Life on the edge: getting by in recession torn Britain

‘Shirker’ is an interesting word. A shirker is someone who avoids doing work, originating from the German word schurke, meaning rogue. That, according to some politicians, is what you are if you are not a striver. My colleague Iunus was a rogue. He had an expensive heroin and crack habit and shoplifted three times a day along Oxford Street to sate it. He specialised in stealing women’s lingerie. Easy to wrap up in a ball and insert along the arms of your jacket. He was good at it too and at his peak (or nadir) he stole to order, following precise instructions on size. He puffs out his cheeks and shakes his head with shame as he remembers that life.

If you shoplift with that regularity there is a price to pay and Iunus has been to prison on more than 20 occasions with a maximum stay of four months. He moved through the classic recidivist cycle – short sentence, little discharge preparation, out on the streets on release, early renewal of relationship with his dealer, a few months out and back to prison.

Things are not the same for Iunus. Something happened.  People showed faith in him, he stopped using hard drugs, improved his English, developed some skills, changed his attitude. In short, he made himself employable. He is currently the smiling face you meet at reception at our new centre, the Employment Academy.  He is utterly trusted.  He greets guests, prepares rooms for events, reports repairs, opens the building in the morning and locks up at night. 

He’s facing some challenges, is Iunus. This is bleak mid-winter in double-dip recession Britain.  Iunus is one of the working poor and he has a criminal history that is dead and buried but the ghost of it can still arise to snap at his heels. You may think you have some embarrassing gaps in your CV, but explaining twenty spells in prison in a job interview is possibly on a different level. Iunus claims no welfare benefits at present and doesn’t intend to. The welfare benefit reforms appal him and he believes he will be completely undone by the bureaucracy involved in making a fresh claim. He steps forward for as many shifts with different Thames Reach teams as is permissible. This week when he was not at the Employment Academy he was doing outreach work in Croydon. It’s a tense business juggling shifts to bring in the £400 a week needed to survive in his housing association flat. He reels off the bills – council tax, rent, gas, water, electricity; a mantra with the familiar monotony of the shipping forecast. He’s got some great skills. Not just an instinctive understanding of how to deliver good customer care but fluency in Portuguese, Urdu, Hindi, English and Spanish. 

C-jae shares reception duty with Iunus in a voluntary capacity. He grew up in south London and trained in repro-graphics. In the current economic climate jobs in this specialist area are scarce. C-jae has struggled to find work, at one stage boldly establishing his own t-shirt printing business with New Enterprise Allowance funding, available to people on Job Seeker’s Allowance, investing money in a heat press and focusing on e-bay sales. But the bureaucracy did for him with delays in NEA payments leading to rent arrears and eventually the loss of his accommodation. He sofa hopped for four months, using up the goodwill of friends, eventually being given help to access a basic studio flat in the private rented sector where he pays £800 a month, scraping in under the Local Housing Allowance ceiling. 

C-jae is grittily determined. He’s got himself a further qualification, an NVQ in adult social care and has done a training programme called volunteering to employment to extend his skills set. He’s feeling anxious as his landlord will not be renewing his assured short-hold tenancy and there is the looming prospect of being assigned to the Work Programme. C-Jae is of the view that joining the Work Programme will hamper his chances of getting a job when he is so close to finding one. He’s heard stories of daily appointments and copious paperwork that he fears will act as a restraint, causing him to lose momentum, break stride. He grimaces as he describes the inflexibility of his job centre where he was informed, wrongly, that he could only do 16 hours a week as a volunteer without his benefits being affected.

C-jae talks eloquently about the great blanket of depression that can cloak you when you face long-term employment and the sweaty fear that grips when you think too long about having to get by on £71 a week JSA and live in accommodation where a landlord’s whim can leave you once again having to knock on the door of friends to plead for a few days kip on the sofa.

This evening the three of us lock up and leave the building together. They are remorselessly cheerful as we go our separate ways. Two men striving to find a way of climbing up towards the sunlit uplands of housing and job security and maybe even a loving relationship too but who sometimes appear to be walking close to the edge of a very precipitous drop. Maybe it’s the bitter cold and smothering January darkness, but unlike them I am gripped by a bout of despair.  There is no getting away from it; these are wretched times.    

This article was published in Inside Housing magazine on January 25th 2013