The Reality of the Welfare Reform – article published in the Gazette & Herald newspaper – Feb 2013

On the 21st February 2013 my first monthly article was published in the Opinion column of the Gazette and Herald newspaper.

It is incredibly pertinent that this is the very same article that I read at our recent screening of Ken Loach’s BAFTA winning film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ since it is very relevant to our ongoing work surrounding the issue of the benefit system.

To mark the 4 year anniversary I have decided to re post the article as a tribute to Tim who died in October 2015.

I watch him as he shuffles up the steps. Slowly placing one foot in front of the other whilst trying to hold on to the rail, and his bag, at the same time as balancing his walking stick without tripping. It takes all his mental effort to prevent a fall.

 My heart sinks as I open the door for him and a rush of cold air hits my face. I see the shadow of the man he once was, not so very long ago.

A rush of mixed emotions courses through me. Both a sense of sheer relief that he is still alive and a feeling of dread in anticipation of the reply to our standard greeting “how are you?”

His immediate response surprises me. He drops to his knees in order to be able to see the signing in sheet on the front desk. He looks up at me and the tears appear in his eyes, then slowly begin to trickle, in lines, down his weathered looking face.

And my heart breaks once again that week…

I look back at him, through the tears that are already starting to well up in my own eyes, and I wonder just what has happened to our society that leads to my witnessing grown men crying out of sheer desperation.

This isn’t a one off situation. It’s been occurring, here at Doorway, more and more frequently over the last few months. I’ve become somewhat hardened, over the years, to the complex issues that I face every week, but even I wasn’t prepared for the constant emotional battering that I am currently experiencing.

The experts tell you not to take your work home with you. Not to let it affect your home life. To switch off and forget. But you can’t just forget the sadness, the anger, the frustration and the despair that resonates around you. You automatically absorb it and then it just sits there, silently festering, whilst you become more and more cynical about the society you live in.

He’s been coming to our drop-in sessions for years. He is one of those guys who can entertain with his stories, the kind that you could listen to for hours. He’s had a really rather eventful life. But now he is paying for it. Now I’m not a medical person, I don’t fully comprehend the condition. He’s tried to explain to me how he has a degenerative sight condition but all I can see is the shame behind his eyes. He doesn’t want to be a burden, he doesn’t want us to feel sorry for him, he doesn’t want to have to rely on benefits.

He’s still on his knees. Words pour out from his mouth like “benefits stopped”, “fit to work”, “tribunal”, and “court”.

I reel backwards in shock. They are claiming that he is fit to work although he is nearly blind. They have stopped his benefits. He has to go to court, for a tribunal, after his appeal failed.

And suddenly I understand. The humiliation of having to go to court. The mental health issues from the worry of the way the system has been slowly grinding away in the background for months. He hadn’t told us what was happening. He was ashamed to ask for help.

They say that ‘a perfect storm’ is coming.  A combination of factors including falling incomes, rising costs of living, increasing unemployment, a lack of decent jobs and the proposed benefit cuts will affect those who are already the most vulnerable in our society. It will be devastating and catastrophic and it will affect more people than can be imagined.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 received Royal Assent to become law in March last year and legislates for the biggest change to the entire welfare system for over 60 years. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims that it will “make the benefits and tax credits systems fairer and simpler by: creating the right incentives to get more people into work; protecting the most vulnerable in our society; delivering fairness to those claiming benefit and to the taxpayer.”

Whilst many agree that the welfare system simply hasn’t worked, there is currently a public outrage amidst a common belief that the DWP claims are untrue and that the result of the welfare reform, this year, will drive many more people into poverty without delivering the projected economic recovery.

More and more people have already being driven into debt, hunger and homelessness and from April millions more will be hit by the bedroom tax, cuts in council tax benefits, the ending of disability living allowance, the benefit cap, to name just a few of the reforms.

And so I look down at him, still on his knees in front of me, and I wonder just how those who make the decisions can sleep at night. I see the real life people. The human beings, not the statistics. And I watch grown men cry.

Note: Doorway is a drop-in centre (and so much more) for homeless and vulnerably housed people based in Chippenham but serving the entire north of Wiltshire.

Posted in Alcohol, Benefits, Charity, Chippenham, Homelessness, Mental Health, Welfare Reform, Wiltshire | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doorway Writing Group February 2017

Writing Group February 2017

We had another great writing group session this time.

This month’s crossword worked well:

  • guests on all tables contributed by answering clues;
  • R and friend were still, in fact, beavering away to complete it as I bid my reluctant farewell;
  • it generated some interesting discussions on the writing table: Had anyone ever seen a corncrake? What was DH Lawrence’s second name (or even his first name, come to that)?

