Why a private rented flat means poverty forever

Here’s a short post on a topic that comes up more and more: homeless people who want to resist being placed in private sector tenancies by councils, because they know that private tenancies mean permanent poverty:

Readers of this site will know that I’ve published several interviews this year with Marsha, a 30-year-old homeless Newham woman who lives in a single-room homelessness hostel with her small daughter. That one room serves as living room and bedroom. The two share a bed in that room.

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

Marsha is in deadlock with Newham council about future housing.

Marsha is desperate for a social housing flat – a secure(ish) tenancy and rent she might afford. The odds are against her getting such a flat. The odds are against most people. There are about 28,000 households on Newham council’s housing waiting list. Plenty of people on that list live in dire hostels and flats.

The council has insisted through the year that the numbers mean that Marsha’s only real option is a private flat. (There was mention of a flat owned by a charity at one point, but the rent on that was still high and there was much discussion re: whether the flat was ready or not).

The problem is that Marsha knows that private rented housing will very likely finish her chances of financial independence.

“the private rents and the way it is going … it is unaffordable to me… because at the end of the day, what job am I going to be working where I’m working enough, so I’m able to cover my rent and my monthly expenses? I want to put myself in a space where I can have a good income and provide for [my daughter]… “

So, Marsha does what people do. She waits in the homelessness hostel and hopes to avoid eviction from the hostel while she makes a case for social housing. Bidding on social housing flats isn’t going too well. It’s not unusual for people to find themselves in a queue of over a thousand for a place in Newham.

Thing is – Marsha has decided that trying to beat the odds to get social housing makes more sense than trying to force the sums for private rentals to add.

She has a point. It’s a point I hear more and more.

Marsha has looked at cheap private flats out of London. There is a major problem with flats out of London, though (there’s more than one major problem, but we’ll focus on one for now). If she leaves London, Marsha will be miles and a costly train-trip away from her mother. Her mother is the person who provides the free childcare that Marsha needs while she finishes qualifications and looks for work.

Without that free childcare, she’s had it.

Looking for a private rented flat in London is literally a non-starter. The ever-expanding gap between local housing allowance entitlements (which are frozen) and market rents sees to that. Marsha could not meet the shortfall between her LHA allowance and a private rent once the council stopped paying topups.

Private landlords can easily raise rents and evict tenants for people who’ll pay more. If that happened, finding another flat that Marsha could afford, or a landlord who’d even take an LHA tenant, would be near-impossible:

“…this is not the life that I want for [my daughter]…she’s going to grow up relying [on the system] in the same way…I want her to see that I want to work… I want to pay tax. I want to get into the system where I am contributing to that instead of taking from it…”

So, Marsha waits.

She takes a big risk doing that. Turning down a council offer of a private flat – wherever that flat is and whatever state it is in – can finish a homeless person’s chances of housing help from a council. A council can decide that someone has made themselves homeless intentionally if that person says No to a private flat. Eviction from a hostel, or any temporary accommodation, can quickly follow that.

Point is – people will take that risk to avoid private rentals. That’s where we’re at.

It is not – as I’m sure critics of people on benefits will argue – that homeless people have gotten all above themselves and refuse private places because they feel entitled to low-cost social housing in major cities.

It is about homeless people knowing that a private rental is guaranteed to trap them in arrears and ongoing poverty, and return them to homelessness, sofa-surfing and hostels. Why embark on that journey if you’re already there?


Blogging will be light-ish until the end of the year as am finishing up a transcription project of interviews, and homelessness and jobcentre meeting recordings. Still available for contact here.

 

We’ll find you intentionally homeless even though it’s our fault you’re homeless

So.

To the housing frontline again – where a Greater London council officer I interview tells me about another senseless intentional homelessness threat (you can read earlier interviews with that officer about intentional homelessness cases here).

The officer gives this story as another example of the shambles in council homelessness departments in austerity. Staff shortages, extreme caseloads and a mass of application forms and paperwork created by personal housing plans mean that officers in under-resourced housing offices can too easily lose the thread.

