Stopping the spiral

When you’re living precariously, from day to day, the smallest changes and delays have a much bigger effect than they would on someone with a solid support network and a safe, structured lifestyle.

scales-smWe find it particularly frustrating to hear when clients tell us about issues they’re facing that could have been avoided. Often, it’s down to a client leaving things late or not having the confidence or knowledge to assert themselves. But, equally as often, organisations put unnecessarily bureaucratic processes in place that can make matters considerably worse. Many times, a little consideration – some human understanding of a personal situation, or a small tweak to a process, could quickly make things better and stop things spiralling before they start.

Everyone’s situation is unique and there is usually good reason when things don’t run smoothly. But at Gateway we often find ourselves asking: why should a Pregnancy Outreach Worker’s intervention be necessary? Why does it always seem to take an advocate to step in before things can get moving?

Claire* is a vulnerable teenager who lives in temporary accommodation and has no immediate family. She’s pregnant by her ex-partner, who was violent towards her.

When Claire wanted to apply for Housing Benefit, she needed to show three months bank statements. She didn’t have a phone, so she couldn’t just call the bank and ask… but she also didn’t have the money to travel there in person. And the longer she left it, the further into debt she fell.

Seeing that Claire was at risk of eviction, her POW took her to the bank herself. There, Claire requested the relevant information, only to be told that her account had been closed, and that the statements would have to be posted out. It was only after the POW explained the urgency of the situation that the bank supplied printed statements for Claire to use. But why should we have had to step in?

Most people take a phone for granted. Claire has had to buy a phone – spending money that she really needed for food – in order to manage the basic things in her life. But having a phone doesn’t mean you have it easy – dealing with multiple organisations and agencies can mean long periods of time on hold, and that can quickly use up all the phone credit you have.

Claire’s claim for Housing Benefit eventually went in, but more than four weeks went by before she heard anything more about it. We chased up Claire’s Housing Benefit claim three times before finding out that it had been suspended as they awaited information from her landlord. It took another call from the POW – this time to the landlord, asking him to provide the evidence that the Housing Benefit department needed – before things got moving again.

All these issues create unmanageable stress for someone like Claire. She is already at a high risk and delays like this just make things impossibly difficult. During the time she was waiting for housing benefit, Claire phoned her POW, in desperation, to ask for food parcels – she had no means of buying food or even travelling to other food banks.

Last week, Claire said she is beginning to feel more in control. “I have been to St Basils and they are going to place me in a flat within a week. I feel so much calmer and happier away from my ex. Today you called Healthy Start vouchers and gave them my new address and sorted out my claim for Income Support. We spoke about what I need to get for the baby and you will help with trying to find donations for me. I’m glad I was able to tell you how I felt today.”

But the little things that most people take for granted will continue to be an issue for Claire. Her new flat is safe, but it’s unfurnished, so the POW is helping her to find basic household items from charities and donations. She’s still unable to get a bank account so, even if her life does begin to settle down and she finds she has money left after paying for food, gas and electric, she has no way of saving her cash. And – somewhat ridiculously – because Claire can’t have her benefits paid into an account, she has to spend vital pounds on travel each week just to pick it up.

Sometimes people just need help. It would be great if services could take that into account sometimes and just be a bit more human.

*Names have been changed.

3 comments

  1. Eleanor McGee says:

    You make some excellent points here, and I am sure there are many similar examples that we don’t hear about. How can we hold to account those who adminsiter the Welfare State on our behalf? I was reading some quotes form Malthus the other day, and in nearly 300 years, it seems thinking has not moved on much, if you listen to politcian’s and the tabloids. If people are struggling, it is assumed to be their own fault.

  2. Vicki Fitzgerald says:

    I agree Eleanor, I think using individual stories, really helps agencies to think about the people. We have good examples of this with Birmingham Registry Office recently making small changes to the Birth Registration process to help our new mothers get their Child Benefit quicker – it was very simple, but made a huge difference – more small steps will eventually make bigger change. I think that’s what we are all working for

  3. I can really identify with this situation. As a doula who supports vulnerable women and their families I find that during my home visits I spend a considerable amount of time on my mobile to agencies such as housing dept., benefits agency etc.
    Many of my clients are in crisis; they are not able to chase up payments and housing applications because they can’t get mobile contracts, don’t have money for mobile credit and don’t have enough money for essentials like food, never mind bus fare to travel to and from various agency offices.
    I don’t know what the solution is but as Eleanor said, small changes can often bring about big differences to women and families who are struggling.

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