Disabled? Your council has decided you’re not any more. Praise the lord! and find your own housing.

Today we’re taking a brief break from DWP ballsups to talk about council ones.

Readers of this site may remember a story I posted earlier this year about N.

N is disabled, homeless and a mother to 2 very young children. She’s another domestic violence alumni – domestic violence being a problem that the world probably needs to get round to addressing with something closer to urgency. Bet plenty more more women get smacked over as massive energy bills land. Problems like that inevitably end up being our fault.

On with the story. Several years ago, N’s London council placed her in one of its notoriously bad homelessness hostels and there N has languished. She has one shabby room where she and her kids live (“live” is the romantic word for it), eat and sleep. These single rooms in this hostel are the sort of cramped, airless and often baking hot places that you’d be fined for leaving a dog in, but are entirely acceptable for poor families for years on end.

Still, hanging on even to this hovel has been a challenge for N – an unfair one, needless to say. At the end of last year, the council informed a then-pregnant N that she’d be evicted from the hostel, because she’d turned down a temporary flat the council had offered. N had good reason to turn the flat down – it was a ground floor place with a flimsy front door and an overgrown yard in which a pissed-off ex could lie in wait for the woman who’d dared to get a non-molestation order against him. N was too scared of her ex to tell the council any of this. So, she was still facing eviction when she gave birth. She was also whatsapping me and another housing activist about it from the delivery suite. Seemed a new low to me, but I can be slow to move with the times.

Anyway, we can probably put that unpleasantness behind us, because the council has since moved into a new field – miracle healing. Until now, as a lifelong atheist, I have tended to take the long view of this corner of the action, but maybe this will be the time when things finally take off.

Last week, an officer rang N (who is still languishing in the hostel) to say that N would have to accept a 2nd-storey flat with no lift if nothing else was available – this is even though N can’t climb stairs. Continue reading

DWP: we can send you on a useless course or on hopeless “work experience.” Let’s do both.

How’s another ride in the DWP clowncar:

It’s a nice sunny morning and we’re back at Stockport jobcentre.

This morning, we’re shooting the breeze with Steve*, who is telling us the one about the time when he was sent on an outdoor workfare-type experience in Levenshulme.

Somebody at Restart or wherever (can’t remember exactly – one or other of the usual welfare-to-work companies that have smelted into a single pile in my mind) decided a little while back that Steve and a few other unemployed blokes would make good (not to mention free) gardeners.

Steve and these others were instructed to turn up to some site where an impressive assortment of gardening kit awaited:

“They’ve got all the gardening tools, petrol strimmer and a motormower…” You got the feeling that somewhere in his mind, Steve had been looking forward to going large with some of these appliances.

It was also possible to see why this particular unpaid work experience (“you get paid nothing for it”) could be felt to beat other workfare “opportunities” that those of us on the circuit have seen over recent years – opportunities such spending the day as a sandwich board, helping test people for the clap (true story), and standing in the rain with a charity collection bucket, etc. When you recall George Osborne’s smug face as he rolled out his workfare programme, the chance to wield a strimmer strikes you as an opportunity in itself.

On with the story. Steve and the others had a look at the tools and things built up to the big moment. They went to their workfare gardening sites – not raring to start the unpaid work exactly, but possibly keen to see who did what with which tool…? okay – that’s probably more what I would have thought. Anyway – they were all set to fire up the strimmers and mowers, and the rest of the arsenal… so they yanked up the starter cords and… nothing. Nothing happened. Total silence. The strimmers and mowers wouldn’t start.

A cursory probe revealed that there was no fuel in any of the tanks. Nobody in charge had quite got around to getting petrol for the tools. A phone call to the work placement company that was in charge of the shambles revealed that nobody there was interested in paying for any, either.

Steve says: “I phoned the guy at the [work placement] place and he said, “we can’t afford the fuel… might as well go home, lads.”

Says Steve: “I got sent round to this woman’s house to mow the lawn, but the petrol was empty. She had an empty petrol can. I said I’ve come to sort your lawns out.”” That seems to have been the end of that – Steve on a lawn on his phone trying score some petrol with an impotent strimmer lying in some old love’s petunias. I can’t help feeling that there’s a metaphor for life in 2022 in there somewhere. I suppose the good news is that it ended up being an environmentally sound experience, in that the grass was left to grow and a litre or so of fossil fuel stayed in the earth, or was bought by someone else and thrown over their bonfire, or whatever. Anyway. Big start – small finish. That’s the DWP all over.

“It’s a joke what they’re doing,” Steve says.

It does sound like it.

Luckily for Steve, the DWP has plenty of other bad ideas up its sleeve. He says that last week, someone at Restart told him that he had to take up a cleaning job in Bolton. Continue reading

DWP: we are clawing back £6k you don’t owe and can’t pay. We rule.

