Charles is a pensioner of 72 who must at times feel that he’s fallen off the edge of a world that he no longer recognises. He’s well spoken, very intelligent and has an air of dignity, despite the enormous challenges he faces in trying to exist from day to day. The world is chipping away at his soul and is bent on eroding his humanity, which despite all remains intact. I met him at the Jerico Road project, which feeds between 100 and 150 people in Catford, South London each Wednesday evening.
The project provides a safe space for the growing number of vulnerable people in this area within its thriving church (though you don’t have to be religious or Christian to benefit from what’s on offer). It gives advice on everything from homelessness, benefits, and getting back to work, as well as a nutritious three course meal. It’s about social solidarity, practical support and creating community. It’s a place where people are cherished.
Quite a few of those who come along are rough sleepers. Charles at least has a roof of sorts over his head. He has a small cottage, which I surmise he’s inherited. But he says he’s on a basic state pension, and the house is ‘falling to pieces – it’s a liability and it takes all my money to keep it going’. I wonder whether he’s receiving pension credit, which would boost his weekly benefit (about one in three people don’t realise they’re entitled to claim this), but he’s unclear on this (I’ll follow this up with staff at the project tomorrow). He may be struggling desperately, without the resources to lead a decent life , but he’s kind and generous enough to want to help some other men who are down on their luck. ‘Three men were sleeping on my floor. They were desperate people.’ What happened in his life? He volunteers that he was refused medication for what he describes as ’emotional illness’, and was then ‘dismissed’.
He is furious about the divisions and inequalities that he believes characterise life in London now. ‘I’m so angry I can’t even sleep. I’m angry about the vindictiveness the rich show towards the poor. We’re living in barbaric times.’
When asked if he’s eating properly, he says he tries. He says he’s been ‘struggling for justice since the age of four and I’ve had periods of utter persecution and disadvantage’. He adds: ‘I’m a Christian Socialist, but if you look at the nature of society, there are no safeguards, ethos, or morals. The mass media is our enemy and we can’t get a look in.’
What did last week’s budget have to offer Charles and the many other people trying to eke out an existence in this expensive city on a basic state pension? Well, pensioners will have the chance to blow their private pension pot on anything they want, including a Lamborghini if they so choose. A £15,000 flexible ISA savings vehicle is being set up. None of this is going to be any comfort to Charles.
What will happen to Charles as he gets further into old age? I don’t have the stomach to speculate too much tonight. What I do know is that his assessment of the government as a ‘mafiosi, lethal to democracy, imposing class warfare on the old, the vulnerable, the poor, and people with mental and physical illnesses’, is on the mark.