All in it together? – June 2013

FRANK McGACHEY

A lifelong social activist reports on the impact of government social policy on homeless people with complex needs and argues that our response has to come from their perspective.

Much is written from a Glasgow/ Edinburgh metro perspective. This article comes from a place far, far away, beyond the Fenwick Moors. Where people use ‘ken’ and live in places like Muirkirk, where the open cast coalmines once were.
I work with complex needs homeless. To understand who these are is easy. Think of the worst person who could move in next door to you. That is who I work with alongside 10 staff. They are the undeserving poor. To me they are just poor and not just in money. They are lonely, angry, sexually and physically abused. Hopeless addicts and/or the mentally ill caught up in an expensive criminal justice, health and social care system that works for the many but not for these few.
This country formerly had a system of ‘social security’. Tony Blair introduced ‘welfare’ from the US; this term is now used by the present government. Words in the poverty game are political. One indicates the state taking care of its citizens. The other indicates the state providing handouts to dependants. In this article I use social security. It is a small jump from welfare to the deserving and undeserving poor.
Writing of words, the ‘bedroom tax’ comes to mind. If you draw housing benefit (HB) and live in a house that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) deems as having more bedrooms than you should have, then your benefit is cut. In Ayrshire, it is £9 a room a week. North Ayrshire Council has worked out that it will take 13 years to rehouse those affected.

Jobs
In Irvine, 14 unemployed people chase one job. In Cumnock & Doon Valley – former mining areas – it is 17. But you could travel. Really? From Cumnock to Glasgow by bus? Do you know how much that costs?
Now here’s a twist. The DWP introduced ‘Universal Jobmatch’, another US import, last year. Claimants register on line with a password. A condition of receiving benefit is that you ‘actively seek work’. This portal allows the DWP to monitor you doing it. If you don’t search for these non existent Ayrshire jobs at least three hours a week – you may be sanctioned.
One of my relatives signed on at the Jobcentre as unemployed. He works for a jobs agency. In order to get round European legislation on permanent jobs, the agency he works for makes him unemployed once a year and he has to sign on. The DWP staff member threatened him with being sanctioned if he was late for his next appointment. He replied that he was not going to get any benefit anyway as his wife worked. He also asked if he could sanction the DWP who had kept him waiting 20 minutes because they were running late. It fell on deaf ears.
Incidentally, he works as an agency worker with that well known drinks company, who, with others, is taking the Scottish Government to Court over minimum alcohol pricing. You know the one that earns a billion pounds in profit each year? He comes under the term ‘job flexibility’ – another US import.

Homelessness
From 2001, the Scottish Government made a commitment to address homelessness. They backed the words with money. Homelessness is down a third to a half in local authority areas. Homeless families no longer live in B&Bs. The big hostels in Glasgow are history. Support for the vulnerable is now in place. This is the Good News that the Gospel is about.
Or it was Good News until the benefit changes on 1st April.
Getting technical, homeless people often move into Temporary Furnished Flats (TFFs) on being assessed. The local council charges up to £250/week to provide furniture and staff for housing support. The UK Government changed the rules. The councils must charge rent plus £60 a month. The result? Council homeless services are in jeopardy.
In addition the UK Government has decided to charge the ‘bedroom tax’ to TFFs, hence increasing rent arrears. The alternative is they go into private lets with one bedroom
– these are funded through Local Housing Allowance funded by the State which is more expensive than Housing Benefit funded by the State.
Suffice to say that homelessness is about to jump in Scotland.

Religion
We are all made in the image and likeness of God. So are the poor. We all are dignified as children of God. It is not on for any government to make divisions between those that have and those who have not.
Further, God’s love for us is not dependent on whether we have a job. The classic story is of St Paul getting steamed into the Christians for not working. In fact, they were sitting about happy clapping for the Kingdom to come. Nothing to do with unemployment.
Jesus Christ did not come just for those who received the Word and believed. He came for those who were lost in the wilderness (Luke 15:1-7). It is significant that the Evangelicals in Ayrshire have got that message loud and clear through day centres and food banks.
The Word is incarnate among the poor as well as the comfortable middle classes who like to see ‘both sides of the argument’ and effect a compromise. We are required to get in touch with poverty in our own lives as well as in those around us if we are to remain true to the teachings of the Gospel.
Fairness is not a Christian word. The word is justice. Fairness is from enlightenment philosophy. Justice is from Christian theology as updated by liberation theology. It is not about being balanced. It is about seeing from the perspective of the poor and acting accordingly against the structures of injustice that oppress.
Taking the demand for justice on board, the Jesuits in Georgetown University took on Paul Ryan, the 2012 US conservative Catholic Republican vice presidential hopeful in the following words: As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress, ‘A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons’. Catholic bishops recently wrote that ‘the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria’. In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Secretary of State for Work & Pensions is a Catholic. I await the Jesuit Community in the UK publishing a similar repost to his social security cutbacks and money saving changes.
As the private educated, Oxbridge professional political elite who run the Labour/Tory/Lib Dem Parties, try to pull us out into the middle of the Atlantic, they are undermining the social security we have historically offered our citizens.
We now live in one the most unequal societies in the world.
It is not me that I am worried about. My pension plan is in place. It is the next generation faced with a private capitalism that no longer serves the common good that I fear for, as unemployment and poverty move up the social scale with the social security safety net taken away.
Survival of the fittest is not part of Catholic Social Teaching.

Frank McGachy has worked at the poverty coal face for 36 years in a variety of initiatives from food co-ops to credit unions to base Christian communities. Seventeen of these years have been spent working with homeless people.

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