Get to the office today or we’ll throw you off the homelessness list: how people with mental health issues are addressed

Update 28 Feb: the council says that it is investigating this situation – to find out how someone living in one of its homelessness hostels came to receive such a letter.

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Original post:

Seriously.

I wrote a fortnight ago about Lukia, a woman with serious mental health difficulties who lives (if “lives” is the word) in a Newham homelessness hostel.

Lukia has previously been in the care of a mental health unit.

She is battling Newham council for permanent housing.

Lukia came home last week to find this note under her door:

The note says:

“You are request [sic] to come into the office in Victoria Street today by 3pm. Failure to do so will lead to you being removed from the homelessness list and you will be asked to leave your home.”

I post this to show you again the way that people with no clout are addressed by authorities.

Every contact is a threat.

People aren’t invited to meetings with council or hostel staff. They’re told to attend, or else.

The “or else” part can be the threat of being thrown off the homelessness list and out of a hostel room, as in this case.

It can be the threat of street homelessness and child removal. Whatever form the “or else” takes, these threats are heavy-handed, dangerous and unjustified.

It’s high time that councillors and MPs addressed this. A shortage of housing does not justify a shortage of decency and care.

Lukia, as I’ve written, has a history of serious mental health difficulties and of being placed in temporary accommodation so vile and substandard that she’s been moved out of it.

She feels that permanent accommodation is her only chance at the stability that might lead to an improvement in her health.

Threats of homelessness hardly help people achieve that.

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Do councils actually try to drive homeless mothers to breakdown so they can remove their kids?

I am starting to wonder.

Readers of this site will know I’ve been interviewing Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman.

Marsha is living in a homelessness hostel in Newham – in a one-room hellhole which she shares with her six-year-old daughter.

I reported this week that Marsha had written to the council to ask when she and her daughter would be placed in longer-term housing in Newham.

The two have been living in that stifling hostel room together for over a year.

Marsha is desperate for a place in Newham. She is at college. Her daughter is in school. Marsha relies on family for childcare and mental health support. Her mental health is deteriorating, because of her housing problems.

Marsha is being bullied by the council.

Like so many homeless mothers I and others speak with, Marsha fears that children’s services will remove her daughter if she pushes her case.

Certainly, social services have Marsha in their sights. When Marsha wrote to the council about her housing last week, she was suddenly dragged to two meetings with social services. She and her daughter – who is only six – were grilled about their health and wellbeing.

Now, there’s more.

After that story appeared and I emailed the mayor, Marsha got a call from housing options yesterday.

She was told that the council had one private-rented flat in Woolwich that she had to look at and accept. She was told that if she didn’t accept the flat, she’d be out on the streets. End of story.

That’s the way homeless people are spoken to.

Oven at the flat Marsha was shown

The flat was disgusting – cracked walls, filthy oven, broken locks, stained and squalid mattresses and grimy sinks and walls. I’ve posted photos through this article.

The agent who show Marsha the place said that he wouldn’t house his family members in it.

Homeless women, of course, are expected to be grateful for such places.

Mattress and bed in the flat Marsha was shown

Marsha called me in a terrible state. She has a choice: she can take her six-year-old child to live in this pigsty, or she can live on the side of the road. That’s not much of a choice in my book.

Marsha has become more and more distressed as this has gone on.

The bullying, the threats from and of social services and the upset and rotten housing that she must expose her child to are taking an obvious toll.

I’ve asked the mayor for a response to this. This is council aggression and bullying, pure and simple. The mayor better come back to me soon.

Broken walls and doors in the flat

I’ll tell you this – homeless women I’m speaking with say that they are inevitably treated like this – “do what you’re told and live in whatever hovel we send you to, and be grateful.”

It’s bad enough to know that your mental health is deteriorating because of this and because your kids are exposed to filthy living conditions and your distress.

It’s very bad to know that social services is watching you as that happens.