We spoke about reading and in particular about the challenges of reading long novels such as Dickens’ Dombey and Son and Tolstoy’s War and Peace: long-term challenges indeed! We discussed the fascinating characters we meet: in literature and in real life. Well, I can certainly say I’ve met some totally fascinating and wonderful people during my – as yet fairly short – time at Doorway.

We experimented with writing in different colours to emphasise different moods. The original of J’s poem (see below) was written in green to bring out the spring theme.

Now to our written contributions for this month – i.e. what you’ve really been waiting for: a short, evocative poem by J and the long-awaited continuation of his short story (part one appeared in the December 2016 blog).

A poem by J

A Higher View

Grey drizzly morning,

Rooftop sparrows toss the moss,

Spring bug harvesting.

 

 

Minnie’s Christmas Outing (a Short Story by J – part 2)

 

Nailsworth was  a small town about the midpoint of our  journey. We arrived at an old around midnight. Water was rushing  along the old mill-race. The fog had turned to frost and the stars shone Bright in the clear sky , the leaves and grass mantled with ice crystals.

Amongst the leaves and debris of a sunken threshold before one of the out-buildings we sheltered to wait for daybreak but my limbs started cramping and we  were forced to continue

 

walking, tramping along the disused Railway track  towards Nailsworth We climbed the pitch out of town back on the road to Chippenham.

Winding on and on, a fox barked between the stark silhouettes of the supplicating trees, the brackish stagnant Water in the ditches reflected the darkness of the night and only the hoot of an owl broke the

Four miles from Malmesbury  Signs of daylight arrived unnoticed, we had just passed the sign announcing ‘welcome To Wiltshire ‘ I slumped by the side of the road craving the oblivion of sleep.

I crawled or rolled  somehow under a thorn bush and lay there unconscious, senseless until the aroma of coffee jolted my senses awake. The face of a stranger emerged before me. I was sitting in a furniture restorators workshop in Malmesbury while the owner began telling me how while driving back from a late delivery he noticed a little terrier wearing a tartan waistcoat by the side of the road. Stopping he opened the passenger door Minnie loved going for rides and hopped in. Crossing to the driver’s seat he noticed a pair of boot protruding from a nearby bush and he hauled me into the van. What a situation. Had it not have been for a Samaritan travelling a deserted stretch of road, a late Christmas present and a little terrier sitting attentively, waiting…

We were driving back to ‘Pooh Corner’, the field with my caravan, the smell of chickens and Ruby the cob her winter coat skewed half on half off as usual. Wandering around in a dream-like state until a letter landed in the post-box from the Gloucester Police station… My wallet containing a sum of money was handed in would I please collect it! This was a promising start to the new year. Motivated, I made casual visits to local schools and got a part-time cleaning job for many years. My housing situation improved also when I started going to doorway I was frogmarched to the council reception desk and catapulted to the top of the waiting list, well 2nd place actually within weeks I had a place to live and  Minnie had well-deserved comfort and passed away asleep in her basket a few years later. I like to be reminded  of that time in my life after all who knows what is just around the corner and who our friends really are. Thanks to all the staff and volunteers at doorway and guests hope everybody has an enjoyable and rewarding 2017!

Best Wishes

Julian.

 

 

 

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Finland’s Answer to Rough Sleeping

In November 2016 I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Finland with a BBC Bristol reporter / researcher, Rachel Stonehouse, and a BBC cameraman, Jez Toogood, as part of a BBC Inside Out West special program on homelessness in the region.

Filming in Helsinki

Filming in Helsinki

We spent three days in Helsinki to investigate Finland’s claim to have significantly reduced the number of people sleeping rough in the country.

The visit was hosted by Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y Foundation, and we were very fortunate to spend time in several housing projects talking with the service providers and the residents.

The Y Foundation aims “to exert influence to make sure that no-one in Finland needs to be homeless”. They are managing to actually achieve this by offering affordable rental accommodation to people who are having difficulties in finding a home for themselves through the development of the Finnish Housing First model.

My subsequent feedback to the questions asked by the Y Foundation on my return to the UK is as follows:-

What was your overall impression on how homelessness is tackled here in Finland? What do you think about it?

There have been several reports in the British media recently about how Finland is tackling homelessness and so it was really useful for me to visit for myself and get a better feel for the ethos behind the project rather than just reading about the principles.

I strongly believe that the greatest work is done by those people with the greatest passion and vision and meeting both Juha and some of the people who are managing the projects has made me realise that this is why the Finnish Housing First model has proved to be successful. I was totally overwhelmed by not only the hospitality shown to us but also by the honest and emotional accounts given to us by those individuals who have been affected by homelessness.

What surprised you the most and is different, also what is similar here compared to Britain?

Spending three days talking with so many residents and service providers has made me realise that so many different elements are radically different to the way that services are run here in the UK.

Our answer to homelessness has historically been to put people in short term emergency accommodation or hostels in order to make them ready for housing. In the UK we expect long term rough sleepers to be able to sort out their drug or alcohol dependencies whilst they are living in temporary, and often very unsuitable, accommodation.

The Finnish model is the total opposite to this in that you are placing people straight into somewhere that they can call ‘home’ at the same time as introducing a support package in order that they can sustain that tenancy.

Of course you have similar economic problems in Finland to us here in the UK – the funding for all of our services is being cut each year right across the board for mental health services, specialist drug and alcohol services etc but you appear to be coping better than us in the actual delivery of a homelessness service!

It was also interesting to speak to some of the individual project providers about the similar difficulties in securing funding each year for creative activities that are so important when looking at the holistic overall well-being of individuals who have experienced homelessness.

Did you get any useful ideas you can take back home to your own work in Doorway?

The most important message that I have brought back with me is Juha’s quietly confident optimism in that anything can happen so long as you believe.

I honestly think that the time is right in the UK for us to realise that we don’t currently have the answer to the increasing homelessness problem and that maybe, just maybe, we can start looking to the way Finland is operating and introduce a new way of tackling the issue.

However, it is vitally important that everyone works together from the very top( ie government) right down to the frontline service providers. That is going to take a lot of hard work and I truly hope that Doorway can play some small part in making this happen over the next few years.

My new mantra will be Juha’s belief that nobody has yet failed in the future. I think this sums up the Finnish mentality of pure optimism and belief in people’s ability to turn their lives around if they are just given the opportunity to succeed.

BBC Inside Out West

BBC Inside Out West

For a better understanding of how the Finnish Housing First model is working the best place to start is Juha’s TEDx talk recorded at an event in 2014

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Response to the official Government rough sleeper statistics from Doorway and Opendoor

Doorway and Opendoor’s response to the newly published annual rough Government sleeper statistics.

The official government annual rough sleeping statistics were published yesterday  (25.01.17) following the count which took place in November 2016.

The official definition of the term “rough sleeper” used for the purpose of collecting data, is: “People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments).  People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes”).

There are two methods in which this data can be collated – an estimated method and an actual physical count. The former involves specialist agencies, who routinely engage with rough sleepers, submitting information to the local authority based upon self-declared accommodation status. This information is an accurate figure due to the very nature of the relationships established between the agencies and the service users during the months leading up the night of the count.

The actual method of counting is impossible to be conducted due to the rural nature of a county like Wiltshire. In this county rough sleepers are not visible in the same way that they are in the larger towns. Rough sleepers will do whatever they can to remain safe on the streets and therefore they will be hidden away in areas that are not frequented by the public at night. This has meant that it is virtually impossible to conduct an actual count due to the fact that it is not feasible to go traipsing around woods, fields, laybys etc in the middle of the night trying to find someone sleeping in a tent or car.

Both methods of counting, in the north of the county, took place on the night in November with the two specialist agencies, Doorway and Opendoor, carrying out the estimated method and the Local Authority carrying out the actual count on foot in the two town centres of Chippenham and Devizes. Subsequently, there were shown to be significant discrepancies between the two figures with the actual method producing lower results.

Unfortunately, Wiltshire Council opted to submit the lower figures to central government despite our two organisations raising concerns regarding the validity of the statistics. 

Specifically we raised concerns regarding the following:

  1. The narrow definition of the term ‘rough sleeper’ excludes “people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers”. Because the definition includes people in derelict buildings, both Doorway and Opendoor included several rough sleepers who were known to be sleeping in buildings which met this criteria.  However, the council redefined those individuals as “squatters” meaning they were subsequently eliminated from the final figures.
  2. A number of rough sleepers were known to be sleeping rough in rural areas which weren’t visited by council officials on the night of the count and were thus eliminated from the submitted figure.
  3. Several of the Chippenham based long term rough sleepers moved across the county boundary into Bath the week before the count and were not included in the Wiltshire figures or in the Bath figures since they were not yet engaging with the homelessness services in the neighbouring city. Two long term Devizes rough sleepers also moved out of the county to other Local Authorities the week before the night of the count and possibly were also eliminated from the national figures.

