In the second of his hard-hitting and very personal three-part series, Ballasalla’s John Callister explodes the myths of ‘benefit scroungers’ having an easy time at taxpayers’ expense. This week he describes how he came to lose most of his possessions and was forced out of his home as the debts piled up.
Read part 1 here: Being out of work: anything but easy
Soon things start to fall apart. You can’t afford to repair your mobile phone’s broken screen, so you look for a new phone. The only cheap ones are on a contract where you’d be paying £20 per month even if you don’t use it, so you do without.
Then your old TV fizzes out, so you make do with the radio. Your washing machine breaks down, so you have to use a laundrette if you can find one. You start to look rather dishevelled as you can only afford to wash your clothes once every couple of weeks.
The exhaust comes adrift on your £2,000 car, which you haven’t used for ages as you can’t afford the petrol. £300 to fix it? Road tax? A bald tyre?
There’s not a hope of raising that much cash, ever. The car sits on the roadway until it attracts the attention of a traffic warden, who notices that the tax has run out. You don’t eat for a week to pay the £60+ fine. Because you can’t afford to tax the car you need to get rid of it, with no exhaust, before the warden comes back. You sell it for £500.
The dole officer wants to know where the money came from, holding back your allowance and rent payments unless you can prove you weren’t working. So you have to go through the signing-on process again. The £500 disappears covering the rent and living costs while you wait for the claim to be set up, again.
Your clothes are becoming a bit threadbare so you go to the stores where you used to shop. The prices are now so daunting that you don’t even try the items on as you can’t justify spending nearly half your dole on a £30 shirt. Instead you skulk down to the charity shop to buy something that isn’t quite as worn out as your present clothes, regardless of what they look like.
You start to trim your own hair and after a while you begin to look like the classic version of a poor person, with ill-fitting and ill-matched clothes and shabby hair. You look like a poor person, because you are one!
Day after day you feel your old way of life slipping away. Your pride and dignity have disappeared. What you do have is shame. You are ashamed of yourself for being so useless as to not even be able to feed yourself. Ashamed to have to rely on a government handout to put clothes on your back and a roof over your head.
Shame is a horrible master. You have lost the ability to choose, and must take only what you can afford. This means the cheapest of everything, so you eat poorly. You put on weight because you can only afford to eat the worst, fattiest cuts of meat and almost past sell-by date vegetables. You eat a lot of tinned or packaged foods because it is all you can afford to cook, and because they can be stored for a long time. But they are full of additives, sugar, salt and fats, so your health suffers. Your psychological state deteriorates as your previous life slides out of view. You realise that you have been scrapped.
Time goes on and when the rent arrears become too much for your landlord, the utilities companies are sending final demands and you simply can’t cope, financially, you go to see the Citizen’s Advice people. They write to your creditors, asking for more time to pay, and tell you that you should find somewhere cheaper to live.
You move to a rented room in an old hotel. You can take as much as you can store in one room, and no more, so you lose most of your belongings at this point. Mementos from your past, furniture, kitchen appliances, garage equipment; all of it has to go. If you manage to sell it, your payments will be withheld until you’re skint again.
The landlord charges the maximum that the dole will allow for that property while he waits for planning permission to convert it into apartments. They’ll be ripping the place apart as soon as it comes through so he’s extremely reluctant to spend any money on the place.
The gutters leak, spilling water into all the rooms below every time it rains. The broken window in the toilet doesn’t get fixed. The carpets on the stairs are sticky, worn, torn and dangerous. When it stops raining the mould appears.
The authorities are reluctant to do anything as they know that they would have to close the place down. They don’t have the housing for all the people already on their lists and couldn’t handle another 20 people in one go, so they allow it to go on.
These rented rooms rarely have cooking facilities so you begin to live on sandwiches, takeaway meals, junk food and pasties. There is only a china hand basin, no heating, rattling draughty windows and a shared shower and toilet on each floor, if you’re lucky. The shower may be shared by two floors, perhaps 20 people, not all of them fussy about hygiene.
You receive no utility bills for this type of place so your allowance is reduced to as little as £74 a week. This is how much you must live on: all your food and drink, clothes, transport and hygiene products, as well as paper, envelopes and stamps to apply for what you now realise are non-existent jobs.
You are sharing with a group of people who are also on their beam ends, poor and dissolute. Some of these ‘flatmates’ may have mental health problems, have escaped from a violent partner, or perhaps they are the violent partner who has been thrown out by their other half. They may have drug/alcohol problems, anger management problems, or all of these things.
Their problems spill over into your life as they fight on the stairs, party all night and sleep all day. Many of these people were also on long-term benefits, but they have lost their claim and now have no income at all. This forces them to turn to crime. Some of them will rob your room if you aren’t vigilant. Others deal drugs, so the building is visited by lots of other drug users.
Fights and screaming matches break out day and night, the locks are smashed off the front door and people get thrown down the stairs, breaking the banisters. Nothing gets fixed as it’s only a matter of time until it happens again.
Any mail delivered to these places is liable to disappear so you wait at the front door for the postman. If you don’t, you’ll never see any replies to your job applications, or your dole cheque. It can take a week for another payment to be made – a week of no money, again. The landlord is getting his rent paid directly to him so he couldn’t care less about your predicament.
The police often visit these premises and knock on your door, ‘looking for someone’ for whom they only have a vague description. Apparently they saw that person go into your room so they barge past you and have a good look around. A total invasion of what little privacy you have. They go on their way, having let you know that they can barge into your place whenever they want to, even though you have done nothing wrong. You are marked.