The officer talks about a recent case where a Greater London council threatened to find a woman intentionally homeless. The council made this threat even though the council itself was completely responsible for the woman’s homelessness. The council denied the woman housing benefit for 12 months, because it failed to keep proper track of the woman’s supporting paperwork and evidence. She was ultimately evicted for rent arrears. Brilliant.

The officer was responsible for reviewing the woman’s case.

The woman worked as a cleaner. The officer said that she “worked all hours,” to make ends meet. She still didn’t earn much. She claimed housing benefit to help pay her rent.

Just over a year ago, the woman changed jobs. She let her council know about this change.

That’s when the problems began.

For reasons that the woman never understood, the council shut down her housing benefit claim completely. The council wouldn’t restart her claim, or even set up a new one quickly. Continue reading

When women in absolute poverty are denied their kids, legal help and housing

Here’s a scenario that I’ve seen several times now: a woman facing homelessness after losing her kids in a custody battle that she couldn’t afford to fight.

One of the women I’ve written about several times for this blog has been in touch to say that she is facing eviction and homelessness. She has serious rent arrears – thousands of pounds. She has an eviction notice and will be thrown out her flat.

This woman is facing street homelessness. The arrears and eviction likely mean that her council won’t help her find housing. They’ll decide that she’s responsible for her eviction – that she’s made herself intentionally homeless.

Except that things aren’t quite that simple. They rarely are.

This woman is in arrears for two reasons:

The first is the benefit cap. The arrears began when the benefit cap was applied. The woman lost over half of her housing benefit entitlement literally overnight. There was no way she could make up this sudden loss of rent money.

The second reason is that the woman recently lost custody of her children. This was brutal. I can’t give much detail here, but I’ve seen this scenario several times.

The woman’s relationship with her ex-partner ended acrimoniously. Her much-better-resourced ex lawyered up and went to court for the kids. The character assassination this woman endured during this case was nasty.

So was the woman’s isolation. She had no money and no lawyer for most of the time (she scraped together a bit of money for advice early on, but couldn’t keep that going on any level. She didn’t have any money). This woman was one of the thousands of people who are now forced to represent themselves in bitter, convoluted and drawn-out custody fights. Even getting basic advice about entitlements and rights was impossible. She never had a chance.

So – the rent arrears. Already in debt, the woman stopped receiving housing benefit (Universal Credit in her case) for the bedrooms that her children had occupied. She couldn’t meet rent payments at all. The thing is completely out of hand.

She’ll be evicted soon.

God knows what happens after that. I guess that at best, she’ll find a crappy studio flat somewhere – if she can scrape together money for a deposit and rent, and find a landlord who accepts Universal Credit claimants who’ve been evicted for serious rent arrears. At worst, she’ll be street homeless. She’ll have no chance of getting her kids back without a place for them to stay.

Any constructive suggestions on this situation are welcome. I’ve interviewed three women in the same situation in recent times. There must be a way of getting legal representation and housing for people.

We know you’re homeless and dangerously depressed and anxious. Let’s push you over the edge

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

Marsha is living in temporary accommodation in a one-room hostel with her little daughter. The two have lived in this cramped space together more than two years.

Marsha has severe depression and anxiety. She sometimes cries when we talk. She is stuck in dreadful poverty in a way that she fears is permanent: “They [Newham Council] will put me in housing (out of London, away from jobs, training and free childcare with family) and I will be on benefits for the rest of my life.”

Marsha gets no respite from a public sector that should be in place to help. Marsha is being crushed by that sector. The public sector has no resources and no patience, imagination, or humanity as a result. That’s austerity.

On her own, Marsha can’t get housing in Newham near family who could look after her daughter while Marsha studies to qualify for the jobs that will get her off Universal Credit.

Marsha relies completely on her mother to look after her daughter and for much-needed emotional support. If Marsha is housed miles away from her mother as the council has historically insisted she must be, she’ll be isolated on benefits and in debilitating depression forever. The facts are also that job and training opportunities are much better in London than they are in the places that councils suggest people live.

This is why homeless families fight so hard to stay in the city. It’s not because homeless families can’t stand the thought of living in towns that don’t have a Harrods. It’s because employment and training opportunities in smaller towns can be hard to come by.

People also worry about racism in other towns, just by the way. We live in febrile times on that score.