And so we return to the DWP! – which seems to be holding Kick An Immigrant week. Again, that is. Why I am acting as though this week is special.

I’m at Stockport jobcentre and talking with M, an immigrant who has actually had British citizenship for a while. Possibly, this citizenship was one of those things that looked better on the brochure. So far, M’s UK experience has included the loss of his job during covid, homelessness and now a letter from the DWP which says he owes them £6000 in overpaid universal credit – a large and random sum that the DWP likely arrived at via incompetence and shit maths. Welcome to the West, my friend. This is the superior zone.

M is pretty sure that he doesn’t owe the DWP £6000. He is very sure that he can’t afford to repay it and still occasionally have money for food and clothing, etc. Nonetheless, the DWP is keen on the idea, so they’ve started taking money out of M’s now-miniscule universal credit payment each month to recover this “debt.” So here M is in a format that this government can’t get enough of – a bullied man with an accent, no home, no money and no hope. Talk about about a Tory hole in one.

Here’s the story. I can’t say it sounds a great ride. The DWP says M wasn’t living in his flat in 2020. M says he was. He knows he was living there, because he was living there. He woke up every morning and there he was. Still, the DWP says he wasn’t. M says he was. The DWP says he wasn’t. Round and round it goes.

It can be hard to get the DWP off these trips. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to convince the DWP that someone doesn’t owe a debt, or paid it back long ago, or, on really asinine calls, both. You can send paperwork, make calls and leave screenshots of bank statements in your universal credit journal which support and even prove your case, but your chances of a sensible interface generally settle around zero.

Still, M is trying. He says: “They [the DWP] said you left the house 2020. No – I left the house in 2021. I’m still there in 2021.” M has evidence that he was living at the address for which he was claiming universal credit. He has council tax and payment notices, and evidence from his landlord – “everything. I took in proof. [Now] I do not know what is coming tomorrow or the next day…I had family [in the home] before, I am still living there alone in the house, because of corona.”

M has managed to find an adviser at Stockport jobcentre who is helping him. He said that jobcentre staff were being decent to him. A number of people who come in and out of Stockport jobcentre say that today.

The problem that claimants and staff have got is the DWP’s benefits compliance and debt squads – faceless rows of We’re Shit Sherlocks who dream and doubtless wank over visions of themselves ambushing claimants. Hunting down and then slapping the poorest people with massive bills that they can’t pay isn’t my idea of a calling, but DWP compliance is hooked. They paw through benefit claims, truffling for inconsistencies, then fire off letters which accuse people of fraud, and then drink to that by walloping guys like M with clawback deductions.

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Do letting agents discriminate against benefit claimants up north or are they as shite as in London

Well.

A month or so ago, I rang some East London letting agents to ask if they would let flats to N, a single mother who’d pay her rent with universal credit. I explained that N was homeless, living in an emergency hostel with her 2 very young children, and in need of a 2-bedroom flat in the local area.

Readers of this site will know that I had high hopes which were met a bit lower. It is illegal now for letting agents to refuse to take benefit claimants onto their books, but letting agents also know very well that their landlords would rather bulldoze a flat than see a benefit claimant in it. When a benefit claimant calls, they must achieve a delicate straddle.

Gives them a good stretch anyway. The London agents I called were enthusiastic – one almost bodily from the sounds of it – about tenants who claim benefits. They said that N absolutely could register at their agencies.

Things peaked about there, though. The feeling among these agents was that after N registered with them, her best option was absolutely to give up. Hand on heart, these agents said – they would never reject N themselves, but as for asking their landlords… well, probably not worth it even for the laugh, really. Landlords demanded rich guarantors and upscale tenants, and would generally only let a single mother into one of their flats to mop it. What could you do, etc, etc.

Which is not to say these London letting agents were totally out of helpful suggestions. Far from it. Sure, London and London landlords might be a stretch, but the dream didn’t have to end there. Wouldn’t N be perfectly suited to a gumtree landlord and a flat in one of those out-of-London, up-North hellholes where the standards and hope are as meagre as the gene pool? – one of those timeworn places where everyone’s still paid in salt or buttons.

As luck would have it, I live in a such a place myself and I am always buoyed by a London endorsement, so I sat down straight away to ring up some Stockport and Manchester letting agents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which takes us back to the parties.

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

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

I rant on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You really do get standout moments.

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

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

Probably, we never had them.

On with this story:

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

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

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

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

Here are some of our whatsapp messages:

January 2022:

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

Friday I have midwife appointment.

 

January 2022

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

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

 

January 2022

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

Tell you what.

———————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From an officer email:

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

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

I hope that the above provides some reassurance…”

So, that was nice.

————

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

From our whatsapp group:

January 2022

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

 

February 2022

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

I asked:

Is she ok?

N said:

I don’t know

Link to download of my book

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

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

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