Long term unemployment: four people in their own words. And why the word “vulnerable” needs to go

Kate Belgrave /   June 29, 2015 at 8:37 PM 1,122 views

Below, I’ve posted four transcripts from interviews I’ve done with people who’ve been unemployed for several years. But a small rant first: One of the reasons I’m posting these transcripts is that in the last week especially, we’ve not heard enough from people who’ve actually experienced long-term unemployment. We’ve heard from people who have a lot to say (and who are paid to say it) about people who are unemployed, but I feel that we could do with more from people who know the experience. I also feel that we need to get away from some of the language that the media class uses to describe people who have these experiences. We definitely need to get away from words like “scrounger” and “workshy.” We definitely need that. But there are days (this is one) when I feel that we also need to get away from some of the crap that the so-called liberal media sprays around. One thing I dislike, for example, is the use of words like “vulnerable” and “the poor” in reporting on people affected by austerity. (George Monbiot will even run to “the very poor” when he gets a tail wind). I find the word “vulnerable” particularly tiring. I used it myself to begin with and then I got very tired of it. It’s patronising from that end. It sets people apart as impotent victims – people whose life fortunes must always turn on the actions and philanthropy of the sort of well-appointed journos, etc, who like to use words like “vulnerable.” It sets people apart as Others and as objects for a bit of a sad read and middle-class pity. I’m over it. It’s become a kind of lazy media rhetoric. It doesn’t tell people’s whole stories. It certainly doesn’t tell the story of the political class that has robbed people of wages and services. And that is my point. There is nothing pathetic about the people whose stories I’ve posted below. They are simply people who, like most people, made the terminal mistake of not being born to immense privilege and of living in an era where that mistake can destroy you if you require a wage and public services. Let’s not forget the common ground that most of us are on here. A requirement for decent housing and support services, and a shot at education, health and a reasonable retirement does not make people “vulnerable,” or “poor.” It makes people human. The mistake people have made is to present with these requirements at a time when the requirements of bankers, the Serco board, energy company chiefs, BBC executives demanding huge payoffs, overpaid media barons across the board and the likes of Chris Huhne are the priorities. That’s all austerity is. That’s our era. If you’re not born to privilege, the responsibility is all yours. If you are born to privilege, the responsibility is someone else’s. As I’ve said before: If you’re Nobody and fall into a hole, you’re left in it. If you’re Somebody and fall into a hole, David Cameron, or George Osborne, or Mark Thompson, or even Alan Rusbridger will help you up and even hand you a cheque when you’re out. The moral of the stories below – make sure you’re born rich and/or get yourself in with the political and media classes so you can get your arse rescued if it hits the fan at some point. Otherwise – you can kiss that arse goodbye. Because the likes of Osborne will get around to you in the end and to all of us. No doubt about that in my mind at all. To long-term unemployment, then: John Evans, aged 60, Stroud: “I was born in Yorkshire in Hull. I moved to Stroud when I was eight, because my dad had a job at the power station. I’ve been here ever since. I didn’t like school so I left. I got an apprenticeship making electric motors. They taught me everything I know about engineering. I wasn’t getting anywhere around here, so I went to British Aerospace in Preston. I was married, but my wife didn’t like it there, so I transferred. That was good, but the travelling was a lot and then they started putting me on nights which I didn’t like, so I moved into another job. I ended up staying in that job for 12 years.” “I got made redundant and then got another job. They made flow metres – big tubes with magnets. I had my own department in the model shop. Somebody would come up with a design on a fag packet and you’d make it for them. “But it was the model shop. Sometimes, we had so much work that we didn’t know what to do with it and sometimes it was a down period. You get made redundant. I got used to it. I got a glowing reference. I did a little bit of part time work, a bit of hacking, but nobody wants to know at my age. Then it gets really hard. You do part-time work and you get yelled at [by the jobcentre] for doing that. “I went into the job centre once and I said – “I went for a job and I was told I was too old. He [the jobcentre worker] said – “well, that’s ageist. You can do them for that.” “I said – well, it’s not my place to do them. I said I won’t take it any further because being a smaller town word gets around. “I had my own house and I was married, but the nice lady