64, homeless, sleeping on a couch that a “friend” charges money for…the Tories should rot in jail for all of this

Posted below is another transcript from interviews with food parcel recipients at Oldham foodbank on 5 December.

This interview made me wonder again where our world went so disgustingly wrong. Plenty of people wonder about that, of course, but there are times when you really ask yourself.

We have Theresa May and her gruesome cabinet playing Brexit and stuffing themselves with holiday food, and then we have people who literally eat and sleep on the pavement.

It’s unfathomable that such excess exists alongside such poverty in the modern age. We don’t need to do this. We know how to feed, clothe and house people. We have the resources to do those things. We just don’t. I can’t tell you how much I hate “reformers” who insist that an individual’s extreme poverty is entirely that individual’s responsibility. Personal responsibility is neither here nor there in such situations. Societal responsibility is the part that matters. That’s the part that is missing. We’re in a place where extreme poverty persists and is allowed to persist.

The Oldham interview was with Roy, 64.

Roy said he was homeless – not a situation you particularly want for a 64-year-old. Roy’s clothes were unwashed and crumpled, and his glasses smeared and greasy. He was working on a crossword when I sat down at his table.

“Cruciverbalism – that’s what crosswords are,” he said. “Cruci – cross. Verbalism – words.”

Roy wasn’t sure which benefits he received. He got a payment each month, so the benefit might have been Universal Credit. Roy said that he was staying on and off in Chadderton on the couch of a “friend” who charged him for the privilege (no doubt the repulsive Theresa May would say Roy’s occasional access to that couch meant he wasn’t homeless):

“He [the friend] is not a very kindhearted person. He’s always after money and I’ve got no money. [I] got some benefits. They only come in once a month. Me bank balance is now down to £1.99 … I don’t know when I get paid again. I have to go to the bank again to check me statement. I don’t know. It might be two weeks.”

Roy was waiting to speak to one of the foodbank volunteers. He hoped that she could help him find accommodation that night. He was worried about having to sleep outside, as well he might have been. Oldham freezes in winter. There was ice on the streets that day:

“The lady over there [the foodbank worker] – she’s very helpful. She’s like a careworker. I wanted to see her today, because I’m homeless outside… it’s not nice in this weather….I got evicted from me last place…bedroom tax. Got evicted for not paying it.”

I don’t know if Roy had a drinking or addiction problem. Doesn’t matter if he did. Backstories interest me less and less. I can’t be bothered picking through people’s histories for evidence that people do or don’t deserve the basics (which is the main reason anyone picks through back stories these days). Everyone deserves the basics. All that matters is the present – that there are people who live in dreadful states while others have everything. Who cares what has gone before in people’s lives?

I tell you this – I doubt Damian Green will pay this kind of price for his past.

Interview transcript (Oldham foodbank, Tuesday 5 December 2017)

“I come here at least probably once a week. People are nice, the staff are nice and the lady over there… she’s very helpful. She’s like a careworker and I wanted to see her today because I’m homeless outside… yeah… it’s not nice in this weather.

I got evicted from me last place, so…bedroom tax. Got evicted for not paying it…

See – the council come around. I lived in…the place where I was evicted from was a two-bedroom place, two-bedroom cottage flat, me and me mother.

Me mother become very ill and had to go into a carehome, so that left one bedroom empty. During this time, a council come around to insulate the loft. They went up there and it took them a week or something like that, but up in the loft, just above where the steps go, I had been saving some money out of me benefits to pay for me mother’s funeral because I knew that she wasn’t going to get better. Continue reading

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Redundancy, DWP debt deductions and shambolic DWP bureaucracy: more interviews from foodbanks

Image of DWP letter and envelopeOn Friday, I recorded three long interviews with people who came in to Oldham foodbank for food parcels: Andrew, 51, Annemarie, 41 (both surnames withheld for these articles) and a woman who spoke at length about her problems with Universal Credit, but did not want to give her name.

I’ve posted the transcript from the interview with Andrew below.

I’ll post the other two this week when I’ve transcribed them.

 

Common points in all three interviews:

All three people were having money deducted by the DWP directly from their benefits for debts they disputed. This is so common now that it is standard. People run out of money because debt deductions at source mean they never get a full benefit payment. They never get close to breaking even each month and so can never fix financial problems. The DWP deducts money from benefits for social fund loans people insist they’ve paid back, benefit overpayments people say they don’t owe, and, increasingly, tax credit debts which the DWP has inherited from the HMRC and now aggressively claws back from Universal Credit claimants without warning.

All three people had also struggled mightily to navigate the DWP’s complex bureaucracy.

You’ll see examples of both problems in Andrew’s story (the interview transcript is at the end of this post):

Andrew, 51, had a severe hearing impairment. He’d spent the last 17 years of his working life on the production line and then as a floor manager in Parks Bakery (I think he said Parks. His speech was clear in places and less so in others. He read lips well. I wrote out some words as we went along).

Andrew was made redundant about five years ago. It seemed that was when the problems took off – another common story. Redundancy marks the start of the downward spiral for many people. This is hardly surprising. You’re dreaming if you think it’ll be different for you [unless you are well off, of course]. Andrew said he began to struggle with depression and drink, as people do when the work goes and they’re older, disabled and living in an area where jobs are scarce. Returning to solvency and good times in these situations is not quite the slamdunk that welfare reformers would have you believe.

Andrew was now “living off my overdraft.”

He was a good bloke to hang out with – wry. He said that his immediate problem was getting the DWP to understand that he didn’t have the several grand in savings that the DWP kept insisting he had. He said that trying to get this across to the DWP was a challenge nobody had yet been equal to. He kept rolling his eyes as he told the story. He said that he was losing about £14 from each of his Employment and Support Allowance payments in deductions for overpayments. You’ll see in the transcript below that he talked about different figures at different points. That is common, too. People struggle to keep up with the different amounts they’re paid and the varying deductions and costs, especially if they have support needs.

“…yeah [if only]… I’ve been living on my overdraft for the past five years.” He showed me the letter the DWP had sent about the money, several months’ worth of bank statements which showed his overdraft and account-draining bank charges and a Freepost envelope for sending the bank statements to the DWP. He’d been to the jobcentre with the papers. He said the woman he saw at the jobcentre made the changes to his savings information on a computer (“I can’t use it [computers]), but that something had obviously gone wrong, because the DWP had sent this new letter.

“I’ve already been down jobcentre and they did it online and that’s not got through.”

Andrew had also experienced problems with his Personal Independence Payment application.

A foodbank volunteer stopped at our table to tell me that she’d rung the PIP helpline to arrange application forms for Andrew – and got an officer who kept insisting on speaking to Andrew on the phone even though he can’t hear.

The foodbank volunteer said:

“When I was sending out for a PIP form for Andrew, the woman at the other end of the phone – he doesn’t do text speak – she was saying, “why do[n’t] you put him on the phone?”… I said, “I’m supporting this man. He is profoundly deaf… [She said] “has he got a phone?” [I’m like] “No, because he can’t hear you.” Ultimately, she was fine, but she didn’t have the breadth of aspect… [experience] to understand.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: benefit application and management systems are atrocious. It is shocking to know that these are the systems that people in the greatest need must deal with.

Often they can’t.

Here’s the transcript. It has been edited in parts.

Andrew, 13 October 2017, Oldham foodbank:

“They [the DWP] said I had this [amount of savings] in my bank account. They been knocking me money down. They’ve been taking… they said I had this in me bank account…[Andrew showed me his bank statements and the letter the DWP had sent him]. They’re going back a long time…they’ve only [gone and] done it twice. It were doing me head in. My bank’s overdrawn. I’ve been living on my overdraft for the past five years… that’s the overdraft…

I’ll post it, yeah. I have to post it to them….I’ve already been down jobcentre and they did it online and that’s not got through.

A woman did it down there for me [made the changes to Andrew’s savings record on his benefits account at the jobcentre] because I can’t use it [computers] and I’ve already done it twice. You can’t get it down at jobcentre…[unclear]

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Making people wait for PIP assessments and payments really is rubbish

Was meant to go to a PIP assessment with someone this morning.

The assessment was cancelled at the last minute because the assessor called in sick. Guy I was going with has to wait another fortnight now for another assessment appointment. He hasn’t had any DLA or PIP money since April due to one stuff-up after another.

On it goes. Or doesn’t go, I should say. While Brexit and party-political shenanigans suck up headlines, attention and resources, real life for real people who must use public services, benefits and support systems continues to be something of a challenge.

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How can the DWP STILL leave people to “live” on a pittance? Will any of this ever change?

Let’s start the week with a rant:

I’ve said this a million times, as has everyone, but let’s say it again:

Some people don’t have enough money to live on. Nothing is changing that I can see.