Meanwhile – social services and her daughter’s school are constantly on Marsha’s case in a threatening way. They demand that Marsha and her daughter attend same-day meetings to discuss her daughter’s mental and emotional health – health that is inevitably deteriorating because of the conditions that Marsha and her daughter are kept in. Like so many people I speak with, Marsha worries that the mental and emotional health problems that are caused by the family’s living conditions will lead to her daughter being removed.

Meanwhile again, Marsha’s jobcentre adviser has sanctioned Marsha for attending college – rather than sending off the hundreds of never-answered applications for minimum-wage jobs that the DWP demands.

I talk to too many women with children who are held in poverty in this three-way clamp housing, social services and DWP all keeping single mothers in their place.

On the housing front:

I think that Newham council is stringing Marsha along when it comes to promises of better (ie fit for human habitation) housing. Such promises are as cruel and dangerous as they are empty – particularly when you are dealing with people who live in hellholes and have very serious depression.

A couple of months ago, officers showed Marsha a pigsty in Woolwich and told her to live in it, or else (the “or else” being that the council would give Marsha no more “help” if she didn’t shut up and take the flat).

Later on, under pressure, the council apologised to Marsha for treating her in this way.

Councillors said that they would find Marsha and her daughter a better home – ie, something human beings could just about live in. They even said they’d located such place.

That was months ago. Absolutely nothing happened after that. You started to wonder if this better home existed at all.

The council told Marsha that she couldn’t move in, because it was fixing the flat. I can’t imagine what sort of fixing this has involved. It’s been months.

And maybe Marsha was right to wonder if this promised flat was real. Certainly, the promise of it wasn’t. Marsha just told me that the council has rung to say that the flat is off the menu. The council says it has another flat in mind. Marsha was crying when she said that she doubted this. She said she was thinking of giving up – of leaving the homelessness hostel and bunking down wherever she could. This – from someone with very bad depression and anxiety.

You can see why homeless families in Marsha’s situation beg councils for social housing and secure tenancies. It’s not just that private tenancies are notoriously expensive and insecure, and that you’re likely to be facing eviction and homelessness again in a matter of months. It’s that councils can’t keep a grip when they’re farming people out to these places.

I could go on and I will in another post. I have more to post on the non-stop interference that Marsha and women in her situation get from social services.

For now though – Newham council needs to sort this out. Destabilising people with depression in this way is disgusting and dangerous. I’d ask Newham council for comment on this, except that I’ve been blacklisted. I will still ask councillors directly, though. The hell with it.

Homelessness and poverty while Brexit takes it all

Posted below are excerpts from a transcript of an interview with homeless Newham woman Marsha, 30.

I post this as an example of homelessness as so many women I interview these days experience it.

Marsha talks about common problems that homeless women with children are always up against now: the lifetime of housing insecurity, the debilitating anxiety and depression, and the public authorities that invade a homeless woman’s privacy and keep her in her place by never letting her forget that they could take her child.

Marsha talks about being trapped forever – in rotten housing and low-paid work.

Few people on the ground believe that this will change soon.

The political and media classes are completely consumed by Brexit.

There’s no time or space for people who rely on the public services that our imploding politics can’t provide.

That is disgusting. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is for everyone involved.

——-

Housing

For 18 months, Marsha has lived with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two share a bed in that room:

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

Before they were placed in this hostel, Marsha and her daughter lived in temporary shared accommodation in a Newham hostel called Belgrave Court.

The two had one room. They shared a kitchen and bathroom with other hostel residents.

Marsha has lived in a lot of places like this. She grew up in shared accommodation.

Marsha’s mother migrated to England from Jamaica. She worked long hours as a cleaner. She brought Marsha to England when Marsha was 12. The two lived in shared housing.

They often had to move. Stability is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.

Marsha says:

“…when you’re renting a room… you’re sharing with all different people and there’s always issues, so we’ve always had to just kept to kept on moving, so as a teenager coming up into my adult years, I had to move…”

Marsha says that she was abused when she was younger.

