Sunday, 24 June 2012

HOME SWEET HOME



You know when you hear something and you think it's the stupidest thing you've ever heard? Well, I can't keep up due to the number of absolutely outrageous proposals this crackpot Coalition have. There was selling off forests to flabbergast me. Then regional pay for public sector staff to stun me. And scrapping GCSEs in favour of reviving the O Level to make me go oh. But I really don't think they can beat this one for stupidity and callousness and utter WTF moments. They are talking about scrapping Housing Benefit for the under 25s...

I mean I know this government despises benefit claimants and bridles with revulsion when the welfare state is mentioned. They certainly have form for cruel actions when it comes to their Welfare Reform Bill and I don't trust them on the subject as far as I could throw them, but this one blows my mind. Can they really be suggesting that people don't need any kind of help with housing costs and living arrangements until they are 25? It's almost as if they have absolutely no idea how the welfare state works or how real life actually unfolds.

Life doesn't go according to plan. Good intentions and aspirations do not pay the rent. Plenty of people find they can't make ends meet at times, especially when they are just starting out and as not of all of us have a multi-millionaire parent to bail them out or offer them a spare house, they make a perfectly legitimate claim for Housing Benefit to help them out. And before anyone starts howling about laziness, the majority of these claimants are in (albeit low paid) work. Only 1 in 8 Housing Benefit claimants is unemployed and the majority of those can't work due to long term health problems.

Things are getting tougher out there and the safety net of the welfare state becomes even more vital. Young people are going to bust a gut to get uni (despite doing exams the government thinks are worthless) and many will have lost their EMA so have to count every penny while they study. They'll then move on to university where they know they are accumulating fees of 9k a year that will need to be paid back. Student halls are becoming swankier and more expensive with it. Rents are rising and landlords are getting fussier, forcing students to go through agents and pay extortionate fees just to rent a fleapit room in a house where the living room has been turned into an extra bedroom. Part time work is harder to get and the chances of saving up any money or making their loans go further are slim. So when they graduate into the worst economic climate and highest graduate unemployment for generations, they want to take the pressure off with Housing Benefit. It can be the difference between working a second job in a pub or being able to dedicate time to building up their career that will serve them long term (and ensure they pay tax for many years.) That option will be gone under this proposal.

It doesn't get any easier if you don't go to University. If you leave home at 18 to start work but study at night to improve your lot in life, you can't claim. If you leave care and are put into privately rented accomodation since council housing is becoming rare as hen's teeth, you can't claim. If you couldn't stay at home because you were being abused or because your family life is toxic, you can't claim. If you move on and start your own family, you can't claim either as a couple or on your own. If you lose your job or have your pay frozen or don't get a promotion you can't claim. If you get sick and can't work, you can't claim. And if life goes tits up and you have to flee forced marriage or domestic violence* and you wind up in a hostel or B&B, you can't claim either. I'm not entirely sure what you are meant to do. Not everyone's parents live in a house big enough to accomdate extra children til past the age of 25. Some people's parents claim Housing Benefit themselves and since this government changed the rules on non dependents allowances, literally can't afford to have their grown up kids move back in, even if there were any jobs in the area for them to come home too.

This proposal frightens me so much because without Housing Benefit available to the under 25s, I don't think I'd have made it through the worst time in my life. After my first rape, I was made homeless. I'd been working a pretty low paid job, starting at the bottom of the career ladder and working up. I'd been building up a make up kit for work buying nosebleed pricey products that would allow me to work more and I'd had an extended period off work prior to being attacked when I was living on Statutory Sick Pay. I knew nothing of the welfare state in those days and had no idea that on 12k a year in London, let alone SSP, I could have been getting Housing Benefit to help stretch my money further. in the space of 6 months, I found myself broke, homeless, unemployed and such a mess that I couldn't get through a job interview without crying and totally unemployable.

