Monday, 15 September 2014

Young, Homeless and Disenfranchised

Why do some, if not most young people feel disenfranchised?

Someone asked me to write a post about this topic yesterday, and although I don't know much about most young people, I do know something about the homeless youth, especially those who are currently living in homeless hostels around the country.

I will begin by telling you about my time in a youth hostel that I ended up in when I was 18, shortly before I turned 19. In a previous post called 'A Short Memoir' I touch on it very lightly. Although I cannot remember everything that happened during my time there, I will write about things I do remember. Now, there was a long waiting list to get into The Cambridge Youth Foyer, I was advised by my then Connexions worker to tell the advisor at Hobson House that I only wanted to go into The Foyer, the others she told me were horrible, unsuitable- rough. With this knowledge in hand, I told the advisor at Hobson House that I would only accept The Foyer. The friend I had been living with wanted me to move out. I was there living with her family for about 6 months at that point; I had outstayed my welcome. Within 2 weeks I had got a place due to being a priority. 

The Foyer was newly built by English Churches Housing Group (ECHG), now they are merged with Riverside. They had and still have a hostel solely for adult homeless people, and the Foyer was built just for the young. As soon as I arrived, my keyworker filled in forms for various benefits including Job Seekers and Housing Benefit. That was the day I became trapped like all the other young people living there. The rent was £189 at least per week. The Housing Benefit covered less so we had to pay the difference. 

I was still adamant on carrying on with my education, which I later found out that I could not complete as I had missed out on 7 months of it. But I did carry on going back to Ely where I had been staying to do work experience at the local newspaper. After a while I left because I couldn't afford to catch the train and I saw my father a few times which made me afraid. I got to know other residents the the hostel, who like me had problems with their parents too. I remember distinctly celebrating Christmases with many of them, as they too didn't have anywhere to go. I remember still holding onto my own personal goals of succedding in life, doing well, showing my father that I was capable of being successful but it shocked me to see almost everyone else had lost that fire. The hostel had stages of accomplishments. Everyone started off living in a shared house, then moved into either the disabled flat or straight into their own flats, and from then they would move into the community by being given a council flat. 

At my first meeting with the key worker assigned to me I noticed that she had printed lots of my poems from my website 'for reference'. And although she and her subsequent replacements helped me and supported me throughout my stay, I cannot say that this has been the case for everyone. 

As time went on- I was there for about 4 years, I too began to lose hope:

Firstly, if you got a job while living there, you had to pay almost all of your money towards rent as Housing Benefit would lower the amount it paid in rent. I got a part time job shortly after moving in, the benefits office completely stopped all my benefits, even though I was only working part-time. I wasn't earning enough to pay all my rent, and even though they restarted again, they did not back pay which meant that I was in rent arrears. 

Secondly, this had a huge affect on me, all my savings went on the rent arrears and for the first time in my life, I was genuinely poor. And as I was still living in fear, and still trying to be strong, everything fell apart. I tried to do a diploma but couldn't do it. I worked more to pay rent, afford food, but the more I earnt the more rent I had to pay, and the less I had in a pocket. In the end, I just broke. Everything ended. Now, I was just like everyone else at the Foyer, jobless, without purpose until I was told about the Mill Road Bridge Project. It took away my mind from thoughts about being a failure. We were given a number of months to complete our designs, and I must say I took my time on that.

Thirdly, my key worker told me I had to go to the doctor and get meds for depression or I would not get a flat. I had been penalised. I was effectively being told that if I didn't agree to them I would end up being thrown out. Even arguing that I would seek counselling wasn't enough. I was angry and upset but I went nonetheless. My doctor told me I was suffering from Severe Clinical Depression. I thought at the time that my life was over, and even to this day it has a huge effect on my life. I tried lots of different meds but none of them helped me. I started The Prince's Trust Programme. It helped me build my confidence again. I felt better doing it as well as the Mill Road Bridge mural design. I was busy at last, but as soon as the programme finished and the bridge was painted (my design won and you can see the picture of it to the top right), I was once again overtaken by depression. Then I got the back problems, one day my back just started hurting, and despite the meds making me feel numb, the pain still remained. I didn't leave the room for 2 months in a go once. When I finally emerged, I had lost the skills to socialise with people. The 2 months are still a blur. I don't remember much of it, and no one came looking for me. 

Fourthly, when my back went bad, my key worker had managed to put me on another benefit that meant that I didn't have to sign on after finishing the programme. But as I still had a lot of arrears from the time I was working, I was paying most of my money towards rent. If I didn't pay the amount they wanted me to I was told I would be thrown out. I remember I felt like I needed to do something with my life and so got a voluntary position at a local bookshop, and then also at a local radio station, and then also began meeting up with a local youth group that worked for equality. But whilst I was doing all this, I was told by DWP I couldn't work. I felt sanctioned, afraid but I carried on doing all that I could. I can't fully remember everything that happened right now, but at the time I was in a lot of pain all the time. I remember being crippled in pain and none of the meds ever worked, they just made me feel zombified most of the time. Thanks to my key worker though, I did manage to go on lots of different courses. As I was still in arrears I didn't always have a lot of money. I remember the time I didn't have enough money to buy some jam or bread. I had 80p on me until the next week, all I had at home was rice and mint sauce. That's all I ate. I remember an old friend seeing me not eating and telling her mother, who ordered me food and had it delivered. I'm still thankful for it. 

Eventually, I was moved to the disabled flat which I shared with a friend I had made there. And after a while she too started volunteering at the local bookshop. But like me, she too was afraid of working because she knew that she would end up paying most of it in rent.

Fifthly, going on from the previous point, the hostel workers wanted us to go forward in life. They cared about us. But it was the system that was corrupt. I remember making another friend there who had just moved in and went through the same motions as me. She too had got a job when she moved in, but she too ended up paying most of it in rent, eventually she began working full -time, then over time just to be able to pay rent and then have some left to feed herself. But the more she earned, the more they asked in rent. Whilst the girl I lived with and I were still paying more and more money to repay our arrears. 

Eventually, I moved into a flat there, and after a year I moved into the apartment I currently live in.

So, why are young homeless people feeling disenfranchised? Maybe because they have so many problems that it's hard for them to look above the clouds that are constantly raining on them. Or maybe it's because the only help they get after their parents shit on them is under threat. Due to the lack of social housing a lot of these young people have been moved into the adult hostels which are rife with drugs and violence. What's worse is that due to cuts the residents no longer have a permanent key worker. Most of the staff are from agencies, they don't really know the residents well, and nor do they really care. Then there's the issue of knowing that these young people are below the poverty line, and that no one really wants to listen to them or engage with them. 

While I was designing the Mill Road Bridge mural, most of the residents used to come and sit in my room, encouraging me to keep going, offering me any help they could. Someone even donated all their colouring pencils to help me finish the drawings. It was their way of having their voices heard because up until then and then afterwards they were once again trapped and invisible. 

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