Visiting a group of homeless people reveals the reality of living on benefits is far from the media stereotype, says Jeremy Swain
Through thick and thin
At the Saturday Club there is a relaxed atmosphere, induced perhaps by the warm spring sunshine and the feel-good factor from the previous day’s royal wedding. The Saturday Club is a self-help group whose members are bound together by the shared experience of homelessness - though most of them are now settled in flats and bedsits in different parts of London.
Every Saturday they congregate at a resource centre in Stockwell to partake of a meal and offer each other friendship, company and mutual support. The morning culminates in a formal news round-up when all in attendance review the week gone by and express their hopes for the coming days.
Share and share alike
At my first visit to the Saturday Club I attempted to get away with a few innocuous platitudes when it came to this moment of reflection, but it was made plain this wouldn’t do. No, instead they wanted to know how my week had really been: the embarrassments, the regrets and the triumphs. The message was that if you want to attend, be prepared to give away a bit of yourself. Members frequently described it as ‘like a family’. David, an engagingly erudite member, explained that ‘the disparate nature of the group reminds you of how odd your own family is’. They enjoy wry humour at the Saturday Club.
At today’s meeting, the conversation is the usual eclectic mix. The ‘trending’ topics are the royal wedding and incapacity benefit.
One attendee called Wonde spent the previous day with the crowds gathered along the Mall. ‘The wedding filled me with much joy,’ he explains. His delight is shared by the other group members. This is emphatically not a group of anti-establishment anarchists. They won’t be laying waste to a Tesco Express near you any time soon.
The issue of incapacity benefit is more prosaic. Two members, Steve and Michael, are in the early stages of being reassessed for this benefit and expect shortly to be moved on to jobseeker’s allowance. They face a reduction in income from £94.25 a week to £64.30 and intensified pressure to find a job.
During a recent flurry of media interest I was interviewed on BBC News 24 on this subject, squeezed between the hotter topics of super-injunctions and that wedding. The premise for the story was that many of those claiming incapacity benefit are obese, addicted to drugs and alcohol, or both. The picture accompanying the story in newspapers and online was invariably of an overweight man or woman, sometimes with a tape measure stretched around a prominent midriff.
There is nothing subliminal about this message. It is very straightforward: the taxpayer is forking out to enable the indolent and addicted to wallow undisturbed in their slothfulness.
This image of the corpulent loafer arises frequently in my mind during conversations at the Saturday Club but resolutely fails to connect with the wholly different reality that I am experiencing.
The fear factor
It jars on two counts. First, it seems to me that it is fear rather than laziness that is deterring Steve and Michael from embracing this forced transition from incapacity benefit to jobseeker’s allowance. Both have been employed in the past and have more recently undertaken training and voluntary work to improve their employability. Neither conform to the work-shy stereotype, but they do fear having to get by on reduced benefits and are not confident that they will be able to find work at a time when the economy remains fragile and jobs scarce.
They name some of the barriers: work records scarred by lengthy periods of unemployment and exacerbated by homelessness, a skills set that is improving but still puts them at a disadvantage when compared with those who have more recently been employed and a continued fragility in both physical and mental health that makes the step to full-time work feel emotionally like an intolerably risky leap in the dark.
The cost of living
The second reason the BBC narrative jars is because the image of the overweight, benefit-dependent idler holds not a shred of relevance in the context of the harsh reality of Saturday Club members’ lives. These people are living at subsistence levels; the margins are incredibly tight. I’ve done the sums with them and, frankly, they just do not add up.
Once utility bills, other housing costs and travel expenses are covered, most have between £5 and £8 a day to spend on food, clothing and basic living expenses. It is hardly surprising that many have an encyclopaedic knowledge of market stalls run by generous traders who, as the day comes to an end, give away unsold food, or the time of day when particular supermarkets are likely to reduce the price of unsold, non-preservable products.
As I share the meal with Saturday Club members, I am acutely aware that over the coming week, for some of them going hungry will not be a self-imposed discipline designed to tackle the problem of overindulging on Easter eggs but, starkly, an unavoidable consequence of not having enough money to be able to eat properly.
Leaving I feel strangely - even perversely - uplifted, though. They are the least sentimental, most upbeat of people, offering each other encouragement, sympathy and practical support, sometimes brusquely, but always compassionately.
Amid the euphoria of the royal wedding the collective experience of the Saturday Club reflects the reality for many in Britain in the spring of 2011; namely that it is grindingly harsh for those who had little and now have less. For the members of the Saturday Cub it’s a case of sticking together, making the best of it and getting on through.
Jeremy Swain is chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach