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Stopped benefits and homelessness: the realities of drug and alcohol problems

These are the latest in our testimony interviews with people around the country who are dealing with fallout from public sector cuts and recession.

This post is taken from transcripts of a series of recordings made in the last fortnight with people in Weymouth who were employed (in the armed forces in some cases), or had businesses and then went through periods of homelessness after losing their incomes. A number of these people have drug and alcohol problems. They're exactly the people who will be targeted as Iain Duncan Smith pushes through his plans to permit Jobcentre Plus staff to dock benefits for people who refuse drug and alcohol treatment. The irony is that most have had their benefits cut at one point or another anyway. That's why they ended up on the streets.

The first speaker is Angela Barnes who lives in Weymouth. She had a business, is a recovering alcoholic and was homeless for about a year. Now she works in Weymouth helping people find housing. Her role is voluntary and she is on benefits. She's also a St John's volunteer.

In these excerpts, she talks about mental illness, alcoholism, the short walk from being housed to not being housed and the reception she got on the streets:

Angela Barnes"I've been through just about every trauma in my life... I've been an alcoholic and raped and abused in all shapes and forms. I didn't think I could go any lower. Human nature says there ain't nothing lower...

"I was doing well. I had a home and I had a fiancé. I had a business. Life was good, relatively. Then I got scammed by some advertising companies, so my business started to suffer and I changed my priorities to concentrate on my partner who was also very disabled....not having the brain cells at the time to understand that if I concentrated on the business, I might have a bit more money to concentrate on him. Then, my housing benefit got mucked up. They stop and start the benefits on a whim - they do that.

"Then on the ninth of May [several years ago], I found myself out on the street and I'm like - hang on. I don't quite understand where this has gone. My landlord decided that he wanted me out. He didn't care if they (the housing benefit office) would pay [the rent] or if they'd backpay when they sorted it all out - [he just said] "I want you out. I want my rent." I owed something like £1200 in rent, which was only about three or four months' rent. He wasn't having it. He would have got it all back - but this is what social landlords are frightened of, you know [not getting their rent], and then about 8 o'clock on the 9th of May in the evening, I suddenly found myself unexplainably out on the streets. My partner said - "Nah, that's it," [and he's] gone. [So] what do I do? So after several suicide attempts, I just spent until December as a homeless person. It's not good...

"I just spent my days wandering about. I remember one evening being sat on a bench in town and I had dark jeans on and I had white socks, because that's all I had. When I was put on the streets, I had a couple of changes of clothes and underwear and that is all I had, plus the clothes I stood up in...I had dark jeans on and white socks and some lads come out of the nearby pub and just started cussing me. "Oh - love the socks. They're real stylish" [she starts to cry here] and I'm thinking - "why are you doing this? You don't know me. I've been sat here quietly trying not to bawl my eyes out....and just getting abused."

"I was as guilty as a young puppy. I would see a scruffy... I hate the word "tramp". It's an old fashioned word, but I'd see these dirty, homeless guys, drinking or whatever they were doing and I thought there was nothing that could make me go there. I think that was my first mistake, because the minute you say that you're not going to end up there, you can be pretty sure you're on the slide down....I think the Lord allowed me to be on the streets for as long as I was, because I had to learn how to be humble.

"[I don't think people understand the lack of confidence]...now, [people without housing] come to me and say "We're not getting our benefits. We need to phone the council to see if we can get on their [housing] list" and I say "okay, phone them up - you just pick the phone up and make a phone call." [They will say] "Can you do it for me?" and that's when I found out that [for a lot of people] it's not just a case of picking up the phone and making a phone call.

"I do believe that if you want to learn about life, then spend an unknown indefinite time on the streets. All these stupid, idiotic studies that politicians do - you know, "I spent a week on job seekers' allowance." Anyone can tolerate a week if you know that it will end, but being out there and never knowing whether that this is your last day...

On benefits

"I did have some issues with [getting my] benefits, but at the moment, I'm all right. They've taken me off incapacity benefit and got me onto ESA, but if that is going to be limited... [For other people] it's just a nightmare. It seems that in Weymouth, benefits get stopped on a whim. My brother - his benefits get stopped just about every month. Then he gets into a place where he's got to get crisis loans. Then if you've had about £1100 in crisis loans, you're not entitled to any more. Then what do you live on?

