The last month has been truly eye opening, even more so than the rest of my time here at A4e. As this placement draws to a close, I feel two things.
Firstly sad. Sad because I will be leaving a job I truly love and where I make a visible difference to people’s lives, and sad because I have made some great friends, and will miss the customers I have dealt with on a daily basis for the last six months.
Secondly, excited. Excited to be moving back to Bath, a beautiful city I consider home, to move in with a fantastic friend into a gorgeous flat and back to the creature comforts and all my closest pals. Excited to be starting a job more closely related to my field in PR, for a fabulous company in the centre of Bath.
This mixture of feelings has led me to look back on what I have learnt, and moreover the harrowing, eye opening things I have experienced, or should I say; realised others experience on a day to day basis just to survive.
I voted Conservative in the last election for three main reasons. The first is that I HATE the EU. The second is that I liked the family values projected and the will to protect the institution of marriage (quite ironic for those that know me). And the third, is that I believed that there is a real benefit dependency problem in this country, and I hoped that the Tories had a vigorous plan to tackle one of the major issues currently blighting Britain.
I was wrong on all counts, they couldn’t have got it more wrong, as like me, they are looking at the problem from completely the wrong angle… Top down. After working with customers who would be categorised as the ‘underclass’ (please note the air quotes) it is evident that this is a problem which needs solving at the root, not the tip. We as citizens needs to look deep down into the dirt and face the origins of benefit dependency head on.
As with all social ills, there is no one cause, nor one answer. But where we get it so wrong is starting with the attitude “well they put themselves there”. This is me reporting from the front line, stating this is categorically untrue in 9 out of 10 cases. It is a fallacy imagined up by our media through mediums such as Jeremy Kyle and Shameless, it is the exception… not the rule.
To give an example, one customer who to look at could basically be the poster boy for the ‘underclass’ couldn’t be less to blame for his current situation. He is homeless, his mother is a bipolar schizophrenic who picks and chooses when she lives up to her responsibilities, his father is nowhere to be seen and the police are on his back 24/7 for simply existing. Don’t get me wrong, he has been in his fare share of trouble, but most of this has been to survive on the streets (beating up an over familiar tramp for example, or stealing food after going without for several days).
He couldn’t finish school as he was living in a tent from the age of 13, an age where benefits don’t exist. But despite all the adversity, he is a diamond in the rough. He has such great spirit, motivation and want for a better life. He is polite and helpful and selfless even though he has nothing he still would rather see a woman beaten by her husband take his bed for the night at the night shelter.
Herein the problem lies. The facilities available to a 19 year old in this position are close to none. The government gives him JSA and that is it. Around £80 every two weeks, that is less than the £10 a day quoted by the recent BBC3 documentary exploring this issue. As he is a member of the work programme (WP), he has a strict schedule of activity to complete to receive this money. Not just writing down a couple of jobs a week to show to his JCP advisor. But attending training courses, job clubs, weekly meetings with his WP advisor, and more. Should he falter, a sanction looms, which means he will live off fresh air for the next 4 weeks or possibly more.
This decision is not made by those who work with him every day, and can know if it is a deliberate deviation or a genuine inability, but by a string of admin people entrenched in DWP procedure. The worse thing is, that this system can fail. And someone like this young lad can be sanctioned for NO REASON AT ALL. Even if he has completed all mandatory activity there is a loophole which has seen him mistakenly sanctioned at least twice in his time on the programme. Meaning that a small administrative slip could see a homeless person without money for weeks on end, luckily for this boy, I was there to fight to get the problem rectified.
He has been on the waiting list for a place since he turned 18, and is likely to stay there for some time as his case isn’t classed as urgent by those I’m the corridors of power. Therefore local charities are his only hope, and even such charities are bound by miles of red tape, difficult for even employees to navigate.
Housing shelters are not by nature free, nor freely available. This was news to me. Ergo, one has to be referred by a ‘suitable organisation such as ourselves or the job centre’ to just be put on the waiting list. Not much use to a boy with no money, no food and no shelter in the middle of winter. The local one costs £2 per night, may not sound a lot but for someone living off about £8 a day it is a massive amount to ask.
This is just one small example of the problem that plagues the UK. It is disgusting To realise the actuality of many thousands of human beings supposedly living in a welfare state. To work on the front line has been one if the most humbling experiences of my life. It really makes you realise how little you actually have to moan about and somewhat knocks the satirical saying ‘first world problems’ out of the park when their are so many existence in the ‘first world’ with such massive barriers to simply surviving.