by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass
In the second part of our interview with housing support officer Jane Walters* (Read the first part here)we talk about how welfare reform has affected the lives of her clients and her job…
How have the changes to welfare and benefit cuts affected your clients?
“We haven’t seen the worst of it. I think there’s going to be a huge impact from the benefit cuts. People think it’s just the bedroom tax but it’s not. Obviously we know that’s a huge impact, a lot of families and older people who have had their families now have to move out into the private rented sector.
“For our tenants, for one there’s limited move on. The main route out of support accommodation is into the private rented sector. What’s the average rent in London, about £200-250 a week?
“Private landlords are being asked what the rent is and some will take whatever housing benefit will pay. What we are talking about now is the old style Rachmanism, in particular. He was famous in the sixties for being a slum landlord who made huge profits but did absolutely nothing to the private rented accommodation that he owned. And he could chuck people out willy-nilly. What came out of that was all the fair rent campaigns and huge changes to the housing sector.
“They have brought in the benefit cap and now landlords are putting rents at the top of the benefit cap. So for single homeless people, a majority have very few skills, they are now stuck in a cycle of poverty because they cannot afford to pay £200-250 a week, and these are rooms – these are not studio flats. These are very depressing environments where people will either relapse or fall into depression. I certainly would.
“The problem is there has been no housing built since Margaret Thatcher came to power. That was 1979. Neither Tory nor Labour government have reversed that trend. It’s minimal, the amount of housing stock. And even what they do build, even under Tories, and actually under the last Labour government, it’s not affordable accommodation. It’s part-buy part-share and that’s completely out of most people’s league.
“For other client groups, the Tories got rid of the Community Care Grant. It’s a one-off grant to help people who have had an unsettled way of life and are part of a re-settlement programme moving onto independent accommodation. It would be about £800-900 to buy the right goods and furniture. Just furnish the flat, so they can keep their tenancy. If you put someone in an empty flat they’re not going to stay there very long, even if it’s a beautiful flat. They’ll become de-moralised and they’re not able to function if they don’t have the basic, essential items. It is a huge boost and I think it really helped people maintain their tenancies. I think there’s going to be less of that. Some tenants have no one at all. And that is an absolute fact. They will be rattling around in an empty flat. So that’s the risk.”
How has competitive tendering affected your job?
“Across the country there’s huge pressure with A4E and the private companies that do all the work connections and stuff – they are exerting a lot of power over people. So if they don’t get their workbook right, there’s huge increases in sanctions for people on JSA.
“I think there’s an increase in disciplinaries – people’s frustration or lack of training. Even organisations who promote themselves as highly professional are being affected by it and they’re saying they can’t get quality staff, because people like me who came through nursing or community education, so it was a transition. And all that sort of stuff has gone. There’s poorer quality – they focus on graduates but they have no experience. You see them move quite quickly up the scale, away from frontline work because a lot of them just couldn’t cope with that. But I can understand because they have been jettisoned from university, but they’d go into things like fundraising or client liason – the softer stuff.
“Because of this bidding thing everyone is fragmented, services will deteriorate so much, to such an extent there will just be a skeleton service. I don’t think it will be anything like it used to be and we’ve seen already this with a few community centres. But I think it’ll coincide with all the tax in the welfare reforms and the cuts in services. It’s going to be very difficult. I think we’re going to see, over the next couple of years, a huge increase in homelessness. I mean they’re talking about the number people applying to food banks is almost like a tsunami. I think the suffering is going to get great and it’s whether the workers can kind of support these issues, but they’re very intimidated and frightened to speak up because they can be sanctioned or put their job at risk.
“A lot of us are saying we can’t wait two years for a general election thank you very much. Otherwise in two years, half of us won’t have a bloody job.”
Have your clients been affected by the rhetoric that has been in the media and used by politicians against those on benefits or out of work? The ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’ rhetoric?
“They are not even dealing with that. What they’re doing is struggling on a day-to-day basis.
“They are jumping through hoops every week, to make sure they sign on in time, go to their work connexions and they’re being made to sit in places for hours on computers, learning nothing. I am having to chase claims more. I have never accompanied clients to the job centre before but I have started doing that since April. I have never had to go to the job centre before. Maybe once or twice to drop something off, but now I’m doing it every week, accompanying somebody or having to chase the benefits up. A lot of people are already facing sanctions, so your benefit could be cut for two weeks, some of them are for months. It will put people at risk of re-offending or going into offending behaviour. It must be a huge temptation because if you don’t pay your service charge you risk getting evicted.”
*name has been changed