Yesterday had the feel of a tipping point. All day the Atlantic storm lashed the grey November bleakness of the street outside. It was enough to rattle the windows. Usually on the days when the gutters turn into rivers we can expect things to be quiet at the front desk.
But not yesterday.
Yesterday saw 48 emergency food parcels head out of the door and into the rain.
Yesterday the phone seemed to ring all day with names and referrals and back stories.
Struggling, struggling, struggling….
Picture a vast wall stretching over the horizon and beyond. Grey and cold and unforgiving. Lashed by an Atlantic storm that the forecaster says will be with us for days to come. And the wall is home to thousands upon thousands of people with chalk white faces and fear in their eyes. They are hanging from the top of the wall with fingers and hands which are cold and chapped.
And one by one they are falling off.
Giving up and dropping like autumn leaves on tired bent trees.
Victims of the first Atlantic storm of the winter.
Flotsum and jetsum. Heaped rubbish at the foot of the wall. Heaped rubbish along side the rusty old prams and the drenched sofas and teles lacking the right kind of sockets for 2015.
Over lyrical? I guess so. But stuff it, I am supposed to be a writer when all is said and done. Surely artistic is still allowed. Maybe even the Job Centre might allow artistic licence. But then again….
Yesterday was the day when the temperature dropped and it suddenly felt like the middle of November. Yesterday was the day when electric meters up and down the land screamed for attention like spoilt kids howling for sweets.
Yesterday was the day when all over Britain people put £10 in the meter only to discover that their power company immediately took £7 to cover arrears leaving only a lousy three quid to warm against the Atlantic storm.
Yesterday was the day when people all over Britain faced the hard truth that winter is more or less here and they are basically screwed.
Yesterday was the day when 48 emergency food parcels headed out of our front door and into the grey November rain
And in the midst of it all were three snap shots. Three tales of woe. Brief desperate glimpses of three broken lives. Micro dramas lost in the swirl of a vast sea of misery.
So we have a guy in his early fifties and he is unemployed. Had he watched the news last night, he would have heard that he is part of an ever shrinking group. Because there are only 5.4% us unemployed now. Wow. We are all blessed to live and breathe in booming Britain.
But I guess it didn’t feel that way for this guy. He is only recently unemployed which means he has become a part of the local Universal Credit trial rollout. This is a picture that is beginning to be revealed piece by piece. Not a pretty picture to be honest. It seems like every payment seems to get cocked up. And when you head into your local Job Centre to tell them your payment has been cocked up they shrug their shoulders and say there is nothing they can do. Not any more. Because when payments get cocked up, the city of Wolverhampton is now the only place where answers are to be found. You don’t go there. You call there. But beware. The number that connects you to Wolverhampton is not free at the point of use. Anything but. And when you ask the people in the Job Centre if you can maybe use one of their phones they tell you no.
What they do tell you is that you need to spend a minimum of 35 hours of each and every week actively seeking work. And you need to prove it. And if you can’t prove it they will sanction your arse. Oh yeah. Will they ever.
My man was ‘jobsought’ to the point of insanity. But there was a training day to be had at Dalbeattie sawmill. An opportunity. A chance.
They told him if he didn’t attend the training course they would sanction his arse. But he said he wanted to go
He was up for it. Really.
Only one problem guys. I ain’t got no money. Because my new Universal Credit claim is all screwed up. And nobody in the great city of Wolverhampton seems to want to pick up the phone to tell me anything about it.
So could you help me out with the bus fare?
Not our problem. But you better be there or else…
Yeah, yeah, I get it. Or else you’ll sanction my arse.
Twelve miles in the Atlantic storm. A long march along dry stone walls and fields of soaking sheep. Twelve miles to a training day at a sawmill. In Dalbeattie. To seek a job.
He misjudged it and landed ten minutes late. They told him ten minutes was unacceptable. They told him to get lost. We live in a time when ten minutes is always unacceptable.
So it was twelve miles back the other way past the same dry stone walls and the same miserable sheep, only this time the Atlantic storm was at his back.
Back to the Job Centre to break the news that he had misjudged his route march to the tune of 10 minutes.
They told him they were in no mood for excuses. For they have targets and goals set by the mighty Duncan Smith.
You’re just so sanctioned..
And he did the really stupid thing. He got angry. He kicked off. He exited the building care of security. And they made his sanction even longer.
And he dropped off the wall.
And came to us.
The next tale of woe was a lad in his early twenties. The same age as my youngest son. In fact he asked how Courtney was getting on. And I said Courtney was doing all right. And he said he was pleased to hear it. And it was obvious that he meant it. A very polite young lad with the haunted eyes of a rabbit about to go under the wheels of a 38 tonne artic.
