Beyond Words

It has been a long while since I wrote anything on here… which is where I try to reflect more thoughtfully and slowly on happenings, and to digest how I feel about things. I haven’t written perhaps because life has been so full of happenings, or because I hadn’t begun to digest them, or perhaps because I have been afraid of how I feel about them.

For you, reader, it will be more pertinent if I begin with a few actual happenings.

We’ll zoom quickly in: Internationally an apparent grade 1 egotist with a ridiculous degree of ignorance has managed, by lies and hyperbole, to persuade enough of his nation to vote for him, almost as though it were only a game, that he has become President of North America.

Nationally of course, in a display of thinly disguised xenophobia and short-sighted protest, our island nation has voted by a narrow margin, to cast itself adrift from its neighbours and ‘leave’ the European Union.

Locally, we in this borough have been an experimental region for the government’s latest cost-cutting exercise, ‘Universal Credit’… a system so flawed and complicated that it cannot be named ‘Welfare’ or ‘Benefits’ or ‘Support’ although it replaces all of those, and so slow to move into action even when correctly operated, that successfully poverty-stricken and desperate recipients find themselves, after the eight week delay in initial payments, even more desperately in debt than before (if they have been so impractical as to continue eating or feeding their children during that limbo period) and often homeless too.

Take Steve (name changed but only that). Steve had a bedsit and although he did not own a computer, and was not familiar or comfortable using one, when he went down to the JobCentre and found that his job seeker’s allowance and housing benefit was moved to Universal Credit, his landlord took all his ID from him and inputted the details onto her computer and kept him logged on regularly (there is an online journal to complete) so that he would not lose his housing benefit and would keep paying the rent. When Steve became uncomfortable with his landlord having all his ID, passwords, bank details, birth date, proof of ID etc, on her computer, and spoke to her about it- they fell out. Shortly after, she found a reason (walking downstairs with an unlit cigarette to go outside for a smoke) to give him a formal warning and then a week or so later she got a couple of large friends of hers to evict him. He did not argue as the atmosphere was unpleasant and it was hardly ‘home’. Since he left with only a small threat of violence and a lot of threats (but no formal ‘eviction’ process), he was then classed as ‘voluntarily homeless’ and no longer eligible for housing benefit (one part of the Universal Credit funds). So, being an honest chap, he went and informed the JobCentre that this was the case, and they updated his record with the address of the new ‘bedsit’ (B&B) where he had gone to in this emergency, and which was now costing considerably more than the bedsit (£20 a night), and, as he had ‘voluntarily’ become ‘homeless’ – they stopped his housing benefit – as he knew they would.

So now he was paying much more to stay in a B&B, with much less money coming in… so he was paying out of Jobseeker’s allowance-  his food money really. After a few days the B&B was just too expensive, and the remaining money ran out – (please note, Steve is not a drinker or an addict-  although interestingly if he were, he would have received a little bit more state money, as an incentive to avoid using crime to fund his habit… an incentive that doesn’t work, naturally. Anyway, he isn’t an addict so its just the flat support rate from someone totally out of work, but looking). Now in order to PROVE he is looking for work, Steve is having to ‘logon’ to his journal and search for jobs several times a week for a set amount of time as well as attending regular meetings and appointments at the JobCentre. The first part of this is unfortunate- logging on- because, being very poor indeed, and homeless, Steve does not own a ‘Smartphone’ or have a ‘Laptop’ – he has a very small pushbutton phone with very little credit on it.

So in order to keep his reduced Universal Credit allowance, now that his landlord is no longer holding all his details, Steve has to walk (of course walk, he doesn’t own a bicycle or car, or horse, or scooter, or roller skates), Steve has to walk 2 miles  into town in the winter weather, and queue up to log on to the small bank of library computers… which of course have their regular Jobseekers in situ. Or to go to the JobCentre, which now has very few computers, and a queue – during opening hours.

