No country for mental health

As I continue to meet with people who are dealing with fallout from public sector cuts and recession around the country, I’m posting transcripts from interviews here (between longer articles and testimonies that are appearing at False Economy and elsewhere).

This is a transcript of an interview with a Weymouth woman who is a recovering alcoholic and was homeless. She works as a homelessness officer now. Her role is voluntary and she is still on benefits. In these excerpts from a recorded interview, she talks about mental illness, alcoholism, the abuse that people with mental health problems encounter and life in social groups and families which rely on benefits. I don’t expect that this transcript will generate much sympathy, although it should. Cameron can yell “scrounger” as loudly as he likes, but these are still real lives:

“I’ve been through just about every trauma in my life… I’ve been an alcoholic and raped and abused in all shapes and forms. I didn’t think I could go any lower. Human nature says there ain’t nothing lower…

“I was doing well. I had a home and I had a fiancé. I had a business. Life was good, relatively. Then I got scammed by some advertising companies, so my business started to suffer and I changed my priorities to concentrate on my partner who was also very disabled….not having the brain cells at the time to understand that if I concentrated on the business, I might have a bit more money to concentrate on him. Then, my housing benefit got mucked up. They stop and start the benefits on a whim – they do that.

“Then on the ninth of May, I found myself out on the street and I’m like – hang on. I don’t quite understand where this has gone. My landlord decided that he wanted me out. He didn’t care if they (the housing benefit office) would pay [the rent] or if they’d backpay when they sorted it all out – [he just said] “I want you out. I want my rent.” I owed something like £1200 in rent, which was only about three or four months rent. He wasn’t having it. He would have got it all back – but this is what social landlords are frightened of, you know [not getting their rent] , and then about 8 o’clock on the 9th of May in the evening, I suddenly found myself unexplainably out on the streets. My partner said – “Nah, that’s it,” [and he’s] gone. [So] what do I do? So after several suicide attempts, I just spent until December as a homeless person. It’s not good…

“I just spent my days wandering about. I remember one evening being sat on a bench in town and I had dark jeans on and I had white socks, because that’s all I had. When I was put on the streets, I had a couple of changes of clothes and underwear and that is all I had, plus the clothes I stood up in… I had dark jeans on and white socks and some lads come out of the nearby pub and just started cussing me. “Oh – love the socks. They’re real stylish” [she starts to cry here] and I’m thinking – “why are you doing this? You don’t know me. I’ve been sat here quietly trying not to bawl my eyes out….and just getting abused.”

“I was as guilty as a young puppy. I would see a scruffy… I hate the word “tramp”. It’s an old fashioned word, but I’d see these dirty, homeless guys, drinking or whatever they were doing and I thought there was nothing that could make me go there. I think that was my first mistake, because the minute you say that you’re not going to end up there, you can be pretty sure you’re on the slide down….I think the Lord allowed me to be on the streets for as long as I was, because I had to learn how to be humble.

“[I don’t think people understand the lack of confidence]…now, [people without housing] come to me and say “We’re not getting our benefits. We need to phone the council to see if we can get on their [housing] list” and I say “okay, phone them up -you just pick the phone up and make a phone call.” [They will say] “Can you do it for me?” and that’s when I found out that [for a lot of people] it’s not just a case of picking up the phone and making a phone call.

“I do believe that if you want to learn about life, then spend an unknown indefinite time on the streets. All these stupid, idiotic studies that politicians do – you know, “I spent a week on job seekers’ allowance.” Anyone can tolerate a week if you know that it will end, but being out there and never knowing whether that this is your last day… Continue reading

The Tory south cuts

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Updated 12 August 2011

Spent last week talking to people in Tory stronghold Dorset, where cuts are beginning to take shape. So much for early claims that Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth fared well in December’s local government settlements.

Bournemouth daycentres for people with learning disabilities are in the council’s sights: at a late July meeting, the cabinet agreed to shut the Darracott Day Centre in Pokesdown and the Malvern Day Centre in Moordown by the end of this year.

The council describes its plans as “modernising day services in line with the government’s transformation agenda for social care, including giving more choice and control to service users through the allocation of personal budgets.” Not all service users are in love with the modernising idea: they and their representatives turned up to the July cabinet meeting in the hope of a last-minute reprieve for their daycentres. Staff will be made redundant as well.

Down the road in Dorset, staff and service users are standing by for a Dorset county council consultation exercise which will consider three options for day services for the elderly and people with disabilities – cuts, privatisation, or the creation of an income-focused, arms-length local authority trading company.

Contacts I spoke to last week say staff and service users doubt the council’s intentions are pure. The council introduced charging for some daycentre users in July, which people expect to affect attendance rates, which could in turn be used as a justification for reducing the service. If fewer people attend daycentres because of the cost, the council could argue daycentres for the elderly are no longer popular and cut them – a shortsighted option, given that Dorset has the highest proportion of people over retirement age in the country. Daycentres for the elderly are needed more than ever and at the time of writing, the council acknowledged this openly on its website: “we cannot guarantee (daycentre) attendance because we have many requests for day care and have to give priority to those most in need. We allocate day care places by balancing the needs of people and the resources available.”

People I spoke to want to see the service developed, not mothballed.

The council has agreed a budget cut of £31m. Earlier this year, the council asked unions if they’d agree a five percent pay cut for staff to meet that budget – 12 days of unpaid leave a year.

The council is also cutting funding to The Waves, a child protection charity for children who have problems with bullying and family relationships. Roy Koerner, who manages the programme, told the BBC that: “what we have found is there’s an increased demand for the mediation service and we are not coping with all the families we should. “Demand has gone up for all sorts of reasons but increased financial hardship increases conflict in the family – in some cases children might feel they want to run away.” This is – just to note – the sort of youth support service we lefties are talking about when we rattle on community projects which might help keep young people out of trouble.

More to come on this and the fallout for Dorset’s most vulnerable service users. These councils have been cautious in rolling out cuts plans and consultation exercises, especially compared with some London and northern councils. It’ll be interesting to see who these largely Tory councils target.