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Homeless mothers: we feel the ever-present threat of social services and losing our kids. That’s how they keep people quiet

Readers of this site will know that I’ve recently been interviewing Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her six-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two have been stuck in this temporary accommodation for over a year.

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

In the last article, Marsha talked about a concern that many homeless mothers raise. Mothers worry that council social services will try to remove their children because they are homeless. Doesn’t matter what the council can, or can’t, actually do. The threat hangs in the air and that is enough. I’ve written about this before.

In that recent article, Marsha said that Newham social services said they could take her daughter and place the child in care while Marsha “sorted herself out”:

“Social services is telling me – “oh, we can provide a home for your daughter, but not for you.”

“So I am scared.”

There’s been more since then.

On Tuesday morning, Marsha sent an email to her housing officer (Marsha copied me in). She asked for an update on her housing situation and whether she and her child could be moved to a better place than the awful hostel that they’re stuck in.

Marsha is in the dreadful limbo that so many women in poverty are.

She’s facing eviction from the homelessness hostel she’s in.

She’s studying at a local college to try and improve her chances of work and better-paid work.

She doesn’t want to have to move to a flat miles away in Tilbury (which is where the council wants her to go), because Marsha relies on her mother for mental health support and childcare while she studies. If Marsha loses that support, she’ll sink.

Marsha has no-one else to help with childcare while she studies. The jobcentre certainly won’t. Her adviser already threatened to sanction her Universal Credit for spending some of her time studying rather than all of her time looking for work.

So, Marsha sent that email to the council asking about her application for better housing. There’d been earlier emails, too, as well as the stories posted here.

Enter social services.

The next thing Marsha knew was that social services was all over her – and asking questions about her daughter’s health and wellbeing.

Marsha said she felt extremely threatened by this. A woman asks a council questions about her housing application – and suddenly, social services is on the phone demanding meetings and firing off all sorts of questions about the woman and her child’s welfare.

You have to wonder.

Marsha says that first, she was contacted by someone from the local multi-agency safeguarding hub – one of the hubs set up to track children who could be “vulnerable”:

“I literally had to explain myself and my housing situation all over again. He [the MASH officer] was really like getting a bit personal… asking me questions about my doctor, my daughter, my wellbeing, [the] school that she [my daughter] attends, her attendance… just a lot of personal stuff…”

So, there was that.

Then on Thursday last week, Marsha got a call from Newham children’s services, demanding that she attend an appointment with them that very afternoon:

“Another lady called from the social services…she said to me that she’s been given instructions from her manager to call me to arrange a meeting with herself.

I said, “what is it in regards to, because I just spoke to somebody else in the department within the social services and they are saying something different to me…”

“[She said] that she has to do an assessment with me and my daughter to do with my housing issues, and I have to come and see her and I should bring my daughter…

“I said to her – “I’m in college until 4.15pm. Then, I have to pick up my daughter.”

“She was like, “this is important and you have to come and see me. You kind of just have to find time, basically.”

“So I said to her, “okay, well, I’ll grab my daughter from school early and I’ll come and see you.”

“I was really uncomfortable…”

At the meeting, the social worker questioned Marsha and her daughter about Marsha and the child’s wellbeing:

“It is… the stuff they were asking me, Kate, had nothing to do with my housing situation. They were asking my daughter if she sleeps well, how does she play, who helps her with her homework… It’s not relevant.

“It’s almost like I’m being investigated… do you know what I mean… everyone knows that my issues is strictly around housing. I feel so uncomfortable.”

“I feel like the council is just trying to use tactics to force me into a situation…I feel like I’m being punished. I’m trying to get my voice heard and I’m speaking to people and I’m raising issues. I feel like it’s a tactical to make me go away – like they are thinking, “let’s get social services to call around.”

Marsha said the social worker told her that Marsha and her daughter would soon be evicted from their temporary accommodation. Marsha and her young daughter are facing street homelessness.

