Meanwhile, back at the jobcentre…

Let’s go back to Stockport jobcentre, where I spoke at length recently with Pat, who was in her 40s.

Pat was manic: pacing and talking non-stop. She’d just been released from prison. Pat said that she was from Manchester, but been dropped at a halfway house of some description in Bredbury in Stockport:

“I don’t know where I am…I thought it was in Stockport, but it was in Bredbury. I was put there.”

Pat had to make a claim for Universal Credit at the jobcentre, but had no idea how to begin. She said that she didn’t have money for food.

I meet too many people in such situations at jobcentres: confused, clearly in need and reeling outside a jobcentre:

Said Pat (she was confused and spoke fast):

“I have to get… I usually have a [support] worker with me, but I’ve left it too late. She’s gone off now, because it is a bank holiday, yeah… I’m just come out of prison recently and … you get like £300, or whatever, but they… they dropped me here… I’m… from… Bredbury…

 

“I didn’t have… on my life, [I was] crying… come out [of prison] the day before. Everything was shut. I couldn’t get me doctor. I couldn’t get… I was sat in the stupid house where they put me… so finally my probation – they came and got me…I just got a ticket. I had to find [my] here [to the jobcentre]. I had nothing to get out with… in [prison] for 10 months…

 

“I get scared and I don’t want to walk around where I don’t know where I am…I thought it was in Stockport, but it was in Bredbury. I was put there. I’m from Manchester. I went into Manchester jobcentre, but they wouldn’t help me. They were saying – “Oh, because you’re living in Stockport…[we can’t help you in a Manchester jobcentre].

 

“It’s in like a bail house – a bail hostel in Bredbury. I’ve just come out of there. No bus ticket. No money and it was Easter when I got out. She [the support worker] did bring me a bag of food.

 

“I had to beg people. She [the support worker] did come up to me with a bus ticket, so I thought right – I’m just going to have to go and find it [Stockport jobcentre] It’s very hard for me, so I’m quite proud that I actually found it…

 

“What am I going to say [to staff at the jobcentre]? I’ve got a make a claim. Never done Universal Credit. I was on PIP and ESA when I went away, but obviously now I’m….it’s all changed… so it’s going to be Universal Credit now, so I think I make a claim and like [ask for] an advance payment [for food money] yeah… if it gets a bit difficult, I’ll come out and get you…”

 

Next up was Dennis, who was in his 50s.

Dennis was disabled. He was sitting in his wheelchair outside of the jobcentre.

Dennis said that he’d been moved from his one-bedroom first floor flat to a ground floor flat – he found the first floor flat too hard to get to.

Unfortunately, the ground floor flat had two bedrooms. That meant Dennis had to pay the bedroom tax for the “spare” room. He’d had one discretionary housing payment to cover the extra cost. That had finished. Now, Dennis was trying to work out what to do.

Dennis said:

“I was in one bedroom upstairs flat and I had to go [because of my disability]… they put me into a two bedroom [ground floor] flat. I’m now paying each fortnight for the bedroom tax. One of the bedrooms can’t be lived in…. so I’m paying for that.

“I was in the old place for about 30 years. I had to go to the ground floor flat…I still have to pay [the tax]… the reason for moving was the mobility.

“I’ve got a flat in Reddish. When I went to get the paperwork and all that – they’d given it to somebody else. It was the same street and same number. They got the names mixed up…”

 

And so on.

You get the picture. It’s chaos out here. Nothing makes sense. I keep meeting people at jobcentres who are just plain bewildered. On and on and on it goes.

It’s hard to see a time coming when Brexit is pushed aside and this mess is addressed.

Posting as usual should resume next week.

Back soon

Working through a few stories atm so back soon.

Still available for contact here or on twitter, tho am giving social media a break here and there as the Tory leadership contest is pushing me to the edge. May they all drown in a sewer.

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.

Single mothers are placed in terrible housing by councils. Then social services muscles in when the family falls apart because of the terrible housing

Here’s more about the ways that authorities keep homeless single mothers and their kids in chaos and under the thumb.

I’ve posted a transcript from a longer interview with Marsha, 30, at the end of this article.

