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Being on benefits is not a life style choice

I am fed up with the ignorant and rude comments made about people on benefits.  I would like to say what it is really like to live on benefits.

  • When people describe it as ‘choosing to live off the government’, I would like to point out for most people it was not a choice.  I did not sit in school and think; when I grow up I want to live on benefits.  I had dreams and ambitions the same as most young people do.
  • Being on benefits does not automatically make me a lazy person.  I volunteer for three local good causes and try to be an active part of my local community.
  • I am not on befits because I am stupid.  I have various qualifications including a degree.
  • When people say ‘just get a job’ they have no idea how long and hard I tried to get a job.  I spent years applying for work and went to lots of interviews.  I tried really hard at every interview to get the job. 
  • I did not ‘turn down perfectly OK work as beneath me’.  I had an interview at McDonalds, they were the ones to turn me down and I would have willingly taken the job.   
  • Some people on benefits are simply too ill or disabled to work.  They are not lazy; they just know their limitations and know that they would actually be unable to fulfill most job roles to any satisfactory level. 
  • Not everyone on benefits is an addict on illegal drugs or an alcoholic.  I have never taken illegal substances and am not a heavy drinker.  Hardly anyone I know on benefits is an addict.
  • Getting benefits is not as easy as some people think it is.  Claim forms are tricky to even fill in.  Firstly you need internet access these days to get most kinds of benefits which for some people is not always easy.  Secondly the forms are often long and confusing.  If you cannot read or write well they are difficult.  Yes you can get help to fill in a claim from charities, but you often have to be able to get to them and have limited time with them.  You often need proof of certain things which can be hard to get sometimes.  Then they keep changing the rules on who can claim what and how, making it even more confusing.
  • Some people make out immigrants often come here just to live of benefits and can claim them almost as soon as they enter the country.  This is simply not the case as the Full Fact charity explain ‘Most non-EU nationals who are subject to immigration control are not allowed access to “public funds” (such as jobseekers’ allowance or tax credits), although they can use public services like the NHS and education.’  The rules on what immigrants can claim in benefits are complicated, and not as simple as turning up and filling in a form as this article explains https://fullfact.org/immigration/migration-and-welfare-benefits/  
  • Then there are sickness benefits.  On Employment and Support Allowance or Personal Independents Payments you have to have a medical assessment, which is not always easy, without someone with me I would have struggled to find the place it was held.  An awful lot of people fail these medicals, even those who are obviously very sick.  I failed my medical and had to appeal, which meant going to court.  Yes I had to go to an actual court, with a judge and a full on hearing.  This process can be scary, intimidating and somewhat embarrassing.  I had to listen to my support worker list the ways I failed at being an adult, which was not easy to hear, although I know she did it for the right reasons.  Not everyone even has support when they go through this process which must be really scary and I am not sure if I would another time as I no longer have a support worker.
  • I have had people say I should be working and not on sickness benefits because someone else they know who has the same condition as me is working.  Every disability and illness will affect the person with it differently to the next person.  Maybe if I only had that one condition I would be working, but like a lot of people I have a few different things which combine to make it harder.  Some might have had a lucky break finding an employer willing to hire someone disabled or sick, but not every employer is willing to deal with someone who may need more support and time off than the average employee. 
  • People who threaten those on sickness benefits with reporting them to the DWP as they seem perfectly fit and able to work need to mind their own business.  That person may not leave the house on a bad day, so you only see them on a good day when they are able to do more.  They may also only be going out as they simply have to and once they get home again may end up in bed for the next few hours recovering.  My mental health fluctuates and I do not always know if I am going to be able to get out the next day, so holding down a job full time would be very hard.  When people do not fit the stereotype idea of disabled it can result in being judged as a benefit cheat by others which is rarely the case.  
  • Being on benefits does not mean I should never have a night out or go and enjoy myself in some way.  Sick and disabled people can leave the house for more than just hospital appointments.  If I did not get out and socialise I would end up more ill physically and mentally, and then cost society more as a bigger drain on the NHS.  
  • The assumption can be that benefits should only pay for the bare essentials such as food and utility bills, and if I have anything more I must be getting far too much money.  Some people do only get benefits that cover the bare essentials, and sometimes not even that, hence the rise in food banks.  However I live alone and do not have any children so my day to day living costs can be kept quite minimal.  I am careful with money and so can afford to have some social outings and nights out now and then and can afford to have some nice things in my flat.  Besides, a lot of my nicer things are second hand from charity shops or things family no longer wanted, or gifts for birthdays or Christmas.  
  • Some people who judge others for being on benefits may be on benefits themselves but not realise it.  Things like Working Tax Credits, Cold Weather payments and even state pensions are technically a benefit.
  • The stigma of being on benefits is enough to put some people off claiming what they could and only doing so when totally desperate, by which point it might be they left it so long they have made their health worse or ended up in debt.  The nasty comments and societies attitude are putting some people at risk.