That was the first Marsha had heard about her impending eviction.

She said that the social worker was shocked to hear that the council’s housing team hadn’t told Marsha that eviction was nearing.

The bed Marsha shares with her daughter

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You see my point.

I talk to too many homeless mothers now who say they feel ever-threatened by social services.

They don’t know if councils can take their kids, but Can or Can’t is beside the point. The point is that the spectre of social services is raised at the drop of a hat. An implied threat is plenty good enough to shut homeless people up.

People worry about challenging a council offer of housing, or complaining about the dreadful state of temporary housing, or drawing attention to themselves by asking a council any questions about housing at all. I wonder how many homeless people are disenfranchised – bullied into silence – in this way.

Said Marsha:

“It’s the normal thing that I’ve been experiencing with council, with social services – bullying, threatening, saying that you have to do this now and you don’t have an option…she [the social worker] sat down yesterday and she said, “as you know there is no affordable housing, affordable properties [in Newham]… it’s just been like 18 months of ongoing like turmoil with them.”

Indeed.

I have more on this which I will publish this week.

The Newham council press office has blacklisted me and so won’t give a comment, but too bad for them. I’ll be emailing the mayor and the head of housing with this article and asking the council what the hell it is doing.

This is sick.

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Can I claim benefits when I’m homeless? Getting the feeling that people can’t find clear answers to this.

I’ve recently noticed a real increase in the number of people coming to my site on search terms re: how to claim benefits when homeless.

Am thinking this could indicate:

  • an increasing number of people who are homeless and in need of benefit help
  • an increasing number of people who can’t easily get the advice on homelessness and benefits that they need

Picking out search terms is hardly a formal measure of a trend, of course, and I’m not talking a mass of visits on these phrases, but I still feel like pointing them out.

Snapshot from this week:

  • can you use job centre as care of address
  • is there a way to apply for benefits when homeless
  • how to apply for benefits when im homeless
  • should dwp tell homeless people to use jobcentres as address
  • can the homeless claim benefits do the homeless get benefits
  • homeless people and job centre plus investigation
  • how much money can you get if you are homeless
  • benefits and homeless
  • can social services take your kids if you are homeless

etc. More every day really.

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I don’t go near the window because I might jump… How many people with serious mental health histories are in hostels like this?

This is an excerpt from a longer article I’m working on:

A fortnight ago, I visited Lukia – a woman with a history of severe depression. She has been in the care of a mental health unit.

For two years, Lukia has lived on an upper floor of a grim homelessness hostel in Newham. She was placed in the hostel by Newham council.

She dislikes living up so high, because she worries about jumping.

Lukia said:

“I’m living on the ninth floor, because… my daughter knows that I don’t go near the window… I always feel like I’m going to go down…”

I asked:

“Like you’re going to jump?”

“Yes, yes… feel like you’re jumping.” Lukia said.

Here’s the view from Lukia’s window:

Her hostel room is also distressing. It’s not really a room. It’s more a hallway with Lukia’s bed and belongings in it. There’s a small kitchen at one end of this hallway and the bed, and window, at the other.

The “room” is filled with suitcases, kitchen items and household belongings:

Why do we make people with serious mental health conditions live like this?

Lukia’s daughter lives in a similar hallway-type room next door, because her mother can’t live alone.

Lukia says the council has offered other temporary accommodation, but she worries about that. She was moved to this hostel from other temporary accommodation, because that accommodation was disgusting:

“They left me there in Romford Road – [that accommodation] was really filthy. We kept on cleaning. We couldn’t do anything. We would have to go through the environmental services… I said I’m not staying in the place. We were about five, six, seven families…. and said you cannot stay in this environment. They all had children. A woman wrote to them – the council – and said, “move these people as soon as possible.” Then, the following day they phoned us and said you have to move…”

What on earth are we doing?