Marsha is a homeless Newham woman who lives with her little daughter in one room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two share a bed in this room. They’ve lived in the hostel for more than two years. I’ve written several stories about Marsha’s situation.

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

In the transcript below, Marsha talks at length about the invasive attention that she has drawn from council social services and her daughter’s school as a homeless single mother.

Social services and her daughter’s school have been on Marsha’s case for a while. They order Marsha to bring her daughter to same-day meetings with social workers, or ring to say she must get to her daughter’s school right away.

There’s not always been time for Marsha to arrange for someone to accompany her to these meetings. That’s a big concern. Marsha has been questioned in detail by authorities about her mental and emotional health, and her daughter’s mental and emotional health. She’s been put on the spot by people she does not know in a system that she can’t trust – often without witnesses, or representation. Women I speak with raise this issue all the time.

The thing is – Marsha IS worried about her daughter’s mental and emotional health, and her own. Bad living conditions and relentless questioning from social services and schools inevitably affect a family’s frame of mind.

Marsha has severe depression and anxiety. She often says that she is concerned her small daughter is being negatively affected by their cramped living space and the social services meddling that the little girl has witnessed. You’d be dreaming if you thought that a child would not be affected by those things.

In the transcript below, Marsha says:

“All of a sudden, [my daughter] is seeing me in a very distressed state, because of everything that I’m going through. These people around here – she is exposed to conversations [which she shouldn’t be]…”

The problem is that Marsha must justify her family’s responses to their living conditions to organisations that hold all the cards.

Marsha is in a situation that a lot of homeless single mothers talk about. She’s been placed in poor housing by public authorities [her council]. Then, she’s been made to answer to public authorities as her family’s health has disintegrated because of the poor housing that the family has been placed in and the lack of decent alternatives. There’s no way to win. Marsha has no power in this scene.

Marsha says she understands that authorities have safeguarding roles – but that doesn’t mean that they’re above cornering women. Most single mothers in poor housing I talk with worry constantly about councils taking their children. That means they’re always on the back foot. There can be no balance in conversations that they have with authorities because of it.

Says Marsha in the transcript:

“…it was totally out of order how the council referred me to social services without even telling me [and insisted that Marsha brought her daughter to a social services meeting]. I even said, “I don’t even know why [my daughter] is there [at the meeting].” [The social worker] said, “No, we just want to see if there is any concerns.”

 

“….I still complied, because I’m thinking the last thing that I want to do is jeopardise myself. So, if [the social worker is] saying that she wants to see me and my daughter, of course I am going to see her [the social worker] … [but] I would never had let [my daughter] sit through these conversations [if I’d known how they would affect her]. If I could have called my mother and say, “could you hold [my daughter] for two hours while I have a conversation with this lady [social worker]…”

Women should not be forced to retreat and retreat like this. Continue reading

Found a job – but can’t afford childcare. Universal Credit won’t help up front. This is ridiculous

Update Monday 13 May:

I rang the Universal Credit helpline (0800 328 5644) to ask if the Flexible Support Fund could be used to help people on Universal Credit with childcare costs when they found work.

After 20 minutes (yep) on hold, the person who answered the phone said that the Flexible Support Fund couldn’t be used for childcare costs. That was interesting. You’ll see in the tweet copied below that Universal Credit CE Neil Couling said that it could.

I asked the helpline specifically if the fund could be used for childcare costs and the officer said No. I explained the upfront and first-month childcare costs of about £300 that the woman in the original post below faces. The helpline said that advance loans and budgeting loans could be used for childcare costs, but must be paid back.

So, I tweeted Couling and asked him to tell me what the right answer is. Can people use the Flexible Support Fund for childcare costs or not? If they can, why does the Universal Credit helpline say they can’t?

People in poverty can’t afford upfront childcare costs when they get work. If Couling says the Flexible Support Fund can be used for those costs, then people should be told about it and how to apply for it.

What a circus. I swear to god.

Update Saturday 11 May:

Universal Credit grandee Neil Couling tells me on twitter that the Flexible Support Fund can indeed be used to fund childcare if people who claim Universal Credit can’t meet childcare costs.