"[Pawn-shop places]... [people] take something [there] that they've got, or that they've lifted and even then, it's only five or ten quid that they've got. Then, they've got to buy [whatever they pawned] back at street value. My brother has done it several times and I've given him such a bollocking for it. I said - you don't do that. If you're stuck, talk to me. I'm on benefits and I haven't got a lot to spare, but we'll working something out...

"What really winds me up... is these stupid [Atos work capability assessment] medicals that people get sent to. You've got to go to them and prove you're not well. My brother collapsed halfway through his medical. He couldn't remember three words that were said to him at the beginning of the interview. His benefits got stopped, because he's "fit for work."

"[Dealing with social housing social landlords [and trying to find places for people on benefits who have nowhere to live] - it's impossible. I've got three landlords that I can use [to help people into housing] and two I can use regularly. They're at all various stages of good, bad and indifferent landlords. I do work really hard to vet the tenants - to make sure I'm putting the right tenant with the right landlord, but yeah, it's hard. I need more landlords, I really do... I know the issues that they have - [they worry that because] people [social housing tenants] aren't paying [rent] out of their own pockets, there is always a danger that they won't look after the place properly and if they've got addictions or mental health problems that just increases the burden. Housing benefit is always [being] mucking about - you know, they pay three months in arrears and all that sort of stuff.  [The thing is] it's guaranteed money [for social landlords]. It may not be there every week as they want it, but it's guaranteed money.

Dan_K* (also living in Weymouth):

“I lost my job and I couldn't afford to pay my rent... and [like] that Norman Tebbit said, I got on my bike and went looking for work but ultimately there was...well yeah, there ain't no jobs out there.”

“That's the economy. The government is in charge of the economy and it does what it does. We had the computer boom and there was plenty of cheap money going... I was sleeping rough. That is my background – I know IT and there is military experience in that background. In my lifetime, I've seen all the different technology. My uncle used to work on Concorde.”

“Council houses - they let people buy houses and then they sold them off without replacing them. [That's the problem]. You can't base an economy on just a few houses and shops. We used to build ships and things.

“I just put in for a job the other day [he must apply for jobs to keep collecting jobseekers' allowance]. It's for a job in IT.

“You can't imagine it [my situation], can you – like, everything you have got now is gone. You've got no money. You've got to go through the system and trying to get more - it's really hard. I had a meeting yesterday at the job club and as soon as you change anything, your housing benefit is gone...so I went round to the council, because they put me off ESA and put me back onto jobseekers' [Dan is not sure what I mean when I tell him that people on Employment Support Allowance are being reassessed and tested for eligibility]. I went three weeks without any money. I went to the council and three bloody forms I had to fill in. I said - Excuse me: how many trees [are you killing]? I can't wait for you to wipe out the rainforest, because I won't have to worry about breathing any more...

“[In the end], the British Legion helped me out and got me in a room into a house. [Before that] I was helped out by a few guys - they put me in a tent for a few months. But before then, it was out in the streets wherever I could put me head down and then you have the police coming along saying “You can't sleep there.” I actually went round to the council one morning - I was so done in because I was sleeping on the pier and it was chucking it down with rain, gale force winds and I had only had 30 minutes' sleep because of the fucking generators going on the bastard ferry, I walked into the council and told them why don't you take me to the hospital and give me a lethal injection.”

“Spain is at [an] 22% unemployment rate [now] and we're going to hit 11% in the next ten years... then, your bosses are saying you have to get your job done so that they can have a bloody good life - the wealthy, this is how I see it. The government who don't give a shit about the people, just their friends. They've given massive tax breaks and they'll never spend it if they live for another 100 lifetimes. Yeah, you got people at the other end who can't even afford to put their heating on and buy some food, that to me is... I don't know what they call it. They've got to be the biggest bastards ever on the planet. They're not kings - they don't look after their people.

*Full name withheld.

Key policy and reform changes and problems affecting and concerning people in this group

  1. Work Capability Assessment (eligibility testing for Employment and Support Allowance)
  2. Housing benefit changes (especially cuts in housing benefit entitlements to people under the age of 35)
  3. Problems finding adequate housing as the need for social housing in the area increases
  4. Potential problems with accessing mental health services as cuts to services in Dorset put pressure on remaining services.

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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