I’ve never been homeless and I’ve never slept on the street. Immediately following my second year of uni, whist I was pregnant with my first man-cub, I had stayed on friends sofas/floors for a couple of months…but we were lucky and managed to rent a flat before he was born. I tried to sleep in my car once after a row with my husband, but I lasted just a few hours before checking into a hotel. The fact that these moments are my only point of reference for such difficult experiences, demonstrates how fortunate I have been so far. I am lucky: I have no idea what it’s like to be on the streets.
Britain is the worlds 6th (or 5th, depending on where you get your stats) largest economy. I often hear people saying that, but only recenlt did I stop to think about what it means, and I suspect not appreciating it has something to do with my own privilege. The 6th richest nation in the world. We’re not skint, mates. Very few have it as good as us.
Why then was it reported recently by the homeless charity Shelter, that 1 in every 200 people in our country are homeless, either on the streets or in inadequate housing? That’s more than 300,000 men, women and children with no safe place, no home, no security, no stable base from which to conduct all the other things essential to living.
How can this be? How can we allow it to happen? I am ashamed, and I do not comprehend how the people who have the power to change it all tomorrow, no, YESTERDAY, don’t, and are not likely to.
There’s an underlying rhetoric that blames homeless people for their circumstances. We are taught that we live in a ‘socially mobile’ world; it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged your background, if you work hard, then you will be rewarded as a successful member of our society, presumably with a house and a spouse and kids and a dog, and a full time job (or 2, or 3…companies that make millions can’t afford to pay you a wage you can live on, so you’d better work harder, longer, more). When we see homeless people freezing to death on our streets, when we hurry past them into Primark to buy 2 phone cases for a tenner, it’s OK, because they’re homeless because they didn’t work hard enough. They fucked up, and now they’re paying for it. There’s no point giving em money, they’ll only buy booze. The language we use reinforces it all. Jonathan Pie puts it perfectly:
It’s absolute bollocks and it’s particularly relevant at the moment. This weekend, the entire staff of the governments own Social Mobility Commission, resigned from their posts, stating in resignation letters they have no faith the government has the capacity, nor commitment to implement their promise to tackle social injustice and make social mobility a reality, rather than an abstract concept. Here’s a thought: what if we strove not to create a world where people can lift themselves out of desperate circumstance by becoming ‘socially mobile’, but instead strive for a world where no child was ever born into desperate circumstances?
All this at a time when the socio-economic divides within our country are felt more prominently than ever. The burnt out shell of Grenfell within the opulence of Kensington, stands as a hideous monument to remind us all. Lest we forget.
My own family and so many people we know, could not work harder. I told you before that my gorgeous husband works multiple jobs, puts in easily more than 65 hours a week, and we live hand to mouth, and it’s getting worse.
I worked my whole life too, until very recently, when motherhood expanded for me, and I no longer have a choice, not for now, anyway (unless we get a snap GE tomorrow and Labours pledge of universal free childcare for 2-year-olds is implemented *crosses fingers and toes*).
Suffice to say that we are holding on by the skin of our teeth, and every day I am in awe of how hard my husband works to support us. But if he was made redundant tomorrow, we would not be able to make next months rent, and it’s a hop, skip and a jump away from being a ‘normal’ family, to a destitute, homeless one. It could happen to most people I know, given a set of crappy circumstances, bad luck and bad timing.
I do not accept the idea that homeless people brought it on themselves, or that all homeless people are drug addicts or alcoholics, or gamblers that lost everything due to their own fecklessness. They are just people like you, like me, who were’t quite as lucky. There’s no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There’s just ‘us’, and some of us are more fortunate than others. No-one knows what they’d do to cope with the circumstances life throws at others.
Homelessness is not a result of individual failing, it is the result of reckless policy making and societal failing. It is what happens when we do nothing as the government remove the floor from under us, when we turn a blind eye to people falling through the cracks. Although our bit of floorboard might be rickety, it’s still holding us up. Someone else will help them, if they even deserve help. This is the bystander effect in action.
I reject the bystander effect. I do not accept that in the 6th richest nation in the world, homelessness is inevitable. I do the normal stuff, I donate to charities, I share videos on Facebook. It is not enough and I want to do more.
A Labour government will not only try to fix the social housing crisis by simply building more homes, but will address the problems that contribute to homelessness. This would include things like supporting workers rights to a living wage and secure working contracts. The welfare state should not be subsidising businesses that generate multi-million pound dividends for shareholders, by topping up the income of their employees. These companies should do the decent thing and pay the people that generate their wealth fairly.
Labour would properly fund and implement with gusto policies that support The NHS, Social Care, Education, Mental Health provision and all the other things that together make a safety net, there to stop ordinary, hard working people like you, like me, from slipping through the cracks and into the abyss. Once upon a time, we used to call it community.
Most relevant and pressing at the moment, is the Tory implementation of welfare
dissection reform. Universal Credit, in its current form, has and is making ordinary people homelessness here, in the 6th richest country in the world, and the situation is set to get worse if the government do not acknowledge it. True to form, and to the absolute detriment of us and our communities, this seems to be their stance so far.
Universal Credit reforms will effect all sorts of people, from those in work, those unable to work due to illness or childcare constraints, those with disabilities, the self employed and those looking for work. The majority of people receiving it will be in work, but on very low incomes.
Straight off, let’s rejct the idea that these people are in some way lazy or not motivated, as the umpteen trashy poverty-porn ‘documentaries’ or headlines in the Daily Hate Mail, would have you believe. Claimants are not lazy, not in the overwhelming majority. They are very often hardworking, vulnerable, decent human beings, deserving of every opportunity to explore their
unique potential and contribute to the world, deserving of the same dignity and respect afforded to anyone else.
Universal credit is sold to us as welfare reform, and it is. The idea is to simplify the benefits system, reducing 6 benefits (Tax credits, JSA, Income Support, ESA and Housing Benefit), into 1: Universal credit, whilst also making it easier for wages to increase without a financial ‘cliff-edge’ whereby benefits suddenly stop. In principle, it is a good idea. But that’s not all it is.
There are a number of problems with the UC reforms, both inherent in the policy and caused by the mismanagement of the Conservative government.
Most notably and simply, are the massive financial losses for claimants, caused by the cuts to the benefits, disguised neatly as ‘reform’. According to the Resolution Foundation think-tank, about 2.5m low-income working households will be more than £1,000 a year worse off when they move on to universal credit. Some families could be up to £2,600 per year worse off. These losses unjustly effect certain factions of society, for instance, the removal of the disability premium makes disabled people disproportionately worse off. This is just plain immoral, I don’t need to explain why, do I?
There is also the problem of the minimum 5 week wait (previously 6 before budget). The government say this is to mimic the conditions of ‘real’ work, where salaries are generally paid monthly. The problem is 2 fold…firstly, at least a third of all claimants wait longer, 10-12 week waits are not uncommon, according to Citizens Advice, and I have heard some instances of people waiting even longer, literally many months for an income (Can you imagine it? No money coming in, whatsoever. Reliant of the charity of friends, family, neighbors, food banks, to keep the roof over your head, food in your kids stomach, and the wolves from the door? If you’re lucky enough to have friends and family that will and can help). Secondly, many people earning less than 10k per year still get paid weekly.
Private Landlords and Housing associations have expressed concerns that rent arrears among tenants receiving universal credit are many times the level of those on the old system:
“Three councils whose tenants have already been moved on to universal credit said they had built up about £8m in rent arrears. Croydon, Hounslow and Southwark said that more than 2,500 tenants claiming it were now at risk of eviction.
The Peabody Group, a housing association that owns and manages more than 55,000 homes in London and the south-east, said the rate of rent arrears among its tenants on universal credit was three times greater than those not on the new benefit. It said the average level of arrears for those on universal credit was £1,400 per household.
Plymouth Community Homes, which has more than 14,000 social rented homes, said 69% of its tenants on universal credit were in arrears, compared to 29% of all tenants. Gloucester City Homes, which has more than 4,000 rented properties, said 85% of its universal credit claimants were in arrears compared to 20% of all other tenants. Islington council in London said 81% of its universal credit claimants were in arrears, compared to 29% across all of its tenants. Chesterfield borough council said 77% of its tenants in receipt of universal credit had rent arrears.” – The Guardian, 17th Sept 2017
Left with no money, sometimes for months on end, people are driven to do things they otherwise would not do. They borrow from lenders charging extortionate fees and rates of interest (another Labour policy that will help – caps on charges lenders can get away with), and you can imagine this exasperates the problem. Before they even receive a penny, they a racking up debts that are going to cost a lot of money. People are forced to food-banks (food-bank usage has doubled in areas where UC has been fully rolled out) getting into unmanageable debt and rent arrears, and being evicted.