In addition we are raising general concerns regarding the following factors:

  1. Rough sleepers often alternate between staying out on the streets and sofa surfing depending on whether they can access accommodation with friends or family. It is therefore only a 50/50 chance as to whether they can be recorded as rough sleeping on any given night.
  2. Due to both the rural nature of the county and the chaotic lifestyles of those living on the streets, people often do not regularly engage with specialist services in the main towns. Therefore, it is impossible to produce an actual figure on just one night of the year. Very often our rough sleepers will also disappear for a period of time before once again re-engaging with our services.
  3. Specialist support services only exist in three of Wiltshire’s towns, Chippenham, Devizes and Trowbridge in addition to the main service located in the city of Salisbury. Other large towns such as Corsham, Calne, Melksham and all the smaller villages, are not able to provide estimated or actual figures for the night of the count due to the absence of any specialist organisation. We know that there are people sleeping rough throughout the county who are not engaged with daycentres and therefore excluded from the annual statistics.

On a positive note, both our organisations worked very closely with Wiltshire Council and the two hostels in the county, in the weeks leading up the day of the count, in order to successfully accommodate a number of rough sleepers and we will continue to do so. A newly appointed outreach worker has also recently been recruited by the council to help facilitate inter-organisational working relationships and positive outcomes for supporting rough sleepers in the county.

Whilst the government and local authorities produce annual statistics it is worth remembering that behind every one of those figures is an actual human being. At both Doorway and Opendoor, we regularly hear heartbreaking accounts of the complex stories leading up to someone’s current situation. We witness first hand the effects of the devastation, the frustration and the desperation caused by the inadequacies of a system which routinely sets people up to fail as they attempt to navigate the way out of homelessness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Charity, Chippenham, Devizes, Homelessness, News, Uncategorized, Wiltshire | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doorway Writing Group January 2017

Happy New Year and happy writing/reading!

A lovely session! Not a cross word was exchanged although the exchanging of crossword clues did play a major role; sorry for the feeble pun – I’ll blame it on an overdose of cracker jokes! So yes, while completing a crossword with my younger son one morning over Christmas – involving lots of head scratching, lots of random and incorrect guesses, and lots of laughter – we decided that I should take a crossword along to the next Doorway writing session. So I did. I shared some clues out between the three main tables where guests were eating and left some spare blank copies of the whole puzzle on the writing group table. Clues were duly answered on all tables and one guest (L) even requested an entire blank puzzle and proceeded to complete it – ‘with a little help from his friends’. And yes, we did mention the Beatles song and its relevance to all of life (and to all of us)!

At the writing table itself, we had – as ever – some fascinating discussions. We spoke about the creative and expressive possibilities offered by inventing words; we reckoned Shakespeare did it, lots of poets do it, and families and groups of friends do it all the time. We also discussed the therapeutic benefits of writing (sending out our SOS/message in a bottle) versus the vulnerability you can feel when you allow others to hear and read what you’ve written. Ultimately we decided between us that the pros outweigh the cons and that sharing our feelings with sympathetic listeners or readers can also help us to understand that we are never alone, others have been there before us and are often journeying with us.

So here then are two written contributions from the session: the first from H, the second from J (whose story from the December blog will be continued very soon; a big thank you to those of you who are waiting eagerly but patiently.)

Happy January!

A poem by H

What has God created us for?

How can we contemplate his thoughts?

Can anybody understand and help each other?

Should we listen or go to live alone on a pole?

Somebody give an answer to life’s pointlessness and darkness

Just give it up and subject all to God and let go of all

There is no point except what he knows and wants for you

But how do I start allowing it?

Free will or a pattern that I can’t get out of?

I hurt God and it makes me punish myself and turn everyone.

Have mercy! Kyrie eleison!

 

Loose Leaves – a poem by J

The New Year is rising

Like a Phoenix from the cinders

of the old

A time for learning

and leaves for turning

But in my room

all the leaves strewn

are loose leaves

But they say every cloud

has a silver lining

Every book has a binding

And maybe these loose leaves

May be bound to turn.

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Doorway writing group December 2016

Writing group December 2016

We had another great session. We discussed poems: the importance of rhyme and meter as a driving force; the pros and cons of a freer form of poetry. We talked about short stories, stories in instalments, and the role of cliffhangers and suspense. We decided between us that writing, in any form, is the key to life: our motto of the day was something like “just keep writing and everything will be okay!”

RH and J both contributed something for the blog – read on – and J also borrowed a book from our library. M is quite interested and hoping to come along next session.

Two lines written by RH’s daughter (aged just 10)

Let your smile change the world

But don’t let the world change your smile.