I’d ask Newham Council for a comment on this – in particular, a comment on Lukia’s concerns about jumping and living in a room many stories up – but the council has blacklisted me. There we go.

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Social services said: “we can provide a home for your daughter, but not you.” Homeless women live in fear of having their kids removed

Am transcribing interviews atm – here’s an excerpt from one.

I’m posting this to show again that homeless mothers who ask councils for housing help feel that councils are always threatening to remove their children.

I doubt the well-appointed classes know this fear.

The woman in this interview is Marsha, 30. Her daughter is five. They live together in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

Marsha said that social services told her that they could take her daughter while Marsha “sorted herself out.”

Marsha said that social services frightened her badly with that statement. The council wouldn’t tell her where her daughter might be placed:

“… [they said] it could be anywhere – she’ll just be with, you know, an authorised adult who is eligible to care for her until you sort yourself out.”

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

So many of the homeless mothers I talk with live in fear that their council will remove their kids.

They believe that asking councils for housing help is a risk for that reason.

Forget the council’s “we’ll give your child back when you’ve sorted yourself out,” line.

Women worry that they’ll never see their kids again once they’ve been taken into care.

They also know that they’re a long way away from sorting themselves out – from finding housing that is decent, secure and affordable. The only way to secure such housing really is to suddenly come into money. Nobody holds out much hope for that.

Marsha and her daughter were sofa-surfing when Marsha approached the council for housing help.

Marsha was desperate. She was even more desperate when she thought the council might take her daughter. Such are the fears that homeless mothers must deal with as a matter of course.

Said Marsha:

“Social services is telling me – “oh, we can provide a home for your daughter, but not for you.”

“So I am scared. Social services literally said that to me when I first went to social services…I was literally going to Belgrave Court [a homelessness hostel in Newham].

“They said to me that what we can do is we take [your daughter] and we can look after her for you until you sort yourself out and then you can come back and get her.”

“I said if you take [my daughter], can you tell me where she’s going to be?”

“They said – oh no, it could be anywhere. She’ll just be with, you know, an authorised adult who is eligible to care for her until you sort yourself out.”

“I said – “it’s in my child’s best interests for her to be with me. I’m the only person that she knows.”

I’d ask Newham council for comment on this, except that the council has blacklisted me. Too bad for the council. I have a lot more on this story.

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What will happen to my disabled child in austerity after I die? What happens to my adult child who has learning difficulties when I’m not around to advocate?

The post below – Eddie’s story – is an excerpt from a collection of interviews I’ve made since 2014 with people directly affected by benefit cuts and welfare reform.

This collection is being made possible thanks to a Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust grant.

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What happens to my adult child who has learning difficulties when I’m not around to advocate?

Mould in doorway entrance

In my interviews with parents of people with learning difficulties in the past ten years, there was a question which weighed on parents’ minds:

“What will happen to my child when I’m not around to insist that they have housing, income and care?”

This question wasn’t exclusive to austerity, but it took on a new intensity as Cameron-Osborne plans to eradicate public services became obvious.

Parents knew that housing, benefits and care services were being devastated by council funding cuts and welfare reform.

They knew that negotiating austerity’s brutal and labyrinthine public sector bureaucracies for housing, income and care could be devastatingly hard.

“What will happen when my child is an adult alone in austerity?”

That question didn’t really bear thinking about.

—————–

Except that people did think about that question.

I thought about it myself.

I thought about it a lot from about 2014 to 2017, when I came to know Eddie*, a Kilburn man with learning difficulties.

In many ways, Eddie’s life over that time was an answer to that question.

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Eddie’s story (Eddie’s name has been changed)

Eddie was 51 when we met in 2014.

Eddie had learning and literacy difficulties. He’d received special needs education as a child. Eddie identified as Black British. I knew this, because we filled in a lot of job applications for Eddie together over the years and he always took care with the monitoring parts of the forms.

“I’m British born and bred,” Eddie often said proudly. He said that his parents had come to the UK from Jamaica – part of the Windrush generation.

