We meet in her flat, paper print outs of her mother are tacked onto the walls, pictures of her son and grandson are pinned up on one of the kitchen cupboards. The floorboards are bare, and it is cold. “I don’t have any normal tea, I’m so sorry, is chamomile okay?” I tell her that chamomile is fine, really, and she limps over to the counter to put the kettle on, visibly in pain. Her brow furrowed, she pours out the tea slowly and covers the two mugs with little plates before walking over to the table.
Originally from Jamaica, Audrey Francis has been living in her estate in South West London for 31 years. Recently, things haven’t been going well. Caught up in the middle of the current welfare reforms, she is helpless, angry, upset, frustrated and sad all at once. “ I don’t want to be all like ‘woe is me’, and I don’t want you to think that, or for anybody to think that. But it is really very hard. I want you to know, I used to work. I worked at my most recent job for eight years before I started getting ill…”
Her story unfolds quickly and urgently. Diagnosed with Lupus –an uncommon and complex disease characterised by joint swelling- Audrey was forced to stop working, and began receiving incapacity allowance as her sole source of income which she has been living on for the last four years. Her rent has been climbing every year, but her incapacity allowance has been frozen at the same amount. Making ends meet is tough with expensive gas and water bills. Plus, Audrey explains that there are other hidden expenses tagged onto the overall bill. She shows me, and there is clearly a monthly window cleaning expense –“Do these windows look like they’ve ever been cleaned by the council?”
As a result her rent arrears have mounted up, but she tells me that she had never been notified about her debts. It was only when the bedroom tax was introduced, as of April this year, that she was told that she owed a significant amount of money. She currently receives £129 every two weeks for her incapacity allowance, £54 of which goes straight on the bedroom tax and paying off her arrears. This, obviously, leaves very little income for other necessities.
Bedroom Tax Protest Image: birminghamagainstthecuts.co.uk
The situation is a catch-22: Audrey is keen to downsize her property, but the current lack of available smaller housing means that she is stuck in a situation where she can’t afford rent, but cannot move, either. “This place is too big for me anyway, and I can’t afford this bedroom tax. But there is nowhere smaller to go. Nobody from my housing association nor the council offered me any options at all. They just want us out.”
A friend told her about a scheme where it is possible to downsize your property by way of an exchange. Audrey quickly signed up, but was abruptly removed by the housing authority due to her rent arrears. Thrown back to square one, she once again had no option but to pay and stay, and work herself into further debt.
With no option of where to go or what to do, one housing officer suggested that she would be better off looking for a smaller property out of London. He suggested Lincoln. “My family all lives in London, they always have. What the hell would I do in Lincoln?”. She is also anxious about being moved to another London estate, because she would have to “establish herself again”- estates are complex sub societies with their own rules and laws, it isn’t easy to just move from one to another.
Audrey has kept all of the letters from the housing association and from the council. She knows what she is talking about. She pulls all the different official letters out and goes through them, distressed. Through tears she tells me that she has tried to ask “them” for help, but because of her rent arrears, “and just because of who I am, where I’m from and what I look like”, she is told that she didn’t attend meetings which she wasn’t told about, or that she didn’t adequately fill in forms she had never received. “Life is not life anymore, it’s an expense. They make it as hard as they can so you just break”.
“I’m educated, they think we’re all stupid, but I went to university”, Audrey was mid-way through an archeology and history degree at Birkbeck before becoming ill. She told me that as soon as she is able to graduate she’s getting out of the UK, “to Gambia or Ghana, but to be honest, anywhere away from here. They treat people like me like shit”.
Audrey places her story in the context of a broader issue of race and class in Britain. She tells me about being black in the 1970s “I have a tendency to kick off, yeah, I shouldn’t, I know. But we’re angry; if you were Jamaican and went to school in the 1970’s you would be angry too. These estates were scary places, and racism was pervasive, everywhere”.
Audrey isn’t surprised at the way she is treated, she sees it as another manifestation of preference and levels of privilege in this country. She strongly alludes to the idea that the area is being socially cleansed. To Audrey, the current measures to cut back on benefits are just a new wave of obstacles to make life more difficult for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
We sip our chamomile, and she tells me that she is trying to be brave. Her illness is seriously aggravated by stress, and the last few months have been nothing short of a tumultuous and upsetting uphill battle. “It is obvious what is happening. All the old tenants are being moved out and they want us to feel like strangers here, but I’m not going down without a fight”. Audrey expresses her discontent to the authorities; a bold move in the face of persistent intimidating letters. “I try not to get angry. I try to be articulate and calm. When I get angry I know they don’t listen, and I just reproduce a stereotype which they want”.
Right now, the bedroom tax, escalating rents and cuts to benefits are creating situations which are unlivable. The current welfare reforms are clearly making many members of our society feel trapped and deserted. If life is indeed experienced as nothing more than a dismal expense that people can’t keep up with, then we are just forcing deeper poverty cycles on people like Audrey. We need to press for a more humane approach.