When I lived in London, the walk to my bus stop after work took me from Oxford Street to Somerset House. If I walked close to Charing Cross station after finishing a late shift, I’d see the Salvation Army handing out bacon rolls and cups of tea to the local homeless. Though I passed most of those people every day, with their signs and sleeping bags, to see them gathered in one place always shocked me; there were just so many of them.
By the time I moved to the capital, I’d been self sufficient for years, working in a butchery and studying journalism. Living in rural Scotland, my rent was cheap and even on minimum wage, I was relatively comfortable. I grew up working class, where the first rule was that rent and bills came first. Everything else was disposable income. To me, homelessness was a problem faced by drug addicts and troubled teenagers. I was sympathetic, but living in a bubble.
When I relocated from Perth to Brockley in South London, my rent increased by 160%. My wages increased by 9%. I finally got it.
My meagre, “for emergencies only” savings were spent on the gas bill, new work shoes or the one cinema ticket I allowed myself every month. I had “normal” problems; my laptop broke, the dentist told me I needed a filling and Christmas still came with all the expenses it entails, but I had no cushion, nothing I could cut down on any further.
Watching my outgoings stack up every month until they outweighed my income, I saw it could easily be me sleeping in the doorway of the Adelphi Theatre should I lose my job. But I had one thing many people don’t. I had a family with a spare room should the worst happen.
Looking back (and using the online benefits calculator), I was clearly entitled to government assistance but I told myself, “I’m working full time! If I can barely afford to survive, it must be my own fault!” As a journalism graduate, I was fully aware of the tricks and traps used by the media. Still, their portrayal of scrounging benefit claimants overpowered me and I continued to distance myself from the people I saw living on the street as I walked to work every day. “They must have made some poor choices,” I told myself, though not really believing it.
My life in London wasn’t sustainable, because it wasn’t a life at all. I moved back to Scotland and ended up as an odd-jobbing office worker for my local council. One of my odd jobs included, of all things, arranging emergency food and electricity for people who’d had their benefits sanctioned, had just been released from prison or were homeless.
Of course people cheated the system. I’ve heard tall tales about full benefit payments being blown by a gust of wind into a nearby river. A colleague told me about a group of neighbours who passed around the same faulty oven until they all received a replacement. The handyman didn’t think to check the serial numbers of the ovens that were mysteriously exploding.
I’d take those people any day over the singles mother whispering down the phone so their children don’t hear them say there’s no more food in the house or the disabled being sanctioned for weeks on end because of honest, easily rectified mistakes. My role was to talk them through the application before sending it off to one of the ominously named “decision makers”. I had the best job there was, just listening to them get things off their chest. The stories they told me couldn’t be ignored or denied. My lifelong bubble had finally burst.
The UK government is currently being investigated by the UN over its benefits system, particularly how it affects the disabled. Under the International Bill of Human Rights, a person with disabilities has the right to live as independently as possible and enjoy an adequate standard of living. Not only is that not happening in this country, but benefit sanctions are forcing people into temporary accommodation, shelters or onto the streets. More than 8,000 people slept rough in London during 2015/16, a number that has doubled in five years and tripled in 10. In the same period, more than 160,000 people across the rest of Great Britain applied for homeless assistance from their local authority. The charity Crisis said last year that 1 in 5 people they spoke to cited sanctions as the cause of their homelessness.
Human Rights Day is when we commemorate the UN adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first global expression of what most people believe are the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. When we think of human rights violations, we think of “the Muslim countries” where aid workers are executed and war crimes are committed. We might even think of our friend, the USA, and the prison at Guantanamo, where men are held captive without trial for decades. We think the UK is a superior nation, with its National Health Service, paid maternity leave and Comic Relief.
And yet we are the first country to be investigated by the UN in relation to this Convention. We are so busy looking beyond our borders that we don’t see those in need right in our own food banks and high street doorways; I know because I’m just as guilty of it as anyone.
Now I’m back in rural Scotland with low rent and a decent job, treating myself to fish and chips at the weekend or a new pair of shoes doesn’t fill me with fear. I don’t lie awake at night panicking about how I’ll pay off my overdraft. I can afford smoked salmon with my weekly shop and as many cinema tickets as there are new films every month. So I drop soup and sanitary towels into the food bank basket in Tesco, but I know there’s more I can do and I will. Most importantly, I’ll never live in a bubble again.