Eddie had type one diabetes. He injected insulin several times a day. He had trouble managing his diabetes as he aged. He often caught colds and flu. He sometimes struggled to walk, because he had pain in his legs and feet.

Eddie had worked as a kitchen assistant for much of his adult life. He’d been made redundant about six years previously and had not found work again. Eddie signed on for JSA at Kilburn jobcentre. (I met Eddie at the jobcentre during a Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group leafleting session there. KUWG volunteers knew Eddie and gave him a great deal of support over the years. They pushed councils and the DWP to keep Eddie on the radar).

Eddie’s mother had died about a decade earlier: around 2004. Eddie had lived with his mother.

Things began to implode for Eddie several years after his mother’s death. He had to negotiate cash-strapped and dysfunctional public sector bureaucracies on his own. Post 2010, as austerity began to bite, the facts of that began to show.

An austerity state could never replace Eddie’s mother.

There was no question about it. I understood from conversations with Eddie that his mother had been the driving force in his life. She’d made sure that Eddie found work and stayed in work. She’d filled in forms and talked with employers about Eddie’s learning and literacy difficulties. At home, Eddie’s mother had kept their flat organised and clean.

Eddie’s mother was one of the few people who Eddie spoke about with affection.

He often said that he missed his mother.

I began to understand what that meant when I saw how Eddie lived.

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How people with learning difficulties are expected to live

I took these photos inside Eddie’s Kilburn flat in 2014.

This was how relying on the state in austerity looked for people in Eddie’s situation:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flat was disgusting – full of mould, dirt and vermin. It was all Eddie could afford.

Eddie relied on housing benefit to pay his entire rent. By this time, housing benefit only covered full private sector rents on London’s shabbiest flats.

Eddie’s private-sector landlord charged Brent council £1000 a month in housing benefit for the Kilburn flat in these pictures.

 

That was a benefits abuse in itself. Eddie’s landlord was paying a Zone 2 London mortgage with the housing benefit he collected by letting such places to councils.

The Kilburn flat had only one room. Eddie’s bed, kitchen, small fridge, washing machine, clothes and belongings were all crammed into that single tiny space. Wet clothes and towels hung from rails and chairs. The floors and benchtops were littered with rubbish, unwashed dishes and rotting food. Mice scuttled under the oven and bed.

Eddie never cleaned the bathroom – ever. There was no window in the bathroom. The whole flat stank of sewerage.

There was one ground-floor door in the flat which lead to a small and filthy backyard. I saw rubbish, used sanitary towels and dead rodents in that backyard. Eddie always kept the door to the yard closed for security. There was a tiny window above the door pane which he never opened. Condensation ran down the inside of the door in rivulets. Thick black mould blossomed inside the flat. It blanketed the walls and the ceiling in the wet air.

“It’s disgusting,” Eddie would say furiously of his accommodation. “I should be in a council flat with a separate kitchen, a separate bedroom. I’m getting sick. Look at this mould on my clothes.”

The noise from neighbouring flats in the house worried Eddie a great deal, too.

Eddie complained that he could hear his neighbours fighting. He called the police several times, because he said that his neighbours had threatened him.

His neighbours, meanwhile, complained that they could hear Eddie and his partner Linda having sex.

The problem was that low-rent flats such as Eddie’s were set in houses of multiple occupation – single houses which owners broke up into tiny rooms to rent out as flats to councils.

These landlords always planned to sell the buildings when the mortgages were finally paid.

Such landlords invested as little in the flats as possible. There was no soundproofing between the rooms. TVs and stereos screamed from each flat. People came and went all day – talking, shouting and slamming doors. The noise went on and on.

Eddie said that noise in the house was made entirely by his neighbours:

“They’re drug dealers. Shouting and yelling. Throwing furniture down the stairs last night. They never go to work. It’s disgusting. I shouldn’t be here.”

