During our first Birmingham Poverty Truth Commission some of our Community Commissioners wrote blogs about some of their experiences. Please enjoy reading what they had to say…
Why should being poor cost more?
WHAT IS POVERTY PREMIUM?
Poverty premium is the name used for the extra cost of essential products and services paid by the low household income families, disabled and benefit dependant people in the UK. I myself have suffered because of these unfair charges for essential things for me, my family or home. Examples of these are things like :
High cost credit
Area based insurance rates
Prepay energy meters
Convenience local shopping
Whilst living day to day many of you will be as naive as I was, not realising the reason for my struggle had a name! I just assumed that it was how everyone I knew or lived around me managed and coped. It was just accepted that these were our options and we used them.
Everyone I knew had a prepayment meter for their gas and electric in the cupboard in the hallway. The lady who came around for a cuppa each week and left with most of my family allowance was not in fact my saving grace, my angel, she was ripping me off left, right and centre. Her high interest doorstep loan was a godsend when I had no carpet and the settee was on its last legs. That was until I carried its burden daily, nightly, weekly and monthly. I followed in my mom’s footsteps and clothed us out of the catalogue. I thought this was the natural thing to do, a secret passed on from mother to daughter on how to look good when you’re skint!! That was until I learned I could have bought trainers for £35 in the shops not relying on the 20 weeks for £60 that the catalogue charged. Could I have bought them otherwise? Probably not. Direct debit, contents insurance, Christmas not done on tick were all for posh people. I had no problem standing in a queue at the post office, family allowance book in one hand, a giro in the other and my milk tokens tucked in my back pocket to trade with the little shop around the corner for 10 fags.
During that time did I have the state of mind, patience or confidence to hunt for better energy deals or switch tariffs every 12 months? No, not at all. A computer was something students used at college and uni not for shopping around for best deals. I knew that all insurance was expensive especially because of the areas we were housed in. If you got “robbed” then you could probably go and buy better stuff cheaper in the pub down the road!! What I’m trying to say it was our way of living.
I was luckier than most – my mom and dad would take me shopping in their car for my weekly shopping. Only the best of the best for my family it had to be Aldi and Farm foods, £35 in the first £15 in the second. My mates on the estate would either have to factor taxi fare into their shopping bill or live out of the corner shop costing them a fortune more than I ever paid. Our Friday night treat would be watching tv, praying that the tv licensing van wasn’t on the estate, because I’d just used the license money on chocolate for the kids. We would wrap up in our duvets and get comfy with our pillows snuggled up till bedtime. I never had the heart to tell them their snuggly fun time with mom had saved me from putting the heating on because we were already on the emergency.
Everyone used to live in fear of your washing machine or fridge-freezer breaking down or if it was your cooker you were really screwed. The social fund got dragged out and if you priced your claim in line with the Argos catalogue prices you were pretty much guaranteed to get it. Paying back that loan was never a problem because you only paid back what you borrowed with no added interest. When the letter arrived telling you how much you needed to pay a month which was usually about £20 you’d ring them up plead poverty and offer £5 a month and they would have to accept!!
Seriously though, 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, struggling on less than £16,000 a year. Some of them work, some are disabled, and some are benefit dependant, 4 million of that total are children. People go without bare basics such as food and heating to be able to cope with the rising cost of being poor. Its been identified that there are 29 different types of poverty premium, I’ve already mentioned but a few of them. The Big Society Capital, Barrow Cadbury, Equality Trust and many more are fighting on our behalf to eradicate these premiums targeting government, businesses, regulators and the wider public.
So, this thing I didn’t know existed but now has a name was a driver of mine and so many others in poverty, is now being called out. I know its name and its time is coming to the end because by eradicating poverty premium people can be safe in the knowledge that their choices are not but a few and voices are shouting loud about its unfairness. Why should being poor cost more?
CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE.
I have been very fortunate to work within a movement called ‘Fair by Design’ with Barrow Cadbury, one of Birmingham Poverty Truth’s funders. Barrow Cadbury reached out to BPT asking for stories that could be used on their website and roadmap launch. These stories needed to include being in debt, using prepay meters for energy, doorstep loans, high cost credit, rent to buy and many other options of Poverty Premiums. I have had to use a lot of these services in my adult lifetime and certainly remember my parents having to use these avenues too.
I worked with the Fair by Design team to shape a bio and my story, also being photographed as well, yuk! I was excited to see the website and be able to fully understand the workings of the roadmap they’d produced. http://fairbydesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/FbD-Roadmap-Artwork-Web.pdf When it finally went live I had so many mixed feelings, embarrassment, excitement, hilarity and a certain sense of pride.