People are deliberately kept in debt to the state and in crushing poverty as a result. The DWP sanctions and reduces benefit money to the point where people can’t meet basic bills, and then deducts even more for loans and that people can’t pay. People are forced to cough up fines and costs for court appearances for unpaid council tax and rent – bills that they couldn’t afford to pay in the first place. That’s why they’re in court. Something needs to be done, but it isn’t being done. I wonder exactly how long the turning-point will sit on the horizon. How long will people be forced to wait for change?

We’ve had plenty of chat recently in the MSM re: politicians accepting that austerity is terrible and that people loathe it. I’m all for that chat, but a timeline for actual improvement would be good. I realise that we’ve had major political movement in recent times, from Brexit to the Christ-ly rise of Jez, and I try to get/stay enthused/interested, but the truth is that useful results on the ground still feel a very long way away.

I still speak to people who didn’t vote in the general election. They still shrug and say, “it doesn’t make any difference.” You see their point. They’re still at foodbanks. They’re still fighting the DWP for a few quid in hardship funds. They’re still written off as scroungers. Recent political events haven’t meant much in real terms for them.

After squandering months on an election and its aftermath, our “leadership” and parliament will soon take summer break. I wonder if a break should be allowed. Then again – who cares. What’s a couple of months in the greater scheme. Even if Jez launches the glorious revolution tomorrow, it’ll take years – decades – to rebuild public services to the point where people who really need those services get them in a way that feels helpful. A revolution would look great on facebook, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for the rest. I realise that I take a childishly simple view of political realities here, but I feel the need to get down to basics. A lot of people have been waiting an awful long time for the aforementioned turning-point to really arrive. Quite a few people have died along the way.

Some specifics from real life out and about:

There are three key problems I hear again and again from people as I go from foodbanks to lunch kitchens to meetings with people who have housing problems:

1) The DWP, councils and housing associations are deducting money from people’s benefits by way of sanctions, loan repayments, council tax and fines, and rent arrears. The upshot is that people are left with a pittance to live on. It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about a figure of £50 a week and less. Doesn’t matter whether or not you think people deserve these slapdowns because they’re single mums, unemployed, low earners, ex-cons, or whatever. They’re stuck forever. The state and its offshoots crush people with debts that they’ll never repay. The state does not help these people. It owns them. We, or someone, needs concrete plans to change that.

2) People are waiting for an Employment and Support Allowance decision, or a Personal Independence Payment decision. The waiting is going on and on and/or their application is turned down. The mandatory reconsideration and tribunal appeals processes drag on and are extremely difficult to navigate if you can’t grasp complex government bureaucracies. Which many people can’t, because these systems are too hard to deal with even if you do feel up to it. At the moment, in one way or another, I’m dealing with/writing about three people with learning difficulties and health problems who have been found fit for work this year and have not been able to appeal these decisions, or sort out interim income, without help from local support groups.

3) People are fighting eviction and paying big court/bailiffs costs on the way. They’re always insecurely housed, because they must rent in the private sector.

Here are three very recent examples of these:

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Can real problems like homelessness get more than fleeting attention these days?

Let’s start this one with a story from the large collection in my Nobody Gives A Stuff If Women And Children Are Homeless file:

Image: dead mouse in the bathroom

I’m talking at the moment with a young Newham woman called Chantelle. For some time now, Chantelle has been living in a private-rental craphole. She has a three-year-old son. Cockroaches and rodents roam around their rotten flat. Chantelle told me that exterminators have visited a couple of times, but that they may as well have saved themselves the trip. The roaches and rodents have always come charging back. Wonder if they’re galloping in through a hole in a wall somewhere. Chantelle took some pictures of the roaches, which I’ve posted above and below.

Image: dead cockroaches in the flat

A couple of months back, Chantelle’s landlord told her that she had to leave the flat. Chantelle says that she doesn’t have rent arrears and hasn’t damaged the flat. Her landlord just wants the place back. Sometimes, landlords want to charge somebody else even more to live (should I say “live”) in a flat. Who can really say.

Chantelle went to Newham Council to explain her troubles and to ask for help. You can guess how fulfilling that visit was. Chantelle would’ve been better off waiting for December and writing Santa for a tent. The council was supremely unhelpful as councils can be these days. It hardly matters where you go. Frontline officers have no resources, which means they have no answers. You hit a gatekeeper as soon as you arrive at reception, or send an email, or make a call, or whatever. The opening line is often Goodbye. Some put this more politely than others, but that’s the essence. I’ve seen emails from the council which demonstrate that was the essence here. Chantelle was advised to look for cheap places out of London. People don’t know how to fight for more.