The demonising of those on benefits needs to stop.  I am sure a few do cheat the benefits system, but it is a teeny, tiny minority and most are just trying to survive.  Until you have lived on benefits for a while, try not to judge what you do not really know.  Bear in mind the phrase there but for the grace of God go you or I.  Most people are one accident or illness or job redundancy away from needing to claim them. 

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A Paperless Internet Soceity- are we pricing the poor out of modern life?

Last summer for about two weeks or so, I had major issues trying to get on the internet.  Trying to get technology to actually let me online was proving very tricky.  Firstly my mobile phone decided to stop working properly on Facebook, not allowing me to comment on anything or ‘like’ anything.  Slowly more and more Facebook functions died.  For someone who volunteers to help two local charities run their Facebook pages, this was a problem.  I knew I needed a new phone; it was about five years old and slowing down.  So I was using my local library computers, however they started to have their own issues.  Being networked when one computer goes wrong they all start to go wrong.  For most of the summer only about half the computers in the library worked and during this two week period, none decided to work at all.  So I went to use my laptop at my parent’s house, where I often go as they have Wi-Fi and I do not.  That was when my parent’s internet and my laptop stopped communicating.  So my mum said I could use her PC instead, but it was clearly not a fault with my laptop, as her computer could also not get any Wi-Fi signal.  For some reason my mum’s tablet could get online, so I managed a few of the more important tasks on that.  I managed to get my internet issues sorted out eventually, but it got me thinking about how so much of modern life relies on being able to get online. 

I love the internet; it helps me as an autistic person to communicate with others better and to feel connected to the world.  However I can see that it is becoming an issue how so many of our services and day to day functions rely on being online.  I do not have internet in my flat.  Any half decent connection requires a land line, which I also do not have.  So I would have to pay line rental and then broadband costs on top of that.  I live on benefits, which gives me a rather limited budget and Wi-Fi in my flat would eat a significant chunk of that budget every month.  I have managed by using phone data or Wi-Fi elsewhere, but society seems to revolve around the assumption everyone has good internet access.  Job searching requires internet, as does applying for benefits, which means people out of work have to find a way online.  I suspect this contributes to a significant number of people ending up in debt, having expensive phone contracts or taking out loans to pay for broadband. 

News articles come up fairly regularly about internet access and the government role out of broadband so everyone is connected even in rural areas.  They often mention internet speeds, but they hardly ever mention cost.  They talk as if broadband is free, when in fact it can be pretty expensive.  They can install as many fibre-optic broadband cables as they like, but without the means to pay for it or find it elsewhere it is always going to be hard for some people to get online.      

It was not so bad when every town had libraries with computer access to get online, but libraries have now had significant budget cuts and some have reduced opening hours a lot or closed altogether.  When I was on job seekers benefit, the staff at the job centre told us to use the library to get online if we had no internet at home, but if the opening hours are cut drastically there will be a higher demand for computers when they are open, meaning people may struggle to find a computer that is available.  Internet cafes are also increasingly rare now, with most cafes having free Wi-Fi instead, relying on you having a mobile phone or tablet to use it on.

Even if you have internet access it can go wrong and stop working.  On those occasions if you need to get in contact with someone it helps if you can still ring them or fill in a paper form instead.  However more and more companies and services seem to be online only now.  A lot of offices are now going paper free, with the claim that is to save the environment and to make accessing things like files and forms easier.  This is especially the case with a lot of government services such as applying for benefits and housing.  This can work very well, till you find you have no way to get online!

There are charities who try to help with internet access with free computer use or helping you to fill a form in online.  However the computer use is often limited to what the charity is set up to support with, such as a housing charity only letting you on housing based support sites.  My local council have free computer access in reception, but the computers are locked to certain websites such as the DWP to apply for benefits, Devon Home Choice to apply for housing, CAB charity and that kind of thing. 

Another issue can be the equipment you access the internet on.  Be it by laptop, tablet, phone or PC, they all have the potential to go wrong and break down.  Some seem to only last a few years before they die altogether or need upgrading to work with current apps and certain websites.  It is hard to keep upgrading your electronics on a budget.  I am lucky that I got my latest phone as a part birthday gift from my family with me paying for some of it myself.  Not everyone is this lucky.  The poorest people, unless they want to end up in debt can be priced out of an increasingly paperless society.

