Category Archives: Homelessness

An unemployed mother, 11 children and a council ‘eco-mansion’ – the true cost to society

My home village, Churchdown, has become the centre of a media storm. Blowing in from middle England this storm is causing lasting damage. Not just to Britain’s poorest families but to each and every one of us.

Just round the corner from the Hare and Hounds in Churchdown, one of my old haunts, lives Heather Frost. Heather is unemployed and is currently living in temporary council accommodation with her 11 children.

Cue the tabloid hysteria…

The Sun reports “A JOBLESS mum on benefits is having a £400,000 council house built for her — and her brood of ELEVEN children”

The Daily Mail goes with, “mother of 11 to get six-bedroom eco-house after moaning her TWO council homes are cramped”

While The Express analysed the events saying, “The result has instead been to create powerful incentives for irresponsible people to bring into the world very large numbers of children they cannot possibly support”

I am not here to argue the morality of having 11 children, but to comment on the media storm surrounding this story.

I hope to show how it’s inaccuracies and how it causes lasting damage not just to some of the poorest in our society but to each and every one of us.

So where to start in this quagmire of misinformation?

Virtually all media reporting of the story goes to great length to try and generalise Heather’s quite extraordinary story into an attack on our benefits system in general.  The Daily Mail reports that there are over 190 families with more than 10 children and this is costing us, the taxpayer, over £11 million a year.

Of course, what the Mail describes is a fraction of the overall benefits system.  These 190 households sit alongside 1.35 million other households where at least one parent claims an out of work benefit.

Ally Fogg in the Guardian points out that the £11 million that these families receive, constitutes less than one hundredth of 1% of the total benefits bill of £100bn (excluding pensions).

The cost to us…the taxpayer? Small change.

The Express tries to score come political points with it’s analysis that we now have a ‘powerful incentive’ for people to have more children.

This ‘powerful incentive’ the Express describes is referring to child benefit. This currently stands at just £20.30 a week for your first child and then an additional £13.40 a week for any further children you have.

To put this into context. Krishna News in Churchdown paid me more money per week for doing a paper round than Heather Frost gets for each of her additional children.

Additionally, two of her children are between 16 and 20 so she would only receive child benefit if they are still in full time education. Her oldest child is now 21 so is not eligible for child benefit.

Who needs facts when you write for the Express though? Little inconvenient facts like the average reproduction rate of 1.9 children for families on benefit. The almost identical reproduction rate to those not on benefits.

If there is a ‘powerful incentive’ to have children on benefits (which there isn’t)  then those on benefits have yet to spot it.

Ah, but she is having a brand new £400,000 house built for her and her ‘brood’ The Sun reports. Well, keep reading and in paragraph 7 of that same story it explains how Tewksbury Council could afford this. It states, “Tewkesbury Borough Council sold a plot of land…to Severn Vale Housing association…A condition of the sale was that one of the 15 affordable properties they built on the site would be a six-bedroom home”.

The penny drops. When The Sun quotes Robert Oxley from the TaxPayers Alliance saying, “It’s scandalous that so much time and money is being spent on one custom-built house” he doesn’t actually say whether or not it is ‘tax payer’s money’ that is being spent.

These stories fuel a hatred for some of the poorest families in Britain. Regardless of how many times tabloids but the word ‘struggling’ mockingly in inverted commas, it won’t effect the fact that 1 in 5 Brits live in poverty and are struggling.

These stories though act as smokescreens. They force us to focus on how the poor are costing us rather than how poverty is costing all of us.

As we worry about the £11 million being spent on people with large families we learn to ignore the £25 billion that child poverty is costing the UK every year.

The people who suffer? Not just the 4.5 million at risk of homelessness who are currently on the housing waiting list or the 3.6 million children that are living in poverty in the UK.

In times of austerity, this media storm is costing all of us.

UPDATE: New Research out today suggest that in many UK cities over 40% of kids live in poverty.


Filed under Gloucestershire, Homelessness, Politics, Social comment

This government has failed all those who are forced into squatting

As of midnight tonight, under clause 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, squatting in residential properties will become illegal holding a penalty of up to £5,000 and six months in prison.

The housing minister Grant Shapps summarised the new move saying,

No longer will there be so-called squatters’ rights. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”

This new measure will affect 20,000 people who currently squat in the UK.  It is estimated that about 40% of all homeless people will resort to squatting at some point.