Of course the trouble is, that after walking for half an hour (better than the hour it used to take from the other landlord but still not great) in the freezing winter weather, on an empty stomach, Steve’s brain is not in the best possible place to fill out his journal and complete job applications or update his CV. Also the system is new, and Universal Credit is confusing even the professionals who are there to support… so when the 17 page form needs updating, or something gets stuck (because out here on the East Coast of England, the Internet access, even from council buildings, is patchy and sometimes fails)… then Steve, who is not great on computers, needs to ask for help.

So he is directed to phone the helpline. But the helpline costs money. And Steve’s phone does not have credit – because he is very very poor, and homeless, and if he’d had enough money to make a phonecall to the helpline, then he would have used that money to buy himself dinner that day… but actually he spent it all on the B&B so he will just have to be content with breakfast and be glad he has a bed. Though he tries the helpline from the JobCentre’s one single phone at his next appointment… and they are sorry but they have no information and cannot help- because the Universal Credit system is only experimental, and they can only offer help for the old systems.

Oh, I forgot…that as I mentioned four paragraphs back, the B&B is more expensive than the bedsit was, and actually he doesn’t have enough money to pay for it. So he has to leave. So now he is really totally homeless. No roof, no bed, no money. Actually he has a sheet of tarpaulin and his sleeping bag, and he beds down in an unattended corner round the back of a church. But he still has to turn up to his JobCentre appointments and fill out his journal, or the last of his money will be stopped and he won’t even be able to eat once in the day. He pretends that the B&B address is still correct, because if he tells the government exactly HOW homeless he is… that he really has NO address, then they will stop ALL his money.

… It goes on. The ‘up’ side is that after months of planning we started a Winter night shelter the week Steve was really totally homeless… and he was the first guest. It shocked me.

Maybe you are thinking: ‘You’re supposed to follow Jesus, why didn’t you do more?… you clearly have a computer, a home, food etc… Why didn’t you feed him, help him, house him?’

Well actually, Steve has used this computer, the one I’m typing on now, to fill out some of his ‘online journal’ to obtain his credit… and he hates it, computers that is- it is HE who explained how cold and inhuman the system is, how he really would rather speak to a person, and how he feels pity for the people in the Job Centre trying to make bricks without straw… Yes he has taken shelter in the Church, we have fed him many times, we’ve turned all the heaters on him and made him hot drinks, and the first night that the nightshelter we were working to open, opened in January, I drove him over there to make sure he was welcomed, and I got his feedback afterward about the experience. (Okay, but the risk assessment forms we have to start with were almost the straw that broke the camel’s back… for someone constantly having to attend appointments and interviews). He’s sofa-surfing now, and one of the parishioners is storing the stuff he owns that he can’t carry around, whilst he STILL tries to make the system work just a little bit- even though he knows damn well it is broken, we all do.

And also, I can’t do all that needs to be done, Steve is not my only parishioner… and in my parish he is not alone in these difficulties… he is one of very very many and one of many whom I care about. And I must be here for more than one person … sometimes for a lot of people at once, and sometimes for one at a time, sometimes for someone who was a stranger and sometimes for my own family, sometimes for colleagues and sometimes even for myself.

So all I can really do is acknowledge Steve for who he is, he is not an anonymous homeless person, he is Steve, a bit of a philosopher, keen on gardening, and with an NVQ in community theatre… Steve who I bought shortbread biscuits for not as charity but AS A CHRISTMAS PRESENT because he’d helped out round the church… YES I would like to employ him at church… but we are a really poor parish and I haven’t worked out HOW yet.

Anyway… that is just ONE of the happenings that has happened lately… and I am not feeling very philosophical or theological about it – because it is wrong and broken and getting worse.

But I will not give up- that’s the theological bit. I will stay and see and listen, and maybe even manage to help out a little bit… but mostly I will just stay, and be here and not give up. Because Steve matters, and so does Jasmine, and Andy, and Alan and Brian and everyone else…old and young, poor, and occasionally even rich.

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About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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