A poem by RH

Sick of being on the edge of madness

Full of pain and so much sadness

Tired so tired of all this shit

Sick of looking for my next hit

Hate the taste as it slips down my throat

Tired of looking for my next scapegoat

Scars on my body scars on my heart

So want to recover but where do I start

Always apologising to family and friends

Making empty promises instead of amends

Don’t want to die with everything lost

So I will get better, no matter the cost

 

Minnie’s Christmas Outing (a Short Story by J)

It was the end of another Christmas visit to my mother’s flat in Gloucester. We waved goodbye and walked out into the bleak late afternoon fog. My mum would have quite happily given me the train fare to Chippenham but owning up to failures was becoming a tedious full-time occupation so I never told her I’d lost my wallet a few days earlier, so I decided to walk home thus keeping my misfortune to myself.

I had Minnie for company, a small short-legged Jack Russell, white with a black head and black spot on her hind quarter, a present from my sister, Claire. I’d kept Minnie from a pup and she was now about 10 years old, alert, intelligent and lively, trotting along beside me. She skipped her balance from one leg to the other.

It was the harshest winter for many years claiming the lives of several homeless people in Glasgow. Overnight temperatures lower than -10° C and snow frozen solid crackled underfoot. I’d lost familiarity with cold winters wearing a light jacket with detachable lining, no hat, no gloves or scarf, my fingers and feet soon became numb as the temperature dropped. Weak whitewashed sky faded imperceptibly into darkness as we trudged uphill to Cotswold edge and saw the lights of Gloucester, Stroud and Painswick below us, the sinuous curves of the Severn nestled in the valley below.

The traffic was light on the A46. Christmas Day had passed and the cold weather kept people indoors in the cosy warm, but here every long, lonely mile dragged on forever and every milestone seemed like a tombstone, the end of the journey nowhere in sight.

To Be Continued…

Posted in Alcohol, Drugs, Homelessness, Mental Health, Poetry | 1 Comment

Doorway Writing Group November 2016

Another session of our Doorway writing group and lovely it was too!

We had some great conversations about language and writing including the (relative) importance of grammar/rules, and the (absolute) importance of using the written word to help you express your take on the world and what’s going on in your life.

R borrowed a book from our library and hopes to join us next session.

There were some poetic contributions from J and H – see below.

We also created a short ‘collaborative’ poem using some words offered by guests and volunteers.

 

Collaborative poem:

Life can be terrifying

But I like the company here

It helps me to smile

I like breakfast and dinners here

Yummy!

 

The night of the hibernator – a poem by J

It was a foggy night

Under the sickly yellow light

The kind of night

To give an old hedgehog

The blues

 

The streets were empty, cold

And bare

Not a sound was in the air

But the tolling of a lonely

Churchyard bell

 

The hibernator ate his pea soup

While the others had a knees up

The quiet streets

Were empty, cold and bare

The bear scratched himself

And growled

Too woo went the little owl

And the clock struck three

In the market square

 

The hibernator went to

The window

Hearing leaves rustling in the street

Below

And saw the insomniac

Staring at the town map

Some routine tourist information

Had caused profound, immense revelation

A little red arrow announcing ‘You are here.’

 

The hibernator yawned, went back to bed

The insomniac scratched his head

Around the crack of dawn

The tired twosome were snoring

And a new day was busy

Being born

 

A poem by H

Why do I lose everybody?

Why do I always make a fool of myself?

Why is there no solution?

Why did I break his heart?

Why do I go round in pointless circles?

Why can we not do anything for ourselves?

Why are we lost?

Why do I keep letting God down?

Please help me to survive and not just exist!

Help me get over him!

Help us to stop hurting you!

Give us a purpose!

Help me not to keep feeling rejected!

Help me not to be trapped in thoughts!

Help us not to play games with people!

Help me to be satisfied with your tenderness!

Help us heal the world!

Lord, have mercy! Give us your love!

Lord, let me adore you and not leave your light ever again!

Help me to make sense of you giving us full life but expecting sacrifice!

Help me understand others!

Fill my emptiness!

Bless everyone who loved me!

Heal those who didn’t love me!

Bless You my Father, Friend and Consoler!

 

My hometown is nobody’s home town – a poem by J

Take any place

Who would call it hometown?

Where people live on the streets

Like sheep.

Unwashed,

Unwatched,

Unfolded,

Desperate, Distracted

Fuelled by fixes

The years rolling by like clouds

Lost sheep

With no shepherd

Waking up in my town

Your town

Anybody’s

Hometown

Is everybody’s business.

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