Ta-da! Decent hard working person becomes homeless.
In their report ‘Early Warnings – Universal Credit And Foodbanks,’ The Trussell Trust said:
“The effect of a six-plus week waiting period for a first Universal Credit payment can be serious, leading to foodbank referrals, debt, mental health issues, rent arrears and eviction. These effects can last even after people receive their Universal Credit payments, as bills and debts pile up.”
The government can borrow money cheaper than anyone else in the UK, at a time when interest rates on borrowing are low. It seemed perverse to me that they should force unmanageable expensive debt on to people who are barely managing. Credit where it’s due for dropping the 55p a minute helpline and increasing the advance payment for those in need from 50% of the value of their claim to 100%. Ultimately though, claimants still begin in debt. What does it say about the attitudes of a government that had to be cornered into taking such basic decent measures to protect the people that they are supposed to represent?
There are countless other problems. Seasonal workers and the self-employed are unfairly effected. People with terminal illnesses are being asked to see ‘work coaches’. Domestic violence situations could be compounded because the benefit is paid to 1 main person in a household, exasperating issues of financial control and abuse. The new system relies on people having IT skills and being online, and of course not everyone does or is, and this is compounded by the fact that the Conservatives have shut down innumerable Job Centers, so accessing help for what Citizens Advice have labeled a ‘complicated system’, is difficult. The stress of navigating the system exasperates mental and physical health problems and putting up a barrier to work – in direct opposition to the aims of the Universal Credit Reforms.
“The aim of Universal Credit – to simplify the benefit system – is right. But it is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt. Universal Credit is currently being rolled out across the country, but this process is set to accelerate from October 2017. Citizens Advice has already helped 47,000 people with Universal Credit and our evidence reveals a number of problems which need to be addressed. If roll-out is not paused to allow this to happen, 7 million households face financial risk. The people we see on Universal Credit are nearly one and a half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues compared to those on other benefits” – Citizens Advice
Even Tory MPs have been unable to support the roll-out of Universal Credit. The commons backed a Labour motion to pause and fix the roll out by 299 – 0 votes. Not 1 Tory MP voted to go ahead with the roll out (in fact, 1 rebel voted against going ahead with it: Sarah Wollaston, we salute you). All other Tory MPs abstained, causing Commons Speaker John Bercow to accuse the government of making a mockery of parliamentary procedure.
“If you choose not to take part and vote you can’t say, ‘well, we didn’t lose’” – John Bercow
Thatchers successor and ex Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major, has spoken out about universal credit, calling it:
‘“operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”
Conveniently, Universal Credit roll our has been paused in the constituencies of eminent Tories, like our PM Teresa May and Iain Duncan Smith. Can’t think why. Surely not a calculated move to protect their own reputations from the dirty business that is the human suffering their policy is causing?
This situation is a choice. I do not accept that in the 6th largest economy in the world (sorry to drive it home, but it really is important), we can not ensure (guarantee even), that every man, woman child who needs it, will have their basic need and right to a safe home met. Austerity is an ideological choice, not a necessity, as the government would have us believe. There is enough for everyone. More than enough if we stopped letting the main stream media manipulate us into believing that benefit claimants or immigrants are are the ones robbing the country:
Yesterday, across the UK there were national demonstrations against the roll out of Universal Credit in it’s current form, and my local Labour party were out in force. Pleased to say I helped, too. We managed to speak to countless locals, collected a big box of food for our local food bank, collected 262 signatures for Labours Universal Credit Petition (please sign HERE!) and spoke to 7 people who want to become members!
It was a good, positive day in terms of results, but it was great for us too. So many people did so many small and not-so small things to make it all happen, as is always the way with these things, and it really did pay off. We are a team.
I am proud to have stood with those people on a cold winters day, talking to other people about what we need to do to improve the lives of all the people! I believe this is how we change stuff, this is how we ‘be the change’ those Ghandi memes are always telling us to be; by getting out in to our communities, by listening, by making connections, by sharing all of our knowledge and experience, by working together to try to make a positive difference.
Do something. You have the power. I am not a life-style campaigner, or a seasoned one, or someone who is particularly educated, my family could not be less political if they tried and are about as working class as it gets. You don’t have to be anything, what matters is that we are all represented. When we allow ‘them’ to get on with it without taking part ourselves, we are allowing them to drive our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers to despair.