She hates talking about these issues (“I don’t want all my business out there”), although council and jobcentre officers insist that she talks – again and again and again:

“The medical assessment officer, he asked if I had any issues. My issues growing up is not something I’m comfortable talking about, so I just said to him, “bottom line, I suffer from depression. I don’t need to go into the things that make me depressed, because it is uncomfortable to relive certain moments…”

Relentless interrogation by authorities

Marsha is forced to relive her past and present problems, though. Homeless women must repeatedly justify their need for housing and income help to strangers by explaining their backgrounds and experiences again and again. They must tell their stories from the start to each new officer who interviews them – council homelessness officers, MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) officers, jobcentre advisers and social workers.

They must tell officers everything: mental health histories, family histories, relationship histories and abuse histories. There’s no letup. There’s no privacy. There is no autonomy. Officers want details when they are deciding if a homeless woman is in need.

They want graphic details, even. Does the woman have panic attacks? How often does she have them? How serious are they? How bad is her depression? Is she medicated? Was she abused? Who was her abuser? What did her abuser do? How has her experience affected her kids?

Officers want to rate a woman’s story. They want her to prove that her problems are genuinely serious, whatever that means.

Marsha says that her medical history of depression and panic attacks (she’s been hospitalised in the past) has sometimes been dismissed in the past, because officers say that panic attacks are run-of-the-mill these days:

“They said to me panic attacks is a common thing, [that] lots of people go through it. [They said] “just find coping mechanisms and you will be all right.”

Officers say that even when Marsha is clearly unwell:

“…the sort of depression that I had at the time – I was always washing my hands. I was always doing stuff. I couldn’t take light. Even now, I can barely stand light. That’s why I put stuff over the window.”

Marsha still drapes sheets and blankets over windows to keep the light out. I visited her at about midday on a Saturday and her hostel room was in shade.

Sheets and blankets draped over the hostel window

Officers know these things, but ask about them repeatedly all the same.

Councils keep detailed files about homeless people, but don’t refer to them, apparently.

Marsha says:

“I said to him [the officer], “I’ve got my housing file in my drawer. It’s this thick. I have been complaining since I moved into this property that I have panic attacks at least two to three times a week.”

At a recent meeting with social services, Marsha had to remind the social worker of her name, because the officer wasn’t sure who Marsha was – even though she had called Marsha to the meeting.

The social worker hadn’t looked at Marsha’s file. She just brought Marsha in to question her.

———- Continue reading

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.

————————–

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.

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.

Continue reading

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

——-

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.

DWP: we don’t want you studying or improving your life. We want you in low paid work forever

On Saturday, I interviewed Marsha, 30.

Marsha is homeless and lives with her young daughter in one room in a temporary accommodation hostel in Newham. (I’ll publish her full story soon).

Marsha signs on for Universal Credit at Stratford jobcentre.

Marsha told me that she wants to study to become a nurse.

To get things underway, she recently signed up to study a module in health.

Marsha said that she thought her jobcentre adviser would be pleased with this initiative.

He was not. He was furious about it.

The jobcentre adviser told Marsha off for prioritising study ahead of jobsearch. She was threatened with sanctions for putting study ahead of her jobsearch activities.

Her jobcentre adviser told Marsha that finding work – any work at any pay – had to be her priority.

Study and increasing her chances of better-paid work were not DWP priorities for her.

“He said to me “they [the DWP] want you looking for work.”

I said to him: “how can I get a better job with more money to look after my daughter if I never get qualifications?”

Precisely.

Two things:

  • this is an excellent way for the DWP to make sure that people in Marsha’s situation never get out of such situations – that they’re kept in low paid, unskilled work and subject to Universal Credit conditions forever
  • it’s extraordinary that instead of encouraging her to study, the DWP would rather that Marsha spend her time on useless jobsearch exercises such as sitting in front of a computer applying online for hundreds of jobs that she’ll never hear about again. There is no greater waste of time for people than this – sending of hundreds of online job applications that are never responded to. Still, people are forced to do this in exchange for their benefits. I’ve written about this a lot.

This government is not interested in helping people achieve economic independence.

This government wants to make very sure that people who have nothing are kept in their place forever – desperate, stuck permanently in low-paid work and trapped by the state on Universal Credit, because they never earn enough to get clear.

#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