Housing charities have expressed concern that it may force people into sleeping rough as the state struggles to provide enough social housing. The homeless charity, Crisis’ Chief Executive,Lesley Morphy commented,

“[the new clause] misses the point. There was already legal provision that police and councils could, and should, have used to remove individuals in the rare instances of squatting in someone’s home. It will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place – their homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. Ultimately the Government needs to tackle why homeless people squat in the first place”

There is currently a huge shortage in social housing which is why this government has pledged to build an additional three million homes by 2020. In times of austerity however, there is wide-spread concern that this is another promise the government will fail to deliver.

Grant Shapps himself spelled out the nature of the problem we face. In 2009 he tabled an EDM which stated, “Of the 784,000 homes which currently vacant 327,000 have been empty for a period of more than six months; is further concerned that despite the presence of 1.8 million families on the social housing waiting list”.

Why then, would he be taking measures that many believe will force more onto the streets?

It is in this context then that I condemn this move to criminalise squatting. Not because I don’t think private landlords have a right to protect their properties, but because this government is clearly in no position to offer the support that those who are forced into squatting need.

There are currently 930,000 empty homes across the UK, 350,000 of which are long term empty. As a short term solution it seems to make sense for people to be able to use them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Homelessness, Politics, Social comment

Occupy Bath

Bath, it is not renowned for being the centre of protest. A small Georgian city tucked away in rolling green hills, it is a far cry from the busy streets of London where the Occupy movement has grabbed the limelight.  It was with interest then that I headed down this afternoon to have a chat with some of the protestors in Queens Sq in the centre of Bath. I asked them what their aspirations were, what they hoped to achieve, what sort of reception they had so far and why they were ‘occupying Bath’.

I was met by two young women, both looking slightly cold in the disappearing afternoon sun; both determined to sit in the last rays of sun before it slipped down behind the tall Georgian buildings that encircles Queens Sq. One was a student, who just wanted to give people a platform to talk and discuss. “I just want people to feel comfortable to come in and talk about what affects them”. The second girl was a young professional working with the homeless. She said she worked ‘flexible hours’ with a wry smile. She was passionate and articulate talking about the cuts faced to homeless services around the country. She briefly stopped for a second before adding “and why have they cut all the rural bus services”.

Both were realistic and grounded in the reality that surrounded them. Every critical thought that slipped through my mind was better articulated by my new found friends before I had a chance to whisper it aloud. The location isn’t perfect, we don’t have ‘an end goal’, people look at us as if we are different. Neither knew what they hoped to be different in 12 days time, when the camp was to break up. I saw what I thought was a glimpse of desperation as the young student looked at me and commented that she didn’t expect anything to change but hoped that this might be the start of a truly inclusive social movement. The metaphor of the seed was bounded around liberally.

I asked them what sort of reception they had received and they commented with artificial enthusiasm that it had been “brilliant”. On cue, a man outside the gardens shouted for them to get a fucking job, I suspect missing the irony that it was perhaps the not having a job that was providing the inspiration for many to be here.

We were joined by a young man, a student from the local university who looked like he was busy organising. He glanced at me, looked at my trousers and shirt and paused for an uncomfortable two to three seconds before simply nodding. He stood, sorting, smouldering with his will for change. Only when we started to talk about how to further publicize the camp did he join in, his initial rigidness melted into an impassioned, pragmatic eloquence. He reminded me slightly of the leader of The Green Party, Caroline Lucas – unbelievably driven, passionate, and yet also warm and friendly once relaxed.

Sat in the evening dusk I looked around at the toddlers playing on the grass, the elderly couple sat on the memorial benches and the young students plotting the downfall of capitalism one cup of tea at a time. I was baffled by what motivated their actions – what good they thought was going to come from sitting inside a virtual cage in the centre of Bath. I also however felt inspired, relaxed and at home. They talked with me in a friendly and informed manner.

As I was leaving they commented that a lot of people were going to come down after work and I should come as well. I thought about it for a split second and agreed.

Even if I wasn’t sure of what this group were asking, let alone the answer; I felt more inspired by the shared sense of humanity than I had for a long time. Even if we don’t sort out inequality, capitalism or bankers tonight I am convinced that I will be met with kindness and hope. Maybe this alone is enough to justify occupying Bath.