The launch was well received and then the Fair by Design dropped the bombshell that they wanted to use my story at the Conservative Party Conference. WHAT!!!! Yes, little old me was to become slightly famous. Well that’s what it felt like.
Rolling up to the ICC Birmingham surrounded by armed police and a check from the security that felt like I was at the airport was hugely daunting. Looking way braver than I felt I sat with 6 other people on the main speakers table front and centre of the room. I was sitting with an MP and a Lord as well as a newspaper reporter.
To say I was terrified would be an understatement! But I managed to deliver my story fluently, without mistake and with confidence. I was given a big round of applause, phew, my part over, but little did I realise that I had to stay at the front for another two hours!! Where do I look, where do I put my hands, how should I be sitting, what was the etiquette about elbows on the table?
As the speeches went on my story was being referred to more and more, I was gobsmacked! Finally, with the end in sight I started to breathe easier. Oh no…. Question time! Of course, the first question was fired at me. If you asked me today what the question was, I couldn’t tell you, but I remember fumbling my way through something about digital exclusion and isolation!! I must have said the right thing because there were a lot of nodding heads. When we were done, and I was on my way home I still felt starstruck. It’s an experience I will never forget. Even now I feel privileged that my story will be part of a movement that eventually will help millions of people.
HOUSE OF COMMONS.
After my experience taking part in the Conservative Party Conference The Fair by Design team took me with them to an evidence session on “The role of consumer protection in poverty premiums.” What??? I hear you say. Well, I eventually learned that it was about getting businesses to “poverty proof” their product or service because a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. It also includes improving the regulators watching for and overruling bad practice, so the consumers are protected. The government becomes involved too by ruling on things like interest rates on high cost credit as we’ve seen in the October budget.
Oh, sorry I forgot to mention that all this was taking place at the House of Commons!!!! Thinking the conference was a big deal you can imagine I am at the point where my head is spinning! Still, coming back down to earth, I had to rewrite my story using examples of legislation, regulation and common sense that would have helped me in really difficult times. The examples I used were bringing back the social fund, subsidised travel for under 16s, low interest loans and rent to buy services and regulation on the cost of school uniform. Fair by Design was also looking to highlight how living like that affected me.
Well, if I thought I’d seen tough security before this was something else!! It really makes you realise how unsafe we are in today’s world. Even my crutches were taken off me and checked!! The House of Commons as you know is a very old building so not a lot of disabled friendly options, so many stairs. Winded and suffering a huge stitch we managed to reach the room we were going to and then I found out that I had to sit at the high table right next to the throne in the room, right next to the MP running the session. I was so glad that I’d already spoken in front of him at the Conservative Party Conference or my nerves would have been totally shot.
Finding my voice in a room with leather green chairs and solid wood pew-like tables all with the crown imprinted on them in gold was so surreal. Gathering my waning confidence, I delivered my story. I managed it with no faults or stuttering and was given a round of applause. What I still find strange is that these high up people value my input; they honestly want to know how I feel and what I think. They take notes, ask questions and call you brave. If they could see all that I go through in preparation for a gig like that they would laugh.
So finally, all talking done the main chairman MP asks me what I think needs to be done or put in place!!! My first thought was, “come visit Birmingham Poverty Truth you’ll find plenty of truth, ideas and solutions from our really great little family”.
A Community Truth
Ruth has lived in Erdington for 65 years.
For 30 of those years she was an Avon lady.
And for 25 years she was a ‘lollipop lady’. This is how she is most remembered, and it is also what she mostly remembers as she is now in dementia.
On the 28th of June and out feeding the ducks on the nearby lake. It’s part of her usual routine but I could not make up what happened next.
Losing her bearings in the park and walking in the opposite direction of home.
Discovered, missing by my dad, he contacts the police. It’s fair to say we have lost her before but a kind member of the public has always brought her back within a few hours and I’ve heard of many other stories of such returns.
I was making cheese on toast for my son when I received the phone call.
I leave my house, with quick, straight to the point words, “we’ve lost nanny, I’m going to grandads” and posting a ‘search and rescue’ request to the local Facebook group, ‘Erdington Massives’.
At my parents’ house there is a lot of police and concerned neighbours are standing by in witness. My dad is answering questions about friends or family members my mom might visit. Phone calls and texts with the news begin.
The face book post was shared 409 times, received 715 comments and the west midlands police post was shared over a 1K.
50 years of family and friends get in touch or turn up on hearing the news. The house and front garden is alive with people, this is serious. The front door open and our faces of concern are on the street-as if looking out for her return.