Eddie was furious about that.

Eddie was furious about everything.

Eddie’s anger worsened over the years as his living conditions, health and employment prospects deteriorated. He railed and ranted. He was hard to take a lot of the time.

He loathed council housing staff:

“They don’t do anything. They never help,”

He hated the jobcentre staff who he had to report to:

“They’re useless. They should all be sacked.”

He disliked his neighbours:

“They’re drug dealers. Shouting and yelling…they never go to work.”

and he hated immigrants:

“They should be put back where they came from…the problem is like a stray cat. Pick it off the street and then suddenly, you’re a soft touch…British and English people can’t get jobs, or flats, which they should have had, long time…When we had that other bitch in – she was so hard, she wouldn’t allow it. Margaret Thatcher. She was hard, that one. This one [David Cameron] has got no backbone.”

Eddie talked in a monologue which never changed, or ended.

His topics were always the same: he should have a job and a decent home, immigrants should be sent back where they came from, jobcentre and council staff were useless and everyone should be sacked.

—-

In 2015, Eddie was evicted from his Kilburn flat.

Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group activists helped Eddie find a similar-sized place – this time in Haringey. One KUWG activist in particular put a great deal of time into trying to solve Eddie’s housing and jobcentre problems. She set up meetings with council officers and pushed councils to provide Eddie with housing and support. She even went as far as to pay the deposit on the Haringey flat out of her own money.

Eddie was evicted from the Haringey flat in 2016.

The Haringey flat – like the Kilburn one – was in ruins at the end of Eddie’s tenancy.

That was because Eddie had exactly the same problems in Haringey as he’d had in Kilburn.

The Haringey flat was tiny – again, it was all that Eddie could afford in London as a housing benefit recipient.

There was only one room in the Haringey flat. The bed, kitchen, living space and all of Eddie’s belongings were crammed into that small, stifling space – a space that he could not air properly, or keep clean:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Universal Credit is not the only horror show in town. The entire benefits system is wrecked. I’ll show you.

Fact: Universal Credit is NOT the only benefit which plunges people into debt and desperation.

The entire benefit system is a wreck. Years of staff cuts, privatisation, jobcentre closures, sanctions, benefit delays and a brutal institutional contempt for claimants have left people reeling in a system that can’t even do the basics.

Universal Credit hasn’t gone wrong. It has gone exactly as planned. The application process is difficult. It excludes anyone who can’t use a PC, or navigate complex public sector bureaucracies. It has built-in delays which leave people in debt – rent arrears, in particular. Universal Credit strikes terror into anyone who might need it. Its depravity is entirely in keeping with welfare reform.

I understand why activists target Universal Credit. Universal Credit is a vicious ideological project which will adversely affect millions of working people (potential voters, that is). It has cost billions and will cost more. Its failures can be laid firmly at the door of Tory extremism.

The truth is, though, that every part of the safety net is in shreds. No politician will fix that easily. I’m not convinced that the electorate even wants the net fixed for a lot of people. Chaminda had that right. Destruction of welfare reflects an electorate view of the poorest. I’ve often spoken with people who are struggling mightily, but who agree with some degree of welfare reform. They receive benefits, but say that too many people get benefits when they shouldn’t.

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Computer Says No

Let’s take a look at a few typical experiences of people who sign on (or try to) at Stockport jobcentre. I attend Stockport United Against Austerity leafleting sessions at that jobcentre and interview people as they come out. Universal Credit rollout starts at Stockport this month. The jobcentre already has some UC claimants.

The interviews below were all made this year. I’ve picked three at random. Readers of this site will know that I have many others.

The theme of these interviews? – Exclusion. Each person went into the jobcentre with an issue and came out with the same issue. Nothing was fixed, or solved. People were no closer to answers to problems than they were when they went in. This is so commonplace that it is standard.