Filed under Bath, Homelessness, Social comment

Can a a belief in the individual tackle homelessness?

Soil and soul

At Christmas, I blogged about homelessness in Brussels.  It was a reflection on some people I came across in the early hours of the morning when the temperatures were dropping well below -10 degrees and they were lying exposed on the street.  I finished that blog with a question; what can we do for these people when handing out soup and clothes seems such a “token” response and does not challenge the underlying problems.  Through two separate incidents in my life recently, I think I have stumbled across at least a partial answer.  The first was reading the book “soil and soul” the second was through applying for a job with a charity called “Emmaus“.

Soil and Soul opens it’s introduction with the musing’s of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid., “There must be more to life, than for human beings to owe dignity”.  This “more”, McIntosh (the author of Soil and Soul) claims is the capacity to see a person’s potential for blossoming: to see what they could become and maybe still can be; not just the limitations of what they presently are.  MacDiarmid goes on to say “And I am concerned with the blossom”.

For me, this introduction was hugely significant.  People (myself included) spend a lot of time and energy troubling themselves with the negative state of the present, and not enough, with the positive potential of the future.  This is partially because it is a lot easier to be critical of what is here in front of you now.  It takes boldness to predict (especially positively) what lies ahead of you.  It is therefore a challenge for anyone to engage in McIntosh’s vision of seeing the “blossom” in people. It is a challenge though, that I strongly suspect is of great reward when engaged with.

It was curious therefore that days after reading this, I stumbled across an organisation that I used to be involved with that had drifted from my radar of late.  The charity Emmaus offers homeless individuals “a home, work and the chance to rebuild their lives in a supportive environment”.  The Emmaus community offers individuals accommodation, food, clothing and a small weekly allowance.  In return they must stick to the rules of the community such as not bringing drugs or alcohol on site.  The residents work full-time collecting, renovating and re-selling furniture.  At the same time, a series of training takes place to re-skill the residents.

The aspect of Emmaus that overlaps so strongly with Soil and Soul (as well as the emphasis on community), is the issue of turning the negative perception of the homeless on its head.  Now, a homeless individual is commonly seen as a drain on society.  Emmaus looks to turn this perception around by not only letting these individuals help themselves but to also help others along the way. Any surplus income for the communities goes into funds to help set up other communities.  Equally, residents are encouraged to help out at other volunteer projects such as clearing playgrounds, offering lifts to those immobile and cooking lunches for pensioners.  This aspect of Emmaus looks for the potential not only in the individuals but also in the ripple effect that these people can have on a community.

Emmaus at the moment does not offer a “solution” per se for homelessness in the UK.  It offers a model that has been extremely successful in tackling homelessness.  Equally, it offers a working example of a positive mindset that encourages all of us to look at the potential every individual holds with them.  As I said at the beginning, this isn’t easy, but it’s well worth giving a go!

1 Comment

Filed under Homelessness, Human rights

Sport Relief – Ignore the celebrities, it is the cause that counts.

Brad Pitt in the "One" Campaign. Just one example of celebrity charity culture gone crazy.

On Sunday 21st March I am going to do the 6-mile run in support of Sport Relief.  This is nothing compared to Eddie Izzards marathon-a-day feat or David Walliams swim across the channel but it all helps.  These two celebrities are rare examples of people in the publics eye that honestly believe in what they are doing.  I have heard both on numerous occasions give time, money and status to different events.  Sadly, I think they represent the minority of celebrities.

In the past I have been put off these mass fundraising events, the whole celebrity culture of gesture charity I find to be a bit nauseating.  Indeed, at first glance this is one of the same.  Celebrities boost their profile by raising the sort of sums of money they earn in a week and then pat each other on the back while the press slobber over juicy photo opportunities.  Who benefits here in the long-term, other than the celebrity?

What you cannot disagree with where the money goes however.  It goes to help disadvantaged, often marginalised people, both home and abroad.  It makes a real difference to real people’s lives.  OK, its not going to change the system; after sports relief (and comic relief) thousands more are going to go homeless, millions more die of starvation and billions face shortages of food.  It will though make a difference to some people’s lives, and this should not be sneered at. Sometimes its enough, and sometimes its all we can do is to help individuals.