Moving On

It has been a while since my last blog, but I have a good excuse. I have been busy moving. I have finally moved out of my parent’s house and unlike university this time it is hopefully for good. This is something I have wanted for ages, but I did not think it would be possible for me in the near future. All it took was for me to have a kind of mental breakdown and to feel utterly miserable for months.
I now live in supported housing for those with mental health issues.
Supported housing helps people to have somewhere to live independently, but with support when they need it. There are various types of supported housing depending on need. There is supported housing for those with learning and developmental issues, those with more physical issues and of course for people with mental health problems.
I live in what can be classed as a low support house with staff in weekday nine to five and no staff at all evenings, weekends and bank holidays. Those who need more support may live in a house with staff in evening and weekends, and for those with the highest need there are houses with staff who even sleep in the house just in case they are needed.
The support staff here can help us with things such as benefit and money issues, getting to appointments by helping us work out the public transport to somewhere or even giving us a lift if necessary, helping us organise volunteer work or other things to do, making sure we are getting the help we need with our mental health issues and generally keeping an eye on us to make sure we are safe and managing ok. In some types of supported housing I imagine there is more support with everyday things like cooking and shopping.
One of the main reasons I did not leave home sooner was the cost. Private rent is very expensive, hence so many adult children still living at home with their parents well into their twenties and even thirties. I had looked into social housing (what is now council housing), but it looked almost impossible for me to get any. I then learned there was another way into social housing in the form of supported housing and with my current mental health problems it sounded like it might be a good idea for me rather than jumping straight into living totally alone. Here the costs per person for rent and bills are kept down due to sharing the house between six of us. Most of my rent and bills are covered by housing benefit, with me paying a little bit extra each week on top of that. My main expenses are on food and transport on the bus or train.
So how do you get to live in supported housing? For me it was a case of being honest with myself about having mental health problems that had reached the point I was no longer really coping and going to my GP for help. I was not holding out the greatest hope as I had been to doctors previously about my mental health and they had just upped my medication which I did not seem to help. However last year I changed surgery and this one was proving a lot better for me, so I thought I would see if they could help. My doctor booked me in for a mental health review with a specialist, and actually seemed to take my problems seriously. The mental health specialist came out with a number of suggestions including passing on my details to the local mental health housing guy. It was agreed that living with my parents was not helping me. Part of it was issues with my parents, but also being both jobless and living at home was making me feel stuck, like I had hit a wall and was not able to move forward any more with my life. I needed a fresh start and this place was suggested to me. After visiting the house I had a couple of days to think about it, but I knew almost straight away that I wanted to move in. To live here you must have a statement of need, which for me came from the NHS mental health specialist. Another way into supported housing is through a social worker, but I am not exactly sure how that works. There is also an element of luck in that a space in a house has to actually be available, which sometimes can mean a bit of a wait, but luckily for me this house had a vacant room.
The other great thing about this particular type of supported housing is that after about two years they help you move on into independent housing. The simple fact of having lived in supported housing for more than a few months means you get more chance of social housing in your own flat. The support workers here help you with finding and securing a place to live on your own, with working out things like how to pay and budget for bills, furnishing the place and with the move itself.
This house has space for six residents, all of whom have some kind of mental health problem. It helps to live with other people who understand what having mental health issues can be like. We all understand that mental health issues such as depression can come and go and some days will be better than others. The residents offer peer support to each other, listening and talking together and trying to help when problems arise. Most supported housing seems to be mixed sex and mixed ages, which I find makes life more interesting. You learn more about different ways of living life and how to cope if you have a more varied mix of people.
Before I was offered this place, I did not even know there was such a thing as supported housing for those with mental health problems. I had heard of supported housing for those with learning and developmental issues before, but had never considered supported housing as something that would be suitable for my needs. I thought it was all about helping those who could barely even cook a meal or do their own laundry. Having low support needs I thought I was one of those borderline cases, too special needs to get a job and leave home, but not special needs enough to get any support or help from anyone apart from my parents. So when this place was mentioned I was quite surprised and unsure what to make of it. I did not want to end up feeling institutionalised or like I was back to being labelled as special needs again. I still want to get a job one day and feel like I am contributing to society rather than just existing and sitting around doing nothing all day. I was told it was low support with no staff at all evenings and weekends which is what appealed to me most. They trusted us to be left alone and be independent, but did not totally abandon us.
Before I moved I did of course worry slightly. Would I get on with the other residents, would I get on with the support staff, would I cope living without my mum and having to do more for myself? However I figured I would not know unless I tried and I knew I would regret it if I did not do it. Having now lived here for my first month I am very glad I made the move and feel very lucky to have a place here. It was the right thing for me to do as it has helped me to feel more of an adult, making my own day to-day choices about things and doing far more for myself. I also feel like I have taken the next step with my life and am finally moving forward.

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