Outside the Baptist church on London Road, I talk with 'John' and 'Mary'. Both are watching the World go by in Brighton, as they often do. Neither are sleeping on the street, though both have suffered homelessness in the past. Both are tired and frustrated with life in Brighton and Hove, and really a country, that crushes the aspirations of the poor. 'John' and 'Mary' are sceptical about the idea of a magazine that challenges the prevailing attitudes of the city to the homeless.
'John', however, though doubtful that a magazine can or will 'make a difference', still wants to discuss the issues that he and 'Mary' faces everyday. 'Mary' wants to discuss their housing situation.
We are often told that the housing situation in Brighton is criticial, that there is a lack of affordable housing, that the housing stock is low and that waiting lists are long for council housing. Some people, however, are excluded from the 'ladder' altogether.
"'John' and I live in separate hostels. I am in St Patrick's Nightshelter. He is at Glenwood Lodge. We are forced to live separate lives. He is in Brighton and I am in Hove. In September, we want to get married. We've wanted to get married for a long time because, even if we've had ups and downs, we love each other. Our situation is absurd. As it stands, Brighton and Hove City Council are paying out over £600 a week in Housing Benefit to our hostels, which keeps us apart. £600 a week is a huge amount of money to be paying a couple to live apart, I think you'll agree."
"The Council pay £288 a week to Glenwood Lodge in Housing Benefits for 'John'. There is also a 'top-up- fee' of £18 a week that 'John' has to pay. To my hostel, the Council pay £298 a week. I have to pay £10.50 a week extra in a top-up fee for St Patrick's hostel. That is a huge amount of money for Councils to be paying out at a time of recession. Of course, we want to get married and live together. We'd like to live together now. Why are the Council paying out nearly £600 a week to keep us apart, when they could save money in the long term if they helped us to either get council housing to raise a deposit for a one-bed flat or studio flat in Brighton? Even if a one-bed flat in Brighton costs £600 a month, though we'd accept a studio for £450 a month, the Council would still save loads of money in putting us through a private tenancy. A private tenancy of £600 a month would still only work out as £150 a week in terms of housing benefit. That would save the British taxpayer £450 a week! The Council are just squandering money like its water!"
It has long been the opinion of the editor of The Eye of a Needle that all is not what it seems with regard to the homeless hostels of Brighton and, in particular, their relationship with Brighton and Hove City Council. Brighton and Hove City Council are at the coal face of the homeless epidemic in the United Kingdom, caused by various individual circumstances. However, it is clear that the hostels, most of which are not ran by the Council, but by private limited companies, are making a great deal of money off the backs of the poor.
If the average British taxpayer understood just how much private hostel companies are creaming off the system, there would be a sense of national scandal. Brighton and Hove City Council preside over this staggering waste of taxpayers money and have never done anything to bring the hostels of Brighton to book. Neither do they look at alternative options for the poor and homeless. The hostels system is a merry-go-round in which the poor are used and exploited so that extortionate rates of housing benefits can be paid to unscrupulous hostel owners. The poor get meagre accommodation (often just a room), while whoever owns the hostels in Brighton, presumably, drives around in an expensive car. This is a scandal that recently hit St Patrick's Nightshelter when it was discovered that the board of trustees was made up of the family of the vicar who founded the shelter - and they were paid handsome salaries.
'Mary' maintains that when she talked to St Patrick's hostel and asked whether they thought she would be able to get onto the council housing ladder with her fiance, she was told, "Don't bother. You're not even going to get accepted onto the list." Why? "Because of my criminal record and history, it is unlikely, perhaps impossible, that the Council will accept me and John onto their housing waiting list. The only way we could do it is if we went privately with a landlord."
Whatever Mary and John's background, history and past crimes, mostly drug-related, neither of them are extortioners - neither are they racketeers. For that is what the hostels system is in Brighton - extortion - the exploitation of the poor for profit - an exercise in racketeering. Not only that, but it is a system oiled by the Council itself and at huge public expense.
It all makes one wonder why many of these hostels operate at all. Is it in order to 'help the homeless'? Or is ensuring a steady stream of homeless 'clients' just a way of exploiting their situation in order to make alot of money for the hostel owners? The editor leaves that for you to decide.
Jobs, Unemployment, Public Perceptions and Crime
'John' is depressed about his and 'Mary's' situation.
"The worst thing about my situation is that I know I can't get work. The only work I can get is a little bit of building and labouring here and there, but at the moment my body couldn't take it. I think people look at the homeless and the poor and think they are idle and just want to live off the State. Nothing could be further from the truth. If companies actually employed me, and many of the people who live in hostels to work for a living - a real living - then offending rates would be cut half probably overnight. What me, and these kids who are coming out of prison for drugs, need, is work - a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Something to do! I want to work!"