What should be sneered at though are the self-promoting celebrities who are forced to smile in front of the cameras by their PR managers. Not all celebrities are like this, but sadly, the sceptic in me suggests that many are.  If celebrities want to help, do it behind cameras.  I was inspired to hear Sam Roddick talk about using celebrities cleverly behind the scenes to “seduce” politicians (If Angelina Jolie asks Gordon Brown for a lunch meeting he is not going to say no!).

Millions of ordinary people however, are giving up their time and money to support a really good cause.  It is amazing in an era which the press keeps telling us is marked by selfishness that people are happy to do these sorts of events.  I find it quite up-lifting.  I ask all of you to give generously to those friends and family who are taking part in this mass nation wide fundraising. Do not though fool yourself into believing (or even worse giving money to) those celebrities who like to promote nothing but their moral credentials. 

Did you know that Brad Pitt is worried about child poverty? Come on….

If you want to support me, log onto my secure just giving web-site. Thanks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celebrity, Homelessness, Politics, Sport

The Spanish, the homeless and Christmas – some reflections!

The ignored reality of homelessness - Photo is from Chirs Hall (flickr)

Brussels is a wonderful unique city to be living in during the run up to Christmas.  It has wonderful Christmas markets, live music and with the recent downfall of snow, a real feeling of Christmas cheer.  Recently however, I had a sobering experience that made me reflect on the nature of societal divisions within Brussels in stark contrast to the Christmas cheer that I have been enjoying in the last few weeks.

Let me paint you a picture.  Last Saturday I had spent the whole day walking in the Ardennes (south Belgium); I came back to Brussels to watch Arsenal demolish Hull (3-0) before meeting up with a Spanish friend of mine to celebrate his birthday.  Despite the bitter weather (-9 in the city centre), lots of friends made it out to celebrate.  Being typically Spanish my friend had arranged to meet at 22:30, and the party lasted until the early hours.  I had a really fantastic evening.  Walking home (in bitter winds and heavy snowfall), I came across a group of homeless people who were lying on the street side exposed to the elements.  How I reacted to this situation reflects a lot on how we as a society view homelessness.

I stopped, and stared and the pure injustice of a collection of men lying in sub-zero temperatures with nothing more than a blanket to warm them hit me hard.  It repulsed me to see that this could be happening in a modern European city.  I felt myself shivering with the cold (wearing a ski coat, hats, gloves etc).   In my slightly inebriated state I stood still for well over 2 minutes to think what I could possibly do in this situation.  The sad truth dawned on me that right there, in that drunken moment; there was absolutely nothing I could do.  One gentleman lying on the ground spotted me and struck up conversation.  In my French (which improves dramatically after many beers…I think) we talked briefly about how terrible the weather was.  He seemed surprisingly jolly about the whole situation.  Despite his optimism, he was visually shaking.  I strongly suspected that his optimism was fundamentally based on a cocktail of drink and drugs to get him through that freezing night. 

As I walked away, I felt more for that chap than any sober person could.  My heart bled for the pure injustice of the whole situation.  As I walked, my sorrow and sadness slowly evolved into a massive sense of anger at a system that allows for this situation to exist.  Reflecting on these thoughts the next day (in a clearer state of mind), I vowed to myself that I would work to do something about this.  In the UK, this would be easier (no language barriers).  I am aware of organisations like Emmaus and Shelter working for homeless people.  In Bath (where I lived for a number of years) I am aware of the hostel Julian House that provides nightly food and shelter for the homeless.  In Brussels however I felt flummoxed about what I could do.  Trying to help individuals only goes so far, it does not tackle the underlying reasons for the homelessness.   For every bowl of soup you hand out another person slips into destitution. 

This is not to say that handing out hot food is not beneficial.  Indeed, it can often be a life line.  It is however, fundamentally wrong that it is left to individuals and charities to try and provide support for those who have slipped through the state safety nets. 

Homelessness is not a problem in itself.  It is largely a symptom of other ills in society.  Some of the main causes of homelessness include mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, prison release and forced eviction.  The situation that I experienced on the streets of Brussels is reflective of our inability to tackle these underlying issues. 

These issues need to be tackled at a national level, with effective planning.  Until this happens, what can we do?  Is there anybody reading this that can offer me advice?  Is there really nothing more I can do other than hand out soup and look sympathetic?

1 Comment

Filed under Homelessness