I had lived with my mum until I was 22 because of becoming ill at 18 and taking years to recover. I liked living with her as two adults with separate but interlinked lives, but I had been desperate to leave Belfast and spread my adult wings. I had spent 4 years counting down the days til I could leave and start a better career than barely ceasefire Belfast could offer. I was proud and independent and I'd already had so much disappointment in life that living in London felt like one of my few achievements. If it had been simple poverty forcing me out of my home, I'd have found it hard enough to ask if I could come back home and pack up my English life and have all my work on my career come to nothing. But having been driven out because it had such bad associations and I genuinely feared for my safety, I couldn't have coped with being hounded out of the city and country I'd chosen and worked so hard to live in as well. The belief that this was just an unfortunate glitch and that in next to no time, I'd be back at work and able to move on was the only thing holding me together. It was the point I was focused on and it was my salvation.

And the only way I could do it was to claim Housing Benefit. I moved into a hostel near Croydon under the watch of the Temporary Accomodation department of Lambeth Council which despite being a shithole of the highest order, cost a staggering £232 a week for the council and £17 in non covered costs for me to be paid out of my Income Support. It was simultaneously the most horrible experience of my life and a blessing of such riches I could hardly believe it. It meant I had a roof over my head night after night and a bed to sleep in and I didn't have to beg shelter from anyone or sleep on the streets. In the three months it took to get the hostel place, I'd exhausted all the favours I could ask of my rapidly diminishing circle of friends. The hostel also meant that I had proved I was not intentionally homeless and that the council was considering my application for housing. If they agreed I was vulnerable and in need, then I would be given the resources to put a deposit on a privately rented property or assesed for council housing. It would be the means to the end where I was well and working. It was worth the discomfort. Housing Benefit was my superhero. It's wide reaching cape was my safety net. And under these proposals I wouldn't have qualified at all.

I got through living in the hostels, although looking back I have no idea how. That's where I was living when I was raped the second time. That made it ten times worse and even more important that I saw it through. If I'd left before they'd decided to house me I'd have been through all that for no reason. I'd have suffered and put my family through hell for nothing. Some good luck came my way and I was given the council flat I live in now, making me in my eyes richer than the biggest Lottery winner around. I haven't got back to that stage where I'm over my glitch and working again (and anyway, it's a different career I have in mind) and Housing Benefit has supported me every step of the way. There was the terrible moment of fear when they changed the single room rent allowance to people over 35 and aged 33, I thought I was going to lose the security of my flat and have to move back into a shared house, but council tenants were exempted and my panic subsided for the time being.

But I know that millions of other people dealing with hardship, disappointment, geographical issues and life not going according to plan are tonight are wracked with that tight knot of blind panic as they see this government scribble yet another poisonous policy on the back of a fag packet and make young and vulnerable people bear the brunt of the economic crisis and their braying hatred for people who aren't like them. They are talking about condemning a whole generation to never knowing stability or their full potential by thinking they can remove Housing Benefit from under 25s and that's before they make countless children homeless and trap people into abusive and dangerous lives they might not survive. It locks young people out of opportunities for social housing for life and it eats away at the savings older people have for their old age to have to keep supporting their children to their mid 20s. Not only is cruel, but it actually makes no sense socially or financially. It's insulting to vermin to say this government are worse than them, but I'm all out of words to describe them adequately...




*Apparently there might be an exemption on domestic violence as a sop to people with an ounce of decency. But it won't mean anything now they've cut Legal Aid for Domestic violence cases and tightened the burden or proof for bringing a police or court case since this government came to power because it will be impossible to actually prove domestic violence even if you've still got the bruises on your face. Domestic violence is only considered as such if you live with the person abusing you as if you are an intimate partner.

1 comment:

  1. Found this blog on twitter.

    It made me angry when I saw the news story too. What of the people who have kids, work and then lose their jobs? Who is going to support them?

    If there are young parents who can't claim, then there will be many children being brought up in poverty. As you say, all the aspirations in the world can mean nothing when you are living day to day, week to week and month to month.

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