Here in the UK, the daily experiences of the increasing numbers of people who’ve had benefits sanctioned or removed aren’t discussed much across the media. Often individuals seem to drop off the public services radar, and no-one appears to be looking out for them. Many become homeless.
There seem to be fewer sources of help available now for the destitute. The number of support workers, social workers, GPs or probation officers with the time and resources to help a client with complex issues appears to be dwindling. The ‘multi-agency approach’ seems like a sick joke now – unless you know differently?
Last night, at the Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London, I spoke to David Goddard, a 27-year-old who comes from South-West England, but has moved around constantly in the last year. He’d come along to this church-based support project for the regular Wednesday night hot meal – alongside others who’ve ended up at the sharp end of the austerity experiment in London. Quite a few of the 90 or so people attending this week are homeless. David is one of them.
He very honestly laid out what’s happened to him since February 2013, since he lost his job in catering in Gloucester. Before that he had run raves within the alternative scene and had a record label. He has also worked part-time in a nightclub and as a part-time carer. After losing his catering job he spent six weeks with no money while waiting for his Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claim to be processed. During this time he had to borrow money from family to survive. By the end of March/early April 2013 he’d been suspended from JSA for a week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for apparently missing an interview. He then says he got a letter through saying his JSA had been cancelled. He said: ‘I then spent the next month or two seeing if the DWP would give me an interview, filling in applications for a fresh claim online, but not getting any texts or acknowledgements.’
At this stage things took a substantial turn for the worse: ‘I was back taking heroin, and I got made homeless, because I’d moved into a family member’s home, but had to move out because that person said they couldn’t let me continue to live there unless I got benefits. But Gloucester Council wouldn’t pay me housing benefits, because I was living in a family member’s house. Then I started shoplifting. I’m not proud of it, but if you went 24 hours without food you will shoplift. By the end of the summer I was taking enough to survive.’ At this stage, he was also paying for the heroin that way.
He got in touch with the local food bank, but he says they told him they couldn’t help unless he was on employment and support allowance (ESA). He couldn’t find anyone who would give him a voucher to access the food bank. He says he tried the jobcentre and Citizen’s Advice, to no avail.
Between July and Christmas 2013 David was arrested 10 times as he moved around the country, mostly for shoplifting food. Once, when shoplifting for a meal, he was arrested for possession of some quiche and a cheese knife to eat it with. On that occasion he was charged with possession of a blade. The shoplifting happened in various locations. He ended up in court six times, ‘but they did not actually prosecute me’, and the cases were postponed.
He moved to Southall in West London last November while on bail – at which point he says he was ‘off heroin – but shoplifting to survive’. Southall put him in a probation house. But on Boxing Day he was arrested for stealing a microwave dinner from Tesco. At that point, he says ‘they stacked up nine months of shoplifting charges, plus charges for common assault’ – he got in a fight with a security guard and a roadsweeper who tried to stop him stealing the meal – plus criminal damage and theft of a motor vehicle and put him inside for two and a half months from New Year’s Day 2014.
While he was initially in prison in Wormwood Scrubs, he says he then got shunted at very short notice to a host of prisons to attend nearby hearings on the other accumulated charges. During this series of ‘expeditions’, he was shifted to Wandsworth, Bristol, Leicester, and Hewell (near Redditch, Worcestershire) prisons in succession. David was released on March 28, with a travel warrant to get him to London, but without a probation officer. He had a JSA payment of £140 that had hit his account in December from a fresh claim made on November 6th. But this had to last him ‘until my benefits came through, so I was homeless again’.
He headed back to his old shared probation house in Southall: ‘Everything I had was in that house. Eight suitcases of my property and my portfolio on arts, graphics and fashion work that I was planning to take with me to university interviews, and my computer.’ He says that he and a number of his friends were very interested in design, ‘and when I was in prison I spent my time drawing and sketching’. But he couldn’t get access to the house, and couldn’t contact the support workers, because ‘every number had changed’.
Next he submitted a further fresh JSA claim to the DWP in Catford, South-East London on April 14th, and was offered a place at a housing association hostel for the homeless in nearby Lewisham on April 16. He received one JSA payment after that, but says that because he had to attend an interview back at Gloucester Council, ‘I missed a jobcentre interview in Catford, so the DWP cancelled my claim’ He says he spent six weeks at the hostel sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag ‘in one large room with seats and a television, sharing with 25 men and women’.
He believes some of those in the room were aged no more than 16 or 17. It’s very hard to see how treating a group who are vulnerable by nature of being homeless in this way could comply with any safeguarding or duty of care responsibilities. Are these people really safer here in this room than they are on the streets?
David says he was ‘kicked out’ of the hostel when he ‘got into a verbal disagreement’ with another client that then turned into a physical fight. He left last Friday, May 30. He’s now squatting in a unit on an industrial estate that’s being used to store scrap metal. There’s no electricity there.
The dedicated volunteers at the Jerico Road project are going to do what they can to help David. They’ve fixed a meeting with him very soon to talk about his benefits and housing situation. One of the great aspects of this church is its focus on trying to tackle underlying problems such as debt, addiction and homelessness.
David wonders whether his past involvement in the alternative scene and in running raves is counting against him when it comes to looking for a job. He says the past five years have been tough ones for him and his friends from the former scene. ‘Lots of people have been shut down from doing music events, and a lot of my friends have been screwed over. Three of my friends have committed suicide in the last few years.’ He wonders if he’s ‘on a list’.
Maybe David would have ended up on the streets without that initial JSA suspension in Gloucester, but at the very least he was destabilised once that small amount of regular money was withdrawn. According to the latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) crime survey released in April, shoplifting is up 6 per cent year on year, while overall crime has fallen significantly. The government is still arguing that there is no link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks. Is it equally convinced that benefits sanctions don’t lead directly to desperate people shoplifting to feed themselves?