debt

It’s not homeless people that need a one-way ticket

Homelessness is on the increase across the country. It’s been difficult to avoid this fact over the past year or so, especially as figures released from the National Audit Office in 2016 demonstrated a stark rise in the number of rough sleepers on the nation’s streets.

Tragically, homelessness has become a feature of modern life. For some, the sight of a rough sleeper on the morning commute is as routine as the train journey to work itself. We’re all aware of it and each of us, subconsciously or not, have our own attitudes towards it. Some are philanthropic towards the homeless, either in thought or deed, whereas others are sanctimoniously dismissive. For some it’s a case of compassion fatigue. The sight of rough sleepers is so widespread that they find it difficult to adequately express their feelings.

As with many subjects such as this, something will inevitably grab mainstream media attention and bring people’s perceptions of the issue into sharper focus.  There have been a few recent events which demonstrate this in relation to homelessness. One of these incidents occurred when Whole Foods in Stoke Newington were forced to remove signs outside their store encouraging people not to give food or money to the homeless sleeping nearby. The signs, which were also inside the store, linked the giving of money or food to the homeless with “encouraging theft, aggressive behaviour and substance abuse”, before encouraging customers to donate to local charities. Naturally, the response to the signs was one of indignation and Whole Foods were forced to concede that they had been mistaken.

The whole situation was not far removed from the discourse around homelessness that has always existed: what is the best approach to take?

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There are so many contributory factors involved in driving a person to homelessness: debt, marriage breakdown, mental health issues, affordability of tenancies, welfare reform and much else.

Another perhaps even more troubling story to emerge recently was that of councils in England buying homeless people a one-way ticket out of their boroughs. The councils claim they are reconnecting homeless people to their loved ones, but with instances in which people have been offered tickets to places to which they have never been or have any connection, it’s not too difficult to see what is really going on here. Could anything represent a greater admission of failure than council-backed street cleansing of the homeless?

Charlie Carroll’s 2013 book ‘No Fixed Abode’ asserts that, for some, homelessness is simply preferable to the rigours of modern life. George Orwell, in his classic 1933 memoir ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ termed it “going to the dogs.”

It is easy to see how this could provoke the sort of sanctimony and dismissiveness mentioned earlier. There is a tendency for some to become holier-than-thou when discussing such matters to assert their own perceived superiority over those they deem to be beneath them. Surely the most lazy and boring suggestion is that homeless people should simply “get a job”, as though a job is something one can simply “get” whenever they please, irrespective of the many other contributory factors of homelessness.

Shouldn’t we be getting past these attitudes? The modern world is frightfully challenging for some people and not everybody is equipped with the necessary coping mechanisms to negotiate their way through. This should prompt compassion, not derision. Having a job does not make you better than someone who doesn’t and stigmas over causation should be challenged.

Most of us would feel justifiably confident that if we fell on hard times we would have the necessary support around us to cope. For some this is not an option and the road to the streets is much shorter for those who lack the support structures we do.

The mainstream media assault upon welfare claimants has successfully paved the way for punitive government legislation, some of which has contributed to homelessness. It is worth noting that homelessness has increased by at least 130% since 2010. This assault has also been a vehicle for widespread desensitisation toward the plight of those in need.

No single individual can alleviate this crisis, so the best thing we as individuals can do is simply show compassion. It sounds glib and superficial but there’s little else for it. Even if you have no change to give, as is so often the case, try not to take the easy option of avoiding the person, something I’ve previously been guilty of out of embarrassment. Even by simply engaging with them you have at least acknowledged their existence. It seems like nothing at all, but when someone is in that state it can mean an awful lot.

It’s important that we remember that we aren’t above these people and be thankful that our own circumstances are such that we aren’t faced with such crisis. Conversely, we should remember that, in these precarious times, many people are more at risk of homelessness than perhaps they realise.

Many rough sleepers will tell you that, rather than the cold, the lack of food and generally degrading conditions, the worst thing of all is the loss of identity, the fact that nobody asks your name.

It’s not homeless people that need a one-way ticket, rather the callous and abdicative attitudes from some local authorities towards them – a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history.

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The hidden hunger of Surrey’s expanding food bank service

At a showing of I Daniel Blake at the new Thames radical cinema which meets monthly at the Riverhouse Barn in Walton, I met Bronte Schiltz an active Labour Party member who informed the audience that she volunteers in a local food bank. If you have seen Ken Loach’s award winning film you will recall the powerful scene when the two central characters queue up to use a food bank and the young, single mother opens a tin of baked beans when no-one is looking and scoops them into her mouth to stave off her hunger.

In Surrey they don’t queue round the block to use the food bank so you could be forgiven for thinking this is just an inner-city problem or a regional issue. Here the poverty is largely hidden as the food bank will bag up the groceries for you and deliver them to your door. Bronte recalls the desperate thankfulness of those who are provided with three days emergency food. You can’t just walk in off the street and help yourself. You have to be referred by the job centre, the school, citizen advice bureau, local councillor or GP. One such person was an 80 year old grandfather who informed Bronte that he had a job interview coming up as he needed money to feed his grandchildren. He was hopeful that he wouldn’t need to return and as she went through to the other room to fill some bags with food she found it heart-rending that this proud man had been let down by our welfare system.

