I’ve experienced homelessness. Now, as I find my benefits still suspended – meaning I have no Jobseekers’ Allowance, Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit – the panic is creeping in that I will experience homelessness again.
I’ve not been told why this suspension has happened beyond “loss of paperwork” but that was said in a phone call, leaving no paper trail, so I suspect either untrue or not the basis of a complaint for me.
I told the unemployment office that I had part-time work, I asked if I was within my rights to take it, I was told to keep signing on until I received my first wage – then my benefits were stopped and I was left with, literally, zero income. I checked my bank account this morning and I am penniless with my rent due in a week.
I’ve effectively been penalised for trying to find work. I would’ve been better off staying on benefits: I would still have my dole payment and still be filling in my Looking for Work booklet and going through a routine which meant I had money for food, bills and accommodation.
I never imagined while working for years as a journalist, while studying hard for all my qualifications, while trying to build some sort of financial stability for myself that I would, one day, be sitting at home panicking that I might not have one for much longer.
As a child I lived through a housing crisis and ended up in a squat in a derelict terraced house. This house was in the middle of a street of squats and became the subject of a BAFTA-winning documentary in which I can been seen dancing happily amid the chaos.
My moment as an early reality TV star didn’t leave a mark – I don’t think I even saw the documentary untiI I was much older – but the experience of homelessness certainly did. My fear of it can quickly lead to panic and depression: if you have no home, you have nothing as far as I’m concerned.
We were of course abused for being homeless: insulted by passers-by, bullied at school as the squatting movement came under attack from the national press – those without homes and income seen as having brought it upon themselves, as not taking personal responsibility for their financial hardship.
Now, some 35 years, later this social problem of too little housing, mass unemployment and increasing poverty is again a growing problem which is creating homelessness.
I watch the BBC news, my fists clenched in fear and anger, as I see Americans make tent cities having lost their jobs and their homes – but still desperately trying to cling to some sort of normality. Just like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression these settlements are being found on empty land across the country.
Panorama writes, “Conditions are unhygienic. There are no toilets and electricity is only available in the one communal tent where the campers huddle around a wood stove for warmth in the heart of winter.
“Ice weighs down the roofs of tents, and rain regularly drips onto the sleeping campers’ faces.
“Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities – they represent the bleak reality of America’s poverty crisis.”
America is the richest country in the world but people are living in tents and “47 million Americans now live below the poverty line – the most in half a century”.
These people have lost their jobs and had their benefits cut by a brutal system that demands financial independence of individuals while failing to provide a way for them to achieve it – there are no jobs.
Conservative minister Maria Miller says that in the UK there is “no shortage of jobs” and rabid Tories cling to this lie to excuse a lack of compassion and to spread the blame to those of us slung on a scrapheap while the rich get richer.
The reality though is that in Lewisham 34 people chase every vacancy – with over 10,500 unemployed for 300 jobs available. In Hartlepool it’s 21 people chasing every vacancy. In Hackney it’s 22. While in South Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and the City of London it’s fewer than two people for every job vacancy.
Much like the US we find that no jobs followed by benefit suspensions – even for those who have made the effort to find work but failed – means abject poverty. People are cutting back on food and fuel bills to pay their mortgage or rent. And the government not only wants to cut the amount of Housing Benefit people receive but also want to raise the age at which single people become eligible to claim for a one-bedroom property to 35. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this could inevitably lead.
All this while there are no jobs to help people out of poverty: history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as farce and I now hope I won’t get to experience being homeless again.