Here’s Kerry:

Kerry was in her 30s. She was out of work. She was trying to sign on for jobseekers’ allowance while she looked for work. Kerry Anne had a job interview set for the Tuesday after we met.

Kerry had filled in a JSA application form. Then, she’d received a DWP text which instructed her to attend a meeting at Stockport jobcentre to complete her JSA claim.

Kerry had turned up to the meeting – only to be told that her paperwork wasn’t adequate. An adviser told Kerry she needed three forms of ID to claim JSA. The meeting ended there.

When I met Kerry, she was standing outside the jobcentre trying to guess what the adviser was on about. Kerry didn’t have three forms of ID. Nobody does. The adviser had not explained what she’d meant.

Upshot: Kerry left the jobcentre no closer to JSA than she’d been when she arrived. She had no idea how to complete her application and no idea when – or even if – she’d get any money.

That sort of scenario is absolutely par for the course. One person after another leaves that jobcentre trying to work out what in hell to do next. There really are times when it feels as though people who try to claim benefits are forced participants in a hellish gameshow challenge – where the prize for navigating one obstacle is a cryptic hint about the next one. The thing is ridiculous. It goes on and on.

Next up: a man in his 30s called Steve.

Steve needed help to buy a cheap pram. Steve and his partner had a baby, but they couldn’t afford a pram for him. Without a pram, they just carried the baby around town.

On the day we met, the couple had asked the jobcentre for a social fund loan. The jobcentre said they couldn’t have one. Advisers said Steve was paying back another loan. Steve insisted that he wasn’t. This went on for a while. The jobcentre wouldn’t budge.

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#UniversalCredit, sanctions, rent arrears, radiation therapy, 8 people living in one small flat…what the hell does this achieve?

When will modern society work out that hating and bullying people in poverty doesn’t eradicate poverty?

Last Wednesday, I spent several hours at Oldham foodbank, speaking with people who’d come in for food parcels. I visit Oldham foodbank from time to time.

On Wednesday, I had a long talk with Mel (name changed), 47. There’s a full transcript from that interview at the end of this article.

I’m posting this interview for a specific reason.

Mel and her family were on the receiving end of a great deal of government and public bile.

I want to show you how that looks from Mel’s side of the fence:

Mel talked about being patronised by frontline officers and targeted by people in the neighbourhood.

Universal Credit officers dismissed Mel when she rang the helpline because her benefits weren’t paid: “He [the DWP officer] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one.”

A neighbour had dobbed Mel in with authorities – I think for housing extra family members in her flat.

A secretary at a local school had called Mel’s children and grandchildren dirty: “I didn’t actually punch her…I’m not a violent person but…yeah.”

The list went on. It usually does.

That’s the point I want to focus on here.

I know precisely what government and a judgmental electorate would say about Mel’s family. They would call Mel and her family scroungers. They would hate on the family and think – “Job Done. That’ll Learn Them.” (It’s only a pity that bailed-out bankers aren’t punished as thoroughly for their money-handling problems). Such is our era. The general view is that all that people in Mel’s situation need to sort things out is a kick in the head.

I don’t believe that bashing people when they’re already down is a brilliant social policy tactic. What I do know is that Mel and her family were being crushed by the dysfunctional and abusive public sector bureaucracies that they relied on. That part was absolutely not Mel’s fault. That part was society’s fault. Society approves of institutional aggression towards the worst off and likes to describe people in poverty as barbaric if they respond badly to that aggression. That’s how things roll for the Mels of the modern world.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Mel was ill. She said that she was having radiation therapy. She looked sick. She was tiny and gaunt, and her hair was thinning. She kept saying that she looked old. She was upset about it.

“I’ve got two weeks left of radiation… two weeks left of treatment, three times a week. I look old.”

There were other problems, too – like Mel needed them.