When Bronte isn’t helping out at the food bank or working as the publicity officer for Thames Radical Cinema she works as the English Intervention Tutor at Esher Church of England High School where 25% of the children live below the poverty line. She explained that the food bank is essential in the school holidays when the children are unable to access free school meals. She wants to know why Surrey, one of the richest boroughs in the country, has over 34 food banks in operation with more food packages provided every year. When the issue was raised at a local husting in the 2017 election Dominic Raab the MP for Esher and Walton was not in attendance and other audience members felt that the question of food banks was not ‘a local issue’.

They clearly had not read the Inequality in Elmbridge report which contained official figures showing that 2,300 children – 8.7% of those under 16 – in Elmbridge live in poverty (where household income is below 60% of national median earnings).

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In a Guardian article on the subject well-to-do Gareth relates the following experience after becoming “startled” by what happened in his local Tesco at 8pm; “I couldn’t believe what I saw. A large group of people were hovering around the vegetable section. A man came along and reduced all of the food. Then it was a free-for-all and I have never seen anything like it in my life. A cabbage which was probably £1.50 was reduced to 20p and it was a fight to get the food,” he recalls. “I guess these people live in Elmbridge, I don’t know.

Hidden, but growing, the need for food banks continues to rise across Surrey and Bronte confirmed that Surrey food banks gave out more than 14,000 three day food parcels in 2016/17, an increase of almost 20% on the previous year. This situation is likely to become much worse as Universal Credit is rolled out in the run up to Christmas. The Trussell Trust reports a steep rise in areas where Universal Credit has already been implemented and claimants are paid in arrears with six weeks or more delay for the first payment.

According to the Trussell Trust statement; “it’s no surprise that trying to live off so little for an entire month can lead to destitution and hunger. Most households had been unable to afford heating, toiletries or suitable shoes or clothes for the weather. 78% had skipped meals and gone without eating – sometimes for days at a time, often multiple times a year.

Once a household falls into debt it is near impossible to make ends meet and pay off what is owed. When you lose a short-term contract you go back to the start of the process.

In a recent vote, calling for a pause in the roll-out of Universal Credit, Conservative MP’s failed to show up to the House to either defend their policy or to vote. If you don’t turn up for your benefit appointments you get sanctioned and given another six week hold on payments. The Trussell Trust confirms that the three main reasons people use the food banks are benefit delays, low income and benefit changes.

Yet in the run up to the last election Dominic Raab stated on TV that “The typical user of a food bank is not someone that is languishing in poverty, it is someone who has a cash flow problem episodically”.

Bronte described this response as, “ignorant and callous to brush it off as minor or temporary.”  Mr Raab hasn’t written about the use of food banks for his constituency blog since February 2014 where he links to an article he wrote for the Telegraph.  Mr Raab was paid £220 for the article and registered it as 2.5 hours work. Earning £88 per hour in addition to his main salary it must be difficult for him to understand the need for food banks and in his search for a reason he blames global markets, trade barriers and the EU Common Agricultural Policy – everything in fact except government welfare reforms and puts the interfering Bishops in their place with the following statement taken from his article in the Telegraph; “But the bishops’ blunt claim that welfare reform accounts for more than half of those using food banks displays a reckless disregard for the facts, and wilful ignorance of the underlying causes.”

Maybe it is time that Mr Raab took another trip to the food bank in Cobham he opened in 2013 but has failed to attend since. Hugh Bryant, who runs the Cobham Food bank, said: “Although Mr Raab opened our food bank it’s a shame he hasn’t been in touch to check the figures.”

Ken Loach has questioned why the rich are incentivised with bonus packages and perks while the poor are driven by hunger and homelessness. Here’s another pesky member of the clergy, Giles Fraser, writing about his experience of answering his door to an increasing number of destitute parishioners. He argues that Universal Credit was designed to blame the poor for their poverty and force them to accept low pay, poor working conditions and zero hour contracts; “there are those who would characterise this as “workhousing” – that is, deliberately making life so intolerable for poor people that they are forced into doing absolutely anything to keep themselves off the streets“.

Universal Credit stems from pure ideology and has cost more than it has saved. As the millionaires of Westminster increase the levels of poverty across the country they are protected from the reality of life on the breadline with their entitlement to taxpayer perks and second incomes. When they fail to turn up to even defend their policy, just as they failed to turn up to defend their record in the last election it gives off a stench of arrogance. Low paid work with inconsistent hours does not ‘set you free’ in fact the very opposite, it traps you in a cycle of debt and despair as you make daily choices between paying the bills, heating the house or feeding your family; a shocking indictment in 21st Century Britain.

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