You live politics every day, it is not an exclusive club for the select few. It is not just for the academic or the well paid or the highly qualified. Its not just for old white people. It’s not just for hippies or hipsters or stuffed suits. Your convictions matter, your perspective needs to be heard, democracy demands it. Democracy is not about voting every few years in a genral election. If weare evr to have a truly democratic country and world (and I hope we will), then ultimately it’s about ordinary people, mnaking connections and taking action for issues that are important to them, whenever they feel necessary. That’s how we create a truly representative democracy, that’s how we hold the government to account and that is how ultimately we leave the world in a better state for our children than we inherited it from our parents.
You don’t have to be anything at all. You just have to think, to care, and to do, because doing something is better than doing nothing.
Here’s what I learnt this weekend, for all it’s worth:
- Don’t be afraid to ask. When sourcing materials, think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to be politely cheeky and ask someone nicely for help. Most people will want to help you when they know you are doing something because you want to help other people. For instance, I wanted to make placards because i think they’re useful, they can get a message across quickly and they enable you to communicate from a distance without words, so you a) might reach some people without even realising it, and b) those who may have avoided you for fear you were asking for money or something else, might be encouraged to say hi. But it was hard to source the material, so i stuck a couple of adds on FaceyB’s freebay sites, and Robert’s your mothers’ brother, an AWESOME man who owns a sign shop offered to help me in exchange for cookies! Huzzah!
- Share the load! Can’t stress enough the importance of a good team. These things take so much work, and you need as many people as you can muster, working together to make it happen. I didn’t have that resource until i joined the Labour Party, and now i am surrounded by a shed-load of enthusiastic, like-minded, smart people with different skill sets and experiences, but all with the same passion to change this world for the better. Join the Labour Party. Or is not the Labour Party, a group of people who share your aspirations for our future.
- When it comes to permissions, don’t ask for it if you don’t need it. You need to find out which sort of activities require permission from your local council and which don’t. I made the mistake of asking for persmission and got run around by the council for a couple of weeks, trying to say I needed to pay a charge and that we could only go in certain areas. It was stressful and it ate a lot of time that I would have prefer to have spent doing other things to make the event better. Turns out, I didn’t need permission afterall, but it really does depend on the specifics of your event, there’s some good information here. I also think its courtesy to notify the police, too, and I found my local constabulary very obliging.
- Research! Know your stuff, and try and make sure as much as you can, that everyone out there with you knows their stuff, too. We did a lot of research before hand, and produced a handout for campaigners, which gave people an overview of the problems with Universal Credit and their effects, the aim of the campaign, various stats, and useful information that members of the public might need. I was so glad for this, because I spoke to someone on the day who is into their 5th week of waiting for Universal Credit, without anymoney whatsoever, and because of the reasearch we had done, I was able to point him in the direction of help (in this case a nil-income form and an appointment with a Citizens Advice advisor). Good research means you’ll be more able to answer tricky questions that might pop up in conversation about policy, too. If you know what you’re talking about, people will be more likely to respect and therefore listen to you.
- Don’t be scared! We did so much better after the first hour or so, once our nerves had dispersed and we got more confident.
How do I end a post like this? There are no answers, no resolution, nothing I can mold nicely into a conclusion, not yet.
It is not enough, but it will have to suffice for now, that Uncle Jez and the Labour Manifesto has given us hope for the first time in my memory. Hope for a different, fairer, better world, hope that it might just actually be possible, hope enough to come together and try.
If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve spoken about here, there are places you can for help, and these are some good places to start:
- If you’re waiting for a claim to be paid and you have no income, you can apply for a ‘nil-income’ emergency payment from your council to meet essential living costs like rent. You must specifically request this form, ask your council for a ‘nil-income’ or ‘proof of nil-income’ form. I found that it was available to download on my local council website, yours might too.
- Citizens Advice offer free, professional advice and help with things like benefit claims, debt management, legal issues and many other things. They ogften run drop-in clinics, too (our local one takes drop ins all day, every day). You can find your nearest branch, or their phone number, by visiting their website. They also have a ton of online help and resources to help you navigate your way through any bureaucratic shit-storm you are forced to encounter
- The Trussell Trust has food banks all over the country. If you’re in need of help (or if you have spare time to volunteer or food to donate!) please contact them via their website
- Turn2Us offer help and support for those in financial crisis
- Shelter can offer free housing advice to anyone who needs it.