One problem was that Mel was receiving Universal Credit. Universal Credit’s defective payment systems had caused Mel no end of grief. For example: Mel had rent arrears. She couldn’t understand why, because the housing costs component of her Universal Credit was paid straight to her landlord. Her rent should have been covered. It hadn’t been at one point or another, and she didn’t know why. Mel kept getting letters from First Choice Homes about the arrears. She couldn’t repay the money. She would never be able to repay the money. The demand letters kept coming. This happens too often to mention. The threats roll in and roll in. There’s no respite. The debts never end.

So, there was that.

Another problem was that Mel’s flat was overcrowded. Her children and grandchildren were staying with her, because they had nowhere else to go.

Mel said she had seven (sometimes eight) people living in her two-bedroom flat. There was Mel, her five-year-old daughter, her 26-year-old daughter, the daughter’s partner and their three kids (and sometimes another daughter, I think Mel said). The 26-year-old daughter and her family had recently been evicted from their flat, because the landlord had wanted to sell.

There was more.

At the moment, the family relied on Mel’s benefit money to pay for food and clothes. Mel’s daughter had applied for Universal Credit, but had only received one payment in ten months. Continue reading

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Worried about being moved to the same borough as your violent ex-partner’s family? Tough. Get going.

Here’s a paragraph from a council letter which dismisses a homeless woman’s concerns about being moved to the same borough as members of her violent ex-partner’s family.

You need to see this. It is a common example of the sort of thing that homeless households are told when they challenge a council decision to send them out of borough:

The letter from the council officer says:

“You advised me that your ex partner who you fled whilst residing at [word removed] due to domestic violence. His [word removed] lives in [word removed], but you could not provide me with details such as address or full name but you were confident that [word removed] lives in [word removed]. I looked at your previous notes on file, your housing officer at that time made enquiries with the police, police confirmed that they did not state that you were not safe in the borough of…. were [sic] you fled from, neither did they exclude [word removed] as a risk area and your last reported incident was July 2016…Based on all the information this would suggest that the incidents are historic…”

Really.

I’m seeing more and more letters where every single one of a homeless family’s reasons for wanting to stay in the area that they know are dismissed out of hand by their council.

People tell their council that they want to stay in their borough for their children’s schools, for important health services, for local networks they rely on, and even for safety. They’re entitled to ask their councils to consider these circumstances when councils are looking at where to house them.

Unfortunately, none of the points that homeless families raise seem to rate. People are perfectly entitled to ask a council to review its choice of home for them, but they might as well not bother. I get the distinct feeling that decisions to send homeless people away are made before people even walk through a council’s doors.

So.

The recipient of this letter, Christine (named changed), is a young homeless Newham mother.

Christine and her children live in a single room temporary accommodation flat. They’ve been there for a year. Christine says Newham council told Christine that the accommodation would be short term. She and the kids are still there – all living in one tiny room together.

In its letter, Newham council says that Christine’s only option for longer-term housing is a privately rented flat in another borough (I’m withholding the name of the borough, because of Christine’s safety concerns).

Christine says the council has told her that she risks making herself intentionally homeless if she refuses to go.

But Christine has good reasons for not wanting to go.

As we’ve seen, one of those good reasons is that Christine doesn’t want to move to the area that the council proposes because a member of her violent ex-partner’s family lives there.

Christine’s problem is that she has not been able to prove that easily. Christine says she isn’t even sure where to start.

This problem comes up time and time again when homeless people ask for housing help from councils (and for benefits help from the DWP).

People can’t always give councils or the DWP the evidence and/or paperwork that the excessively bureaucratic public sector demands. Not everyone who has spent years moving from one crappy rental to another has a tidy and up-to-date filing cabinet or contacts book.

Nonetheless, public sector bureaucracies demand paperwork and evidence, evidence, evidence. I’ve sat in meetings with people who’ve been denied crucial rent money because the officer in front of them has decided that another piece of paper is required. Forcing stressed people to chase and present pieces of paper and official letters so that they can get benefits and housing is one of austerity’s special tortures. Continue reading

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