 6 month lockdown. It is high time that these people went shoulder to shoulder with reality. These hostel rooms drive people out of their minds, even without a killer virus in the mix. With a killer virus in the mix, everyone goes down.

The truth is that there’s no way to escape ANYONE in places like Brimstone House. Several hundred people can live in this building in the cramped rooms (the figures quoted are usually around 210 “units” (flats) with 2 or more people in each tiny flat). Germs don’t have to work to get around. Literally the only way to isolate is to stick your head in a bag. If one building occupant gets so much as a sniffle, everyone gets it – even in so-called good times.

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