A version of this post was originally published on the blog I write for my local paper. The original post can be found here.
I spent an hour in my local council offices earlier this week. I claim Housing Benefit, and that means that every month I have to go in and provide proof of my earnings and child care costs. I don’t begrudge doing this; I understand that if you want to receive a benefit you have to prove you need it.
Some of the things I over heard in the office got me thinking though.
One person seemed to be in a position where they were being forced to down-size. She was clearly quite vulnerable and upset by the prospect of having to move. She was telling the council worker that she needed to have her space; she couldn’t cope with living in a smaller place. If she moved to a smaller place she would end up splitting up with her partner because she couldn’t cope with it. She was also adamant that she needed to have her dog with her. And she didn’t want to have to change doctor and dentist and so on; she needed to be close to where she already was. She couldn’t deal with bus journeys and so on.
Your first reaction may well be that of “well if you want to live in a bigger place, go out and get a job and earn the money to afford it.” But what if she can’t? What if her mental problems are so bad that she just plain cannot cope with the day to day life of working? What if she really does need to have her dog with her in order to have any semblance of wellbeing?
There seems to be a certain sense of “beggars can’t be choosers” where council assistance is concerned. The lady behind the desk clearly wanted to help, but her hands were tied. The most she could tell the lady was to go to her GP and ask him to write a letter confirming that she really did need her dog with her.
I can see how the Council can’t spend all day wringing their hands over whether people get to keep their dogs, or their relationships breakdown because of house moves. They have a limited number of houses, and a limited amount of funds for benefit. It’s not their job to make sure this lady doesn’t end up being sectioned.
But if it’s not their job, where does that duty of care lie? Surely social housing and benefits are there specifically for this sort of situation, where a person is vulnerable and for whatever reason unable to fend for themselves without some sort of assistance? Where does that duty of care lie?
The problem is that the policymakers, the government and the people in charge at Wiltshire Council, have never sat behind one of those desks and met the people who need their help. They’ve never had to listen to someone crying because they have to choose between being homeless and losing their dog. They’ve never had to tell a pregnant woman “just wait until you get kicked out of your house, and on that day we’ll find you temporary accommodation somewhere in the county.”
I’m not saying that people should be able to go into the Council office and dictate “yes, I want to live in this area, in a 3 bedroom house, with a medium-sized garden and a fence not a wall, and there must be roses…” But for some people the very thought of moving house, of packing their entire life into boxes and uprooting themselves, of getting used to new surroundings, of having to get to know new neighbours, of learning a new route to the shops… it’s just too much for them to cope with. What do we do with these people? The current climate seems entirely uncaring: if you can’t fend for yourself, have what I give you and be grateful.
It seems almost Darwinist, doesn’t it? If you can’t survive on what you’re given, and you can’t cope with normal day to day life right now, then sink.
I understand that the Councils need to have guidelines and cut-off points and means-testing and all the rest of it. It can’t just be a free-for all and there do need to be rules in place to ensure people are not taking advantage. But can’t there also be some basic human understanding and compassion?
This is not me saying I have the answer by the way; it’s me asking the question.