It’s an absolute travesty that jobcentre advisers don’t tell people that. I’m finding this unreal.

As I replied to Neil – he needs to fill the airwaves with news of this fund and instruct his jobcentre advisers to damn well tell people that they can apply to the FSF to pay for childcare when they start work. It’s disgusting that people aren’t told about this fund.

The woman in the original post below tells me that she’s actually lost the carer job she was due to start on Monday, because of the childcare funding problem. Her employer “got funny” about things when the woman asked if she could work 8-2.30pm for the first week while she sorted out childcare and payments.

She has another interview next week for another job.

Here’s Couling on twitter on the subject. He needs to spend less time on twitter and more time making sure Universal Credit claimants get the money they’re entitled to:

Original post from yesterday:

To Essex now – where a young woman whose problems with Universal Credit I’ve previously written about gets in touch to say that her new job is at risk because of problems funding childcare.

The woman has found work and starts on Monday.

She has a little girl, so needs a childminder to pick the child up from school and to look after her until her mother gets home from work.

The woman found a childminder (after school club was already booked out).

Universal Credit said they’d fund 85% of the costs.

The problem is that the woman has to pay this in advance (it’ll be about £300 a month) and have the money repaid.

This will be a real stretch – for the first month in particular.

Like so many people who are starting in work, this young woman doesn’t have £300 lying around:

“Universal credit said they can pay 85% of childcare… but I have to add the amount to my account each month. The first month, I’d have to pay in advance and be refunded for it. I can’t get an advance payment, because I had one last October.”

It looks like this woman will have to borrow from family, or friends (assuming someone has £300), or take out a loan elsewhere.

She’ll end up in (more) debt. That’s inevitable. As the woman says in the quote above, Universal Credit won’t give an advance loan for the childcare costs, because she had another loan recently. That loan was to cover debt brought about by deductions that the DWP was taking from her Universal Credit payments. Chief among these were deductions for tax credit overpayments which the woman insists she didn’t owe.

So – “I have to find £300 just to start work.”

Needless to say, the government says it pays childcare costs in arrears to prevent fraud. I just love that. This government’s obsession with appearing tough on people in poverty literally knows no bounds. Government is so damn hung up about fraud that’ll actually shove low-paid parents into debt when they do the “right” thing and find work.

Why the DWP can’t accept a letter from a registered childminder stating charges in advance and pay costs up front I do not know.

In my less charitable moments, of which I have many, I find myself thinking that government wants to keep single mothers in poverty, rather than in work that might let them get ahead.

Suggestions and input welcome.

Update Friday 9 May:

Gail Ward on facebook has alerted me to the Flexible Support Fund, which should be available to people in exactly these situations.

The problem is, as usual, that Universal Credit and jobcentres don’t tell people that these funds exist. This is criminal.

The Turn2Us site actually centres its Flexible Support Fund information around a criticism of the DWP for withholding information about the fund (a fund I’d never heard of).

Says Turn2Us:

“A number of organisations are concerned at how little is known about the FSF.

One Jobcentre adviser in Bolton likened the FSF to the illegal boxing clubs in the film Fight Club, in that they don’t talk about it.

This is highlighted by the fact that the budget set aside for FSF has been underspent in every year since it was introduced.”

Isn’t that just great.

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.

Got a job and a chance to earn some money. Hope the DWP doesn’t wreck it… More interviews from the jobcentre

Was back at Stockport jobcentre on Friday with Stockport United Against Austerity. We spent a couple of hours talking with people who were signing on for jobseekers’ allowance, employment and support allowance and Universal Credit.

A lot of people were keen to talk on Friday – about benefit problems, that is. People didn’t talk much about the local elections which had taken place the day before (elections which left the Lib Dems and Labour tied at 26-26 on Stockport council, I believe, and already fighting like rampant weasels. Can’t wait to see how that pans out).

Anyway. While the political class disappears down the Brexit hole that it won’t or can’t stop digging, people in need are left to get on however they can.

That generally means trying to make sense of the haywire public sector systems that millennium politics has created (if “created” is the word), trashed and abandoned. Pity that there’s so little sense to be made. I keep meeting people who can’t get answers. They certainly can’t get the answers that they need.