It’s her birthday on Saturday, but this isn’t a party and its not her wake either. It is surreal. Time has not paused, life is carrying on, I ring home for the house to feed the dogs and wait longer for news of my return. Her return.
It’s hot, the summer of 2018 broke global hottest temperatures and weeks of draught and wild fires. Viewed from space the land is yellow/brown. Only the trees offer us green and shade but their leaves are beginning to turn, as the harvest has begun and summer solstice has passed.
The community of Erdington sent messages of prayer and concern, even taking it upon themselves to search the area. It was humbling as I couldn’t even walk up the road.
As the sun sets with no sign of my mom, the phrase ‘life goes on’, becomes real as our bodies require rest and nourishment even though we know Ruth’s body is not comfortable.
A drone has been used and a helicopter is used during the night, yet still not found. The police set up a temporary HQ in the local church car park. The team of water search and rescue experts arrive with canoes and wading gear, to search the nearby lakes and growth. Their service is shared throughout the West Midlands.
It is again surreal watching the men prepare and search for my mom. A team of search and rescue volunteers are called in, they take on training, keep a licence up-to-date and wear matching T-shirts…
More people are ringing or dropping past. I’m compelled to reply, keeping people up-to-date or re-telling the story, the words are getting exhausted. Looking up, I can see all the family doing the same but also bonding and communicating in a way I’d never seen before. There was no other agenda except to wait.
It’s decided by the police, to put my mom’s disappearance on, 6pm Central News and sitting together, we watch it, with my dad saying “ssssh”
The night is drawing in and looks to be another night without her. My dad is old himself with health issues and this day has been longer and hotter than the first. I’m feeling nothing and everything, with no news there is no reaction. The people of the community are still out looking in groups or alone; one man came to the house with an A-Z, asking where he should go next.
The joy in the moment of ‘life goes on’, is when I’m out the front with just my 2 great nephews. I’m playing with them, looking after them, see – life goes on.
My brother comes out to tell me, that she has been found and he’s taking dad to the hospital now.
I smiled, I really smiled, it reached my eyes, and tears welled. Then I was laughing with tears rolling down my face. I wasn’t laughing at finding it funny, it just seemed to be my body’s natural reaction. I had to focus on my breathing for it to stop. It was joy and everyone was smiling, feeling and sharing the joy and relief. My laughing/crying reaction happens a few times during the evening and next few days. I’m reading the responses on social media not only was there comments of relief and well wishes, there was even posts from people, about how their faith had been restored in the community of Erdington. Even now one month on, my diaphragm remembers the words, emotion and reaction.
That one, kind stranger we were waiting for contacted the police, after seeing the news clip, with cctv images of my mom entering a nearby car park. So, all efforts of the search went there. My dad and I find the lady the next day, to say thank you. My mom was found in Witton allotments. Of all the places. No wonder nobody could find her. Off the path and out of sight.
Getting the message of Mrs Sidwell being found, was now on the button. Giving and receiving shared joy.
I visit my mom on the morning of the next day and she recites the 23rd psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. I’ve never heard my mom quote the bible, even though she has a Christian belief system and would tell you herself, “I’ve always went to church, I was brought up that way” I am humbled again, when she states “I said, it to myself when I was alone”
Her faith kept her safe. We read the psalm together as I have taken in her New Testament. It was my mom’s father, Mr Barron who, as part of the Gideon movement, placed New Testaments in hospitals, hotels and distributed them in secondary schools. I feel so suddenly connected, with the past and what I must now do for the future.
(Note to reader- mom has Alzheimer’s dementia and although she doesn’t try continually to leave the house or get angry or violent she is frustrated, she has got angry, she does want to be independent and isn’t always pleased to see me.)
Ruth knows she’s had a traumatic experience yet has got up like it’s just a tumble. Home from hospital and doing well, a district nurse is visiting to dress wounds and one nurse arrives on a day when I’m present and explains that she went to school with my sister and can remember the family name. My mom can still use her front door key and has voiced an opinion on staying at home. I’m going to help her do that.
This story is my Truth and I hope it describes that there isn’t a ‘poverty’ in community action. There isn’t a ‘poverty’ of people wanting to help. Through attending Birmingham Poverty Truth Commission, I have been witness to many groups and charities set up to help, support, get creative, mentor, feed and teach skills, either one-to-one care or community social interaction as a BPT representative or in my personal life as my own ambassador.