decided that she wanted to go with someone else and so I had to sell the house. Then I heard that my landlord had some vacancies and I had to go and see him and give me a place. I live in a B&B. It’s not very good. I have a room. With a shared bathroom and toilet. It’s a room with a bed and a TV with a microwave which is my own. Eight people live in my house. “I’m on jobseekers’ at the moment. I used to do Ring & Ride. It was voluntary, which I enjoyed – taking out people to places and appointments. I told the job centre that I was doing this and I got told off because on the three days that I did it – Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – I got told that I wasn’t actively seeking work and I couldn’t do it. You couldn’t make it up. I wasn’t not looking for work. It was just that I was doing that work. You can’t look for work 24-7 if you want to do something… I don’t know. I get worried because you hand in the [jobsearch] sheets and you don’t know whether they are going to stop your money or not. Then they just stop it. I just hope I get paid Friday.” “They [the jobcentre] suggested that I went for a job as an engineer in Cheltenham. It started at six in the morning, but the first train wasn’t until seven and I would have got there at eight. So I said it was impossible to get there at that time in the morning. The answer was Move. But where do they think you’re going to find a place at our age with needing rent up front to get a place to live? The jobcentre said – “so you’re refusing? Well, we’ll have to sanction you.” But I mightn’t even get the job.” Angela Barnes, in her 50sWeymouth: “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 ninth 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] 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… “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.” Darren Bayliss, Cheltenham-Stroud: “I’m trying to apply for employment and support allowance. I’m getting that for mental health issues and addiction drug dependency. I’m on antidepressants at the moment. My health is at risk. I’ve gone from ten stone one to eight and a half stone in four weeks, living on the streets. I lived in London on the streets for three years. At half six every morning, the cleaners at the back of the Savoy come down, and the council, and moved you on. The daycentre didn’t open until eight, so you just had to walk around. “I’ve had my ESA suspended. I was using a care-of address and they’ve got me down at the social as actually living there. Me and my girlfriend were staying at this bloke’s house and the lady next door had grief with him… they contacted the social and they suspended my pay, saying that I’m paying in for my girlfriend, so I’ve had no money for the last eight weeks. I told them it was a care-of address. “I live in the tent [at the moment]. There are two drinkers [in the same area] but they’re okay. You stay in numbers, you’re better in numbers. The tent’s dry, but the only problem is that it’s on a dry riverbed, so when the rain comes down, it’s all mud. It’s all mud. They won’t give us accommodation until we’ve been here for 12 months, because we’ve got no local connection. But after 12 months, we have. I walked from Cheltenham to here about three, four months ago. I walked 17 miles and I slept in a bus stop. I went to the Salvation from there and they gave me a lift to this place. “I left Cheltenham because I wanted to get clean off the heroin. I’ve got a script. I have been clean for four weeks – stone cold turkey, but I done it. You thought that would have been the worst time to use, really. I’m getting on an emergency script next week. They’ve got me on these meetings – anger management, self-awareness, acupuncture. I get suicidal thoughts and things like that. Then, I’m going to rehab. “Don’t get much hassle with [living in] the tent. There’s a bloke who comes down every morning and brings me a big flask of coffee. People have brought down a little camping stove, a little gas flask, and say “you need it more than me” and brought down pots and pans, but I do need to get off the streets. That’s a priority really. I stink of fire all the time [because of cooking outdoors]. I’m not usually like this. I’m only dirty because I’m sleeping on the streets and the fire. “I was on heroin the first time round for about 12 years. Then I got clean. I was on methadone but I stopped that. That made me really ill. Then I got clean, but then I went on Suboxone. Then, I relapsed, because I went to a friend’s funeral who died of an overdose. When I came to Stroud, I had a raging habit, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been working with Turning Point.” Dan K (Weymouth, in his late 40s. Name changed): “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 [Dan 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 was not sure what I meant when I told him that people on Employment Support Allowance were being reassessed and are put on JSA if found fit for work]. 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.” Amen. Courtesy of Kate Belgrave

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