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.