I don’t keep a true Christian belief system but, I was brought up feeling comfortable and respect for churches and their congregations. I’m not telling you my story to have a conversation about religion. Yet, faith itself unfolded the story as a written plan.
Much similar to the boys trapped in a cave in Thailand in a part of the World that doesn’t encourage press coverage and suddenly the world is watching. In faith of the expert divers. The community in prayer and support for the families. Waiting for news. A search and rescue team, which some of them have been flown into the country to assist because of their experience. Shared grief and shared joy.
There are kind strangers and teams of community expert workers and volunteers who network all areas of Birmingham, England and Earth. Offering food, information, shelter, safe spaces of welcome, it’s all out there.
Have faith in yourself to find and belong to a community. A place with people you feel comfortable. Conversations to have, new people to meet and to share a smile of joy or give comfort, ask for help or ask, where?
You can help.
Full Stag Blood Moon, totally eclipsed by the Earth, with planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in alignment. The night sky was cloudy and maybe nobody on Earth saw it.
Case Study 2017, Birmingham Homelessness Services
Male aged 21 Female aged 20
Arrived at Housing Office, to apply for emergency accommodation as a couple. After taking a ticket from the machine, they sit down and wait approximately 45minutes.
Their names, addresses and work/benefit details are taken and I.D is asked for and provided. They are seen together, but it is explained that they are not eligible to be classed and housed as a couple due to the female only being 20.
The Under 21 policy is upsetting for them but also starts to push against common sense when they are both asked to make individual phone calls to a support agency to gain an appointment. The use of telephone is provided, and they are told to attend within the same day.
The venue is difficult to find. After a long wait, they are spoken to together and then asked to sit back down; this is then repeated. Names, address and I.D are asked for again. Phone calls to both mothers are made by Support Agency staff. The female is asked where she works, and the male is not asked anything in regard to ‘area of preferability’. The interviewer uses information on his computer screen to name a house they can view. He makes a telephone call and makes an appointment for them both to attend within the same day. With an address, a mobile phone number and a print out of google maps, the couple continue to the house.
They wait half an hour for the lady to arrive. She apologises for being late and explains that she is not the direct landlord.
“The house was disgusting”
The female is placed on the downstairs floor with a double bed and the male is placed in a room upstairs with a single bed. The Under 21 policy is pushing against common sense again as they both could have been allocated the downstairs room. The female is disconcerted by some of the residents on her floor. The male and female are not comfortable with this arrangement.
Toilet roll, toiletries, towels, washing powder, food and beverages are not supplied.
Already placed inside the rooms are bags of fresh sheets for the beds. Yet it is obvious that no sign of cleaning up from the last, or multiple previous occupants has taken place. Both rooms are dirty, the double room especially with left over belongings, clothing, underwear, perfume bottles, men’s deodorants cans. The window sill is, “filthy and cluttered”. The carpet in the downstairs room has been walked threadbare into the floor and is dirty. The wardrobe has garments hanging inside and the chest of drawers has broken drawers and is dirty.
The radiator in the downstairs room, is on full and it is not possible to turn it down as it has a broken knob. The atmosphere is too hot. Turning off the heating at the thermostat display is followed by the discovery that it has been turned back on by the other occupants of the house.
During the tour of the house the lady describes a cleaning rota that the couple are expected to take part in. Yet it is completely obvious that no sign of cleaning has taken place in the house for weeks. The bathroom is on the downstairs floor and accessed by walking through the kitchen. It smells “disgusting”, with wet clothes in the bath and on the floor. All the bathroom furniture is dirty.
The kitchen is also dirty, especially the cooker, with multiple oil residue and stale pieces of food. The fridge is dirty. All appliances are in a bad state. There is no front on the drawer of the washing machine. When the couple are in the back garden, they see through the kitchen window a mouse, eating left over food, on the cooker top. They do not cook anything during their stay.
The back garden is full of bike parts. At the top of the stairs there is a hoover, a pram and an ironing board. The female is asked to pay £75 a week rent and £15 a week utilities. The male is asked to pay £40 a week rent and £15 a week utilities. The couple leave after 2 nights having never met the direct landlord.
Housing and council tax benefit is not applicable to Under25’s. Recently, this has been restored, in Parliament on 29th March 2018. (Featured in the Independent, by Rob Merrick.) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/housing-benefit-young-people-restored-universal-credit-homelessness-david-cameron-a8279301.html
The most offensive ‘truth’ of the experience is ‘the state of the place’ compared with the attitude of the person pointing out a cleaning schedule to the couple. There is need for more cleanliness to be provided by the direct landlord before they can then request and expect reciprocation. A paid