Oh where to start. A while back. At least a year. It was his mum you see. Her back went. Her back went badly. You know. So bad she couldn’t get out of bed and needed him to look after her. Which he did. He moved back in for the duration and became a carer.
One night he was out with some pals when he tripped and injured his leg. Was it bad enough to need A&E? Yeah. It probably was. So one of the lads said he would give him a lift. To A&E. In the car. The car he owned. And how was it that this helpful lad had the wherewithal to own his own car?
Yeah, well that was the thing.
The helpful lad was a drug dealer. The helpful lad was a drug dealer who was well and truly on the radar of the boys in blue. And so it was that half way to A&E the dark night was strobe lit with flashing blue.
Out of the car and into the station. And lots of questions to go with a bloody sore leg. A mobile phone confiscated and then a release with no charges.
And there were never any charges,
But they kept his mobile phone for many months. Maybe it rang out into the emptiness of the police station's evidence storage room before the battery finally ran dry.
There were calls from his social landlord. Lots and lots of them. A neighbour tells us you are not living in your flat any more. Is this true? Call back. We have told the housing benefit people you aren’t living in your flat any more. Call back. We will be evicting you on…. Call back.
You’re evicted. Call back.
We have sent you a bill of £400 to cover the costs of smashing your door in and taking all your stuff to the dump. Call back.
You owe us £950. Call back.
You going to court. Call back.
And all the while he looked after his mum and knew nothing of the torrent of calls aimed at the mobile phone in the police evidence store room.
He found out in the end of course. And his smouldering mental health issues started to burst into life. Pills and pills and pills. Letters and letters and letters.
A new claim.
Your’re on the Universal Credit now my boy. You need to spend 35 hours a week…..
Oh! It appears you owe your social landlord £950. What a very bad boy you are. A very bad boy indeed. We can’t have little toe rags like you owing their social landlords £950. That really will not do at all. So. Here it is. You are due £250 a month to keep your nasty little body and soul together. But you won’t be getting £250. Oh no. Not from us. Not from Wolverhampton. You see we are going to take away £130 a month and give it to your social landlord. OK? No? Well tough. Live with it. Toe rag.
So it’s food parcel time because £30 a week really isn’t enough to keep your body and soul in a state of togetherness. Well I don’t think it is. But I guess there will be a queue of Government Ministers out there somewhere ready and raring to explain that £30 a week would be more than enough for them to be absolutely fine and dandy.
Hopefully I will be taking him along to meet Joan McAlpine MSP this afternoon. There’s not a cat in hell’s chance of her doing anything about the good folk of Wolverhampton. But maybe she’ll find a way to persuade the good folk at the registered social landlord to make a bit more nice.
And then there were three.
Yesterday morning saw me driving six miles along the same road bordered by the same dry stone walls as my man walked a few days earlier on his forced march to Dalbeattie sawmill.
In the same Atlantic storm.
In the same grey November rain.
To the third tale of woe. A poster boy for rural poverty. A man with a wrecked back and a tonne of debt. They say they are switching him from DLA to PIP. One set of initials to another. A thing that should be simple but isn’t simple. And of course it is all cocked up. And of course they have left him to live on fresh air. And a bus pass is something of a lottery. The road to Dumfries is full of potholes and should the bus hit a single pot hole in the wrong way, the resulting jar of his back can be enough to leave him bedridden for a week.
So I always figure it is best to drop his food off.
We chatted and he told me of a time a few months ago when his back seized whilst he was in bed. He couldn’t get himself up. He couldn’t really move at all.
One day and two days and three days.
And he lives on his own. And nobody much calls round to his little cottage at the end of a long track.
No water. No food, And worst of all was a packet of fags lying on a table a mere three inches beyond the reach of his grasping fingers.
So near but so far. The kind of thing those wicked Chinese jailers used to use to break the spirit of a western prisoner of war in the Korea. Back in the day.
Thankfully his GP arrived for a home visit and passed him the packet of fags.
Maybe he’ll get some cash soon. Maybe he won’t. Somewhere he is a set of numbers which a computer is attempting to link up to another set of numbers.
And they are but three tales of woe in the midst of hundreds of thousands.
In the wet greyness of Britain in November 2015.
Hanging by finger tips onto a high wall that stretches to the horizon and beyond.
Bodies dropping one by one. Bodies swept from their tenuous grip by the raging Atlantic storm.
Just like the leaves on the trees really.
I think we are about to be busy in our work.