"I want to be able to work and to come home after work and be able to look at 'Mary' and know that I am providing for her.
"Living off state benefits does nothing, absolutely nothing for my self-esteem or anybody elses! If they paid people £25,000 a year to live on benefits, they'd still take drugs and commit crime - but if people were employed, then it would be different. Ex-cons don't, I believe wouldn't, rob off an employer because, as the saying goes, we don't "sh*t on our own doorstep". We have a morality. We have morality. It is just that there is no incentive to be law abiding, because good behaviour isn't encouraged - only crime is punished!"
So, why is the re-offending rate so high?
"Look. You've got all these kids and adults going to jail for drug-related offenses. They go to jail, but, at least in jail, they get three square meals a day and they work there. They work. It might be menial work. It might be kitchen work, it might be gardening or cleaning. They even do courses and NVQs. I've got NVQs coming out of my ears. But it makes no difference to your life on the outside, because when you come outside, back into the World, no employer wants anything to do with you. You'll apply for work, like I've applied for so many jobs, but you'll never find work because of your criminal record. They talk about rehabilitation. There is no rehabilitation for the man with a criminal record because no employer wants to know you! They run a CRB check. They get the CRB check back and then they don't even write to you to explain why you have not been selected for a job! As soon as you've got a criminal record, that's it! There's no forgiveness. There's no mercy. Your life is over, it's all over after your first sentence!"
"If they could set up a workshop of some kind in London Road, or Brighton or outside of Brighton and employ men and women to make things, or employ them to do things, then you'd see the offending rates drop dramatically. We'd probably even make money for our employer, or the Goverment and offending would drop? Why? Because we'd all suddenly have a reason to live! Something to live for! We don't want to sit here all day drinking and being 'anti-social'. But because of our past we are excluded from the rest of society. What else is there to do? What motivation is there to change your life?"
I suggest to 'John' whether he could do volunteering.
"I could volunteer for a while and get three days a week working in a charity shop, but then what? Suddenly, I'm not 'available for work' seven days a week and the jobcentre would cut my benefits because I'm not out there 'actively seeking work'. I'd be punished by the State for volunteering in a charity shop and I'd lose my entitlements because I'm not 'available for work' all week. I wanted to do a course recently. I want to change my career, I'm too old and not well enough for building work, but as soon as I told them that I wanted to do a course in computing, they told me that I'd lose my entitlements because I'd be no longer available for work all week. So, you can't win! If you try and do something positive you are punished."
"Anyway, why should I volunteer when not only would I lose my benefits, but shouldn't I be able to work! Work is a human right! It is about dignity. But no, once you've got a criminal record, you could get all the qualifications in the World, you could volunteer for months and still never get a job at the end of it because once that CRB comes back, and they know your past, they'll never so much as write back to you. If anything is going to change, then at least some employers have to take on people with a criminal record so that they can live a positive life and contribute to society. Either employers should do it or the Government should do it, instead of paying out hundreds of thousands of pounds to probation workers to sit on their backsides in offices all day long dealing with repeat offenders. That is why poor people are kept down, kept poor and why so many re-offend and get involved with drugs again and again. You carry a stigma and that stigma of crime and drugs never leaves you. That is why these ex-cons have no self-esteem or self-worth. You lose your dignity and you can't participate in society. You are excluded from employment, housing and society and then they wonder why people keep re-offending!"
The Stigma of Crime, Poverty and Drugs Stops People from Fulfilling their Potential
'Mary' picks up on the theme that 'John' has been at pains to emphasise - stigma.
"It is exactly the same with housing. The reason that we're not considered worthy to get onto a housing list is because of our past. I'll admit, I've done a lot of drugs, but I want to move on in life and get married to 'John', live in a house or a flat and live normally, but we won't be considered for housing because of our criminal records. It is a stigma that never leaves you. People don't understand this. If you've got a criminal record or you are known to the authorities for any kind of criminal behaviour then you won't be considered for either work or housing. That is what condemns us to the hostels system and that is why the Council will happily pay a hostel a ridiculous amount of money - keeping us apart - perhaps for as long as we live. With no work, the only way we could afford to raise money for a deposit for a private landlord would be through robbery, or drug-dealing, or something else illegal. Obviously, I don't want to go back to anything like that and neither does 'John' but it becomes the only remaining option. To get a house we'd have to commit crime because the Council won't consider us for housing because of our past crimes. We are punished whatever we do and nobody allows us a chance to work, to get employment, to get housing, to lift ourselves out of our situation."
When John and Mary get married (they are marrying for love, not housing) will it make any difference at all to the Council or to their future? Are the Council really going to preside over a situation where a married couple will be living separate lives because they are too poor to access private rental? Are the Council going to continue paying a hostel nearly £600 a week in housing this couple separately? I am sure that at this time of economic austerity, some people would like to know about this astonishing waste of public money.