At the very least, councils give people instructions that they find almost impossible to follow. Chantelle says Newham told her that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be helped as a homeless person until she was actually evicted, or the bailiffs were at her door to evict her, or her notice expired, or something to that effect. She still wasn’t entirely sure when we talked and anyway: technicalities. The technicalities mean little to people when it comes down to it. Everyone still ends up at the same place – ie, nowhere. The long and the short of it was that as far as Chantelle was concerned, she was told to wait, to try and find herself another flat out of London (she has no chance of that now in London’s private rental sector, which she can’t afford) and to only come back to the council when the bailiffs were racing up the road after her, or something along those lines. I’d ask Newham council to clarify the situation, except that Newham council has refused to talk to me for several years on account of my Focus E15 housing campaign stories and general attitude to press offices and life, etc. Those guys can really drag out a grudge.

Chantelle’s understanding was that if she left the flat before she was thrown out of it, the council would say that she’d made herself intentionally homeless. This is the kind of understanding that a lot of people are left with these days. I went recently to First Choice Homes in Oldham with a 67-year-old bloke called Paul who was told while we stood there that he was considered to be adequately housed because he had a tiny, rotting caravan to live in. He was also told that he would make himself intentionally homeless if he left the caravan voluntarily – ie, without being chucked out of it by whoever owned it and/or the campsite. True story.

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Why we’re on strike: Eastern Avenue jobcentre staff out against jobcentre closures

Staff at the Eastern Avenue jobcentre in Sheffield are on a PCS strike today in protest at the government’s proposed closure of Eastern Avenue jcp and a raft of other jobcentres around the country.

People are furious about these jobcentre closure plans. As readers of this site will know, local people who claim benefits have told me that they can’t afford to travel to jobcentres in other towns, that public transport to other jobcentres is patchy at best as transport is cut and disappears, and that they worry they’ll have no access to computers to use locally to search for jobs if local jobcentres close. People say they can’t always afford internet access on their phones.

Local people also say that these non-stop closures of public services in their towns are destroying smaller places. Post the Brexit vote, government is supposed to be deeply concerned about people in the regions who feel left behind, but you wouldn’t know that from government’s ongoing removal of local services.

Clare Goonan, PCS rep and Eastern Avenue jobcentre worker (she is jobcentre’s disability employment adviser and has worked at the jobcentre for 12 years) said on the phone from the strike this morning:

“We [at the Eastern Avenue jobcentre] offer a personalised, one-stop service… people can pop in from local, whereas if it was closed, they’d have to get on a bus, or two buses, and go online. We have a lot more interviews than what they would do if they were in town.

“And the jobsearch and computers – we’ve got 12 computers [at Eastern Avenue] that customers can come in and use if they want on internet. What people would have to do [if the jobcentre closes], is to pay to go into town, because there is no other services around here.

“There is a library, but the possibility is that the library won’t stay open, because of cuts, so if we don’t – we [at the jobcentre] send a lot of people around there [to the library], so if we are not sending people around there [if the jobcentre closes], they [the library] may not stay open. [We have] more a personalised service than town.

“It costs £4.90 a day to go into town [on the bus]. The cheapest ticket is £15 a week, is the cheapest one to go to town.

“Not sure on the reimbursement of travel… in town, there would be a lot more reimbursement of fares. If we get a customer to come in and it’s not their signing day, then it would be to their expense, so they would have to claim it back. [People need to pay for a ticket themselves first].

“[We are striking] to show management that we are standing together. At the moment, there are no members gone in [to work past the picket line] as yet. We’ve not seen any staff go in, apart from higher management that usually go in, we’ve not seen any staff go in as well. The office is not definitely open yet. We want to show management that we’re serious about it, we don’t want the community to lose the last public services that around here. If it’s [the jobcentre] is closing, then this area, which is one of the most deprived areas of Sheffield, will lose its last public services.

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“Rich get richer and poor get poorer… The greed is becoming demented greed.” More views from people on benefits

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.

A sign at the salt cellar

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.

Pool table at the Salt Cellar

Image: Pool table at the Salt Cellar

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No heating or hot water, because no spare money for problems. This isn’t going to change, is it

Am posting this because I talk to so many people in the exact situation described below. I feel that the ongoing nature of these occurrences needs noting while mainstream press and political worthies devote attention and resources pretty much exclusively to Brexit and Labour infighting, etc.

I talk again and again to people in this sort of situation. Nothing seems to be changing very fast:

Here you see gas and electric fuel cards belonging to Patrick, a pensioner I spoke to at a foodbank and kitchen lunch in Oldham at the end of February.

