In the dank, damp grey of this afternoon, I stood today and watched a woman fall apart. She was being gently surrounded by security guards. They let her approach me, she asked me clumsily for a light, grabbing the lighter from me to light her dogend of a cigarette and saying “I kin do it” before glancing at me side-on and giving it back to me.
She had an unmistakable walk, that of someone whose cares weigh so heavily on their soul, it tells on their body. A slightly uneasy, out of synch gait propelled her back into the light circle of people around her.
She stood, her head bowed, both resigned to her fate and jittering with energy. In the space they gave her, she marched up and down, opened her carrier bag, marched sideways, talked to herself a bit and sighed.
One of the guards came and stood beside me. “Careful” he said. I asked what had gone on. He gave me a potted history. She had come in, been given notice to leave her hostel accommodation because she had beaten up a resident and stolen her money. At that point, with nothing left to lose, she picked up and hurled a desk at staff, yowling obscenities and threats before being asked to leave. She left, but not before assaulting the guard. I noticed his face was bleeding.
They were waiting for the police to arrive, engaged in an ancient dance of tenderly keeping her under control in public, whilst not stifling her. The police, who would have graded this as a minor matter in a schedule of murders and assaults, were taking some time. The guards had to keep her safe, keep people safe from her and do their best to keep themselves safe too.
Someone came out, in a suit. A minute or so later, she noticed him. She walked up to him with as much dignity as she could muster , the guards parting on either side to let her through. “’Scuse me” she said. “I want to get out of here. I want to get out of this town. Tried ‘plaining to them in there, but they won’t LISTEN!” Mr Suit waited for her to go on.
So did I.
She said “I didn’t mean t’hurt him. I just got SO MAD. They WON’T LISTEN TO ME. I don’t have ‘nough to live on, I can’t make it with what they give me and now they are givin’ me less. I’m gonna starve. I can’t do it. Why does this town give me less than I had before? I just want t’ live Mr, just want T‘LIVE!”.
She broken down then and sobbed. I took a good look at her. She was neat, tidy and her clothes were grubby. No money for a laundry and certainly no washing machine.
Down on her luck and trying desperately to find a way out, she had been met with a wall. She continued.
“Please Mr, I know the police are comin’, but I don’t wanna go back to jail. I can’t fix THIS” as she pointed to herself and her surroundings, “in jail. I am just gonna get worse. I am really sorry for what I did but I got so MAD, they wouldn’ listen.”
The man in the suit tried to comfort her as best he could whilst they waited for the police.
I left then, not able to do a thing for her and not able to stand there and watch the last shreds of her dignity dissolve.
Some of her benefits had been taken away, leaving her well below the breadline. Her one lifeline – gone.
She is not someone who has never worked. She is not someone who lives in a council flat, with a flat screen television and a car outside.
She had a job and a life and a home and then something happened and it all slipped away from her.
Having some benefits and a place to stay meant that she could stabilise her life, take a breath, start again and try and build back what she had lost. It’s gone now.
She hasn’t a hope in hell of “fixing herself”. Two assault charges and homeless to boot will probably mean a jail sentence. Once out, she will have even less of a chance to find a job, claw her way back to a life where she can survive, go back to being proud of herself.
She is not the ne’do-well our current government would have you believe she is. She is not unwilling to work – there is none. She is not unwilling to better herself – she can’t.
The benefits staff can’t help – the withdrawal of benefits is not their decision. The fact that she has now lost a roof over her head, however poor, because in desperation, she tried to steal money means that they have to evict her, for the safety of the other residents. Her desperation resulting in her violence, for which she was immediately sorry, has no cure. There is nothing for her.
The security staff can’t help. They did what they could to keep her safe and calm. They listened to her. They couldn’t help her, but they treated her with dignity and respect. The reason why they did this is probably because they are not so far from the precipice themselves. They don’t earn a lot. If any of them were to lose their jobs and not be able to earn for a few months, their homes and their lives would quickly follow. They had a job to do but it was clear they were going to do it with humanity and compassion.
Also, in the last few months, they have had a lot of practice.
More and more, they are taking the brunt of peoples’ desperation around the reduction and cancellation of their benefits; the random assigning of labels to mentally and physically ill and disabled people – “able to work“ (even when suffering from acute anxiety); “no longer needs his adapted vehicle” even when unable to walk; “has to apply for three jobs a week” (whilst undergoing chemotherapy to give her a few precious more months with her children).
We are a country that used to pride ourselves on our ability to take care of our vulnerable people and our animals. Now we are neither. Now, we close our eyes and ears to the cries of those dying on our streets and in front of our trains, jumping off bridges, selling their bodies and their souls to survive just one more week, one more month, because it has to get better, right?
Except it won’t. It won’t get better for them or for her. Not now and not ever.
We pretend that we would never get to that stage because we’re good at our jobs, we’re normal, sane people with family and friends and a lifestyle and a 36” television and a car in the garage.
We think of such people as people with problems, people who would never make it – losers, failures, drug addicts … you know what? They all started out like you and me, with hopes and dreams and a life.
Then something happened – a bereavement, an illness, a catastrophe and they lost it all. The safety net that you and I and everyone else in this country have paid through their noses for all our working lives is there is take care of us when we fall. Except it isn’t there anymore.
I couldn’t help that lady today. I don’t have the resources or ability to assist her. I have nothing that would give her life back to her.
All I have is a vote next election.
Too late for her and thousands of others who will suffer the same fate – demeaned by a government intent on persecuting them, criminalised due to their circumstances, in an ever-increasing, speeding spiral of deprivation.
I do have something else though …
It won’t help the lady today, but it will help others, also vulnerable, ill and increasingly just as desperate.
However, instead of throwing desks around and punching people in the face, they are more likely to go home to the roof over their heads they are about to lose because, despite their obvious mental illness, they have been labelled fit to return to work and have lost their benefits and their housing allowance; and quietly take pills, or sit in a warm bath and slit their wrists.
You may not relate to the events in this post. You may still think it may never happen to you (guess what, 25% of people in the UK will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime). You may not want to sign a petition, or protest against the changes the government has made in your name. But please, if you do nothing else to help, sign up to support this charitable foundation – http://5quidforlife.org.uk/.
100% of the money raised goes towards helping those who have lost their benefits and are mentally ill and desperate. No admin fees, no staff charges, nothing except help for them.
5 quid a month will not even buy you a decent bottle of wine but it will help save someone’s life. Not someone’s dignity or house or 36” inch telly, but their life.
*very slight changes have been made to the details above to protect the lady and the staff who tried their best to help her but this did happen today and is truthful in all other respects.