Here are two examples from Friday.

The first story came from Dave*, 57.

We see Dave regularly at the jobcentre. He’s a friendly bloke and always keen to talk. He’s been looking for work for a while.

On Friday, Dave said he was in the running for a permanent job as a carer. There was probation to do and then he should be underway.

This news of a job would be reason to celebrate in a world which made sense.

Unfortunately, we’re not in such a world.

Dave was worried. He was pleased about the job and eager to start – but he’d been told that taking the job and working certain hours would stop his jobseekers’ allowance and trigger a Universal Credit claim.

The mere mention of Universal Credit is enough to crush any excitement about a job offer.

As Dave understood it (and he wasn’t sure that he understood it at all), a move to Universal Credit would mean that he’d have to:

– move his housing benefit claim to Universal Credit and wait 5 weeks and more for his rent payments to start (he’d still be several weeks’ short in rent if he did get an extra fortnight’s housing benefit). Nobody in the real world believes that migration to Universal Credit will go well

– trust the DWP to accurately record Dave’s varying weekly zero-hours-contract wages as a carer and pay him whatever Universal Credit money he was owed each month on time. This is a skill which the DWP famously does not have. I’ve interviewed part-time workers and self-employed people at Stockport jobcentre who were tearing their hair out because the DWP had literally never paid them the right amount of Universal Credit, or on time.

Big DWP cheese Neil Couling told me on twitter that Universal Credit systems for people in these situations work beautifully. People who actually use these systems tell me that Neil et al are talking shit.

Point is – the potential for disaster was weighing on Dave’s mind, with good reason.

Continue reading

Decay like you wouldn’t believe – which century are we in?

Don’t know how to put this without sounding like I’m overdoing the drama:

I’ve talked with a couple of street homeless people recently who are so badly affected by ill health and homelessness that they look as though they’ve turned up from penury circa 1850.

Dirt, sores and decay: if it wasn’t for people’s modern (if rotting) clothing, you’d wonder which century you’d crashed in.

I find this timewarp disturbing. You see a human corrosion that belongs in historical photos.

On Wednesday morning, I talked to a youngish woman on Fairfield Street by Manchester Picadilly.

She was holding a dirty red sleeping bag. The woman was small, pale and had lost some of her teeth. Her thin hair was tied back.

Her hand, though.

I asked the woman how she managed on the streets in winter.

The woman said the cold had been hard. She still had trouble with her hands, because they were always wet and cold.

She showed me her left hand. It was swollen twice the size of a normal hand and covered in sores and yellow scabs – obviously infected.

I said, “oh my god.”

“I should go to the hospital,” she said.

“You need some antibiotics,” I said.

We talked.

Like everyone you speak with on the Manchester streets, the woman was hoping to raise the £17 or so that people need for a hostel bed for the night.

The woman said that she was banned from going into Picadilly station. The transport police moved her and others on from the station if they got too near.

She said that grating had been put up around some buildings so that people couldn’t sleep under them.

So.

Wtf is politics doing?

How can Brexit be more pressing than this decay?

Back soon. Meanwhile – a few thoughts on the trainwreck that is council homelessness “help”…

Transcribing a lot of interviews atm which takes me a long time. Should be back with posting soon.

A couple of things to think on:

  • I have an interview that I’m working on with a housing officer. This officer said that the council they worked for was placing more and more people in Travelodges for emergency accommodation. It isn’t news that homeless families are placed in Travelodges, but it did make me wonder how much hotel chains collect these days in housing benefit/Universal Credit and if hotel chains built or set up new hotels to cash in.
  • this officer said that there was concern in some council officers about councillors responding in a knee-jerk way to bad publicity about housing. If a homeless family received publicity about their housing problems, some councillors would tell staff to prioritise that case and to find the family decent local housing. If a homeless family didn’t have publicity and/or a lawyer, they wouldn’t get any such treatment and would languish for years in emergency or temporary accommodation – if they were lucky to get even that far. Backlogs of such cases piled up on officers’ desks. Variations on this theme have long been the case, of course. It was just that officers were getting mightily pissed off about it. In times of extreme housing crisis, systems that are supposed to be in place go to pieces.