Short story, this. Patrick had run out of fuel credit. Upshot: he didn’t have working heaters or hot water in his home. He’d come down to the soup kitchen, because he’d heard foodbanks and kitchens had fuel topup money and vouchers.

Patrick said he thought the boiler in his place might have sucked through more fuel credit than usual. Point was – he didn’t have the money that he needed to get the fuel supplies going again, or to keep supplies going for a reasonable length of time while he sorted the trouble out.

Which is the thing.

I know government doesn’t give a damn about this, but I’m saying it anyway. Again. There are people who don’t have £10 or £20 or £30 or £100 or whatever to throw at everyday financial difficulties. When the problems come, they’re major by definition. As soon as these problems hit, people find themselves trying to live without the basics in the space of a day or two.

A new boiler guzzles a few extra quid on a metre and that’s a big worry. People lose a tenner or £20 walking down the street and they’ve got a problem. They miss a rent payment for whatever reason and end up with rent arrears that they’ll never escape. Long story short: there’s a whole bunch of people who can never buy themselves peace of mind for even an hour.

As I see it, people fall into one of two groups these days.

There’s the group of people who always have a few quid spare to throw at life’s everyday crises: unexpected fuel costs, charges for a doctor’s letter, lost money, a lost phone charger, extra phone costs, a torn winter coat, lost trainers, extra housing costs – whatever.

Then, there’s the group of people who don’t. People can either pay their way out of a problem, or they can’t. And that’s it.

You can forget popular political binaries such as The Deserving and The Undeserving Poor. That sort of thematic populist crap couldn’t be less relevant to reality. All that matters in reality is whether or not you have enough money to buy distance from life’s curveballs. There’s a big gap between people who do and don’t. Still.

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DWP: We can’t attend a public meeting on a jobcentre closure because the meeting is public. BOLLOCKS.

A total classic from the DWP:

Last night, I attended a public meeting in Clay Cross about the DWP’s plans to close the Clay Cross jobcentre.

On arrival, the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres people said that the DWP’s Midland Shires district manager had pulled out of an invitation to attend the meeting.

I was intrigued to hear this. Everyone was.

The DWP’s explanation for this non-attendance seemed to be that the meeting had been tweeted as public and public attendance at the meeting had actually been encouraged. Public = Bad. In an email to the DUWC organisers, the DWP said that they couldn’t come, because the district manager’s attendance at a public meeting would “break the consultation conventions.”

You may be wondering what the hell that means. Here’s a bit more detail (I trust I have this straight in my head):

The DWP’s jobcentre closure plans had been open to a public consultation earlier this year. That consultation is apparently now closed. The DWP doesn’t attend public meetings after a consultation is closed, because that is Wrong. Or breaks “consultation conventions.” Or is Against Protocol. Or something. I did try to find out this morning – an investigation that didn’t go too well. After an arsey conversation with the DWP (see below), the DWP emailed me to say that the district manager in question had originally agreed to attend the meeting because the DWP thought the meeting was private. The DWP pulled out when they found out it wasn’t. I can’t say that admission actually helps the DWP’s case if we are talking about transparency, openness and readiness to meet with service users, which we are. They think it does for some reason.

What I can say is that people at the meeting weren’t impressed. It sounded very much like the DWP didn’t want to attend a meeting that might a) include actual pissed-off service users who were angry about their jobcentre being closed and b) end up as a matter of public record.

What? said people when the DWP’s non-attendance was announced.

“Unfortunately,” DWP Midland Shires said in its email on the topic to DUWC, “due to the fact that the meeting on 16 March has been “tweeted” (sic) as a public meeting and attendance encouraged, to that end we have been advised by our policy team that it’s not appropriate for him [the district manager] to attend as this would break the consultation conventions.”

I am not afraid to reveal that this kind of shit really hurts my head. The DWP couldn’t come to a public meeting because that public meeting was public. The fact that the public had been encouraged to attend this public meeting might make the meeting even more public. This last being the case, the DWP needed to keep further away. Consultation conventions (whatever they are – the DWP didn’t quite touch on these in its response to me) aside, the district manager could, surely, have attended as a show of goodwill at the very least. Or as a show of responsibility, even. The closure proposal has the district manager’s name on it. At the very least, someone from that office could stand up and answer to it. In public, etc. But no. The public meeting was too public.

Do go on, I thought.

The email did.

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Homeless and placed in a neighbourhood where people think you’re a nark

More life and political views from people who must rely on benefits:

Posted below is a transcript of a recorded interview made recently with Michael (named changed on request). Michael is in his mid-50s. We made this recording at a foodbank and kitchen lunch in the Manchester area in February (Michael asked for his details to be kept anonymous).

Most weeks, I spend several hours at foodbanks and kitchen lunches recording interviews with people who rely exclusively on benefits. In the mainstream press and politics, we hear a lot about Just About Managing Families and the Squeezed Middle, and other groups that have some political clout. We hear less from people who are marginalised and considered irrelevant. That’s a pity, because people who are considered irrelevant have a lot of relevant experiences, particularly when it comes to dealing first-hand with fallout from welfare reform. We talk about everything at our meetings: homelessness, housing, money, work, politics, Brexit, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, family and the DWP.

Michael talked about most of those things.

He was particularly concerned about his living arrangements.

Michael had recently been street homeless. He’d even stayed on the floor of his local church for a time. A few months ago, he was placed in a flat on an estate by his local homelessness office. He liked the flat, but wanted to move. He wanted to get away from another drinker on the estate. He said that his neighbours bullied him, because they thought he was a nark.

Michael said people thought this because he spent a lot of time in the company of a copper. (I wasn’t sure if Michael meant a copper, or a community support officer, or another sort of volunteer. People deal with countless agencies and support workers. Wires get crossed). There may have been other problems, but Michael didn’t volunteer them. He said the policeman worked with a local community partnership. This support worker sometimes took Michael to benefits assessments and GP appointments. He helped Michael fill in benefit application forms.

Michael received Employment and Support Allowance. He’d had a serious heart attack a couple of years ago. Michael said that money was tight. He couldn’t afford to run the heating at his flat for more than half-an-hour a day. He wore many layers of clothing on the day that we met: a shirt, several sweatshirts and his coat. The clothes were dirty. He said he wore the clothes to bed for the warmth.

Michael was informed and eloquent. He read the papers. He said he had a degree and had worked in different parts of the world in well-paid professions. He’d lived in Asia for years and knew a great deal about different countries there. He’d also had a serious drink problem for years. In recent times, the booze had caught up with him, as it does when people reach 40 or 50. The pancreas goes, the liver goes, the heart goes, the balance goes and the mental health goes. The money’s gone. People talk a lot about things they did and things they say they did. Michael was still drinking. He looked unwell. His face was pale and pouchy, and his hands trembled. He held them out to show me. He looked sick with hangover and he probably was. It was good to know that he was at least housed and had some money coming in. Alcohol is such a wrecker. There’s nothing much left at the end.

We talked about the booze, Michael’s heart attack and his homelessness, government, Brexit (“the most unfortunate thing is that David Cameron ended… George Osborne…they were rebuilding the economy, doing a fantastic job,”) and his fears for his safety in the neighbourhood he’d been placed in. Being pegged as a nark weighed heavily on Michael’s mind.

This is the story that Michael told. This is the sort of conversation I have with someone every week or so. Michael began by talking about the way his relationship with the copper had come about:

“When I went to hospital [for a recent appointment, because of Michael’s health problems after his heart attack] – they’ve got a new community support team there. You’ve got the housing company, the health people, [the] council and the police. They all work together in a team in this unit.

A policeman is my designated support worker. He’s plainclothes CID, quite senior, but he’s a really nice bloke and we’re good friends now. He is my personal support worker. [He] give me lifts in his car – makes sure I get to the hospital and dentist’s, and things like that… [he] helps me with all my paperwork. Without him, I’d be absolutely lost.

The trouble with it is because I’ve only been there [living in the flat he was placed in by the local housing office] for six months, I’m seen as a relative newcomer… The people who have lived as residents for many years there really dislike the police, so they see me as some sort of police informant. They don’t get it that when he’s [the policeman] is working at that hub, he’s not being a policeman. He’s not being a copper on duty. He’s actually working as part of the community team.

What they’re trying to do [with that team] is instead of the people going to the authorities, the authorities go to the local villages to support the people with all kinds of issues – health, financial, gas, heating, hate crime. They’re there to support…not to go around arresting people, or hindering people. But the local residents just don’t get that this guy is supporting me…

People have made lots and lots of threats. [I’ve] been hit a couple of times… I live there on my own. I’ve got no backup at all. My mother and father are dead. The only friends I’ve got are in London… plus, I’ve got a degree, so they see me as some sort of pseudo-intellectual… foreign… outside that’s come in working in conjunction with the police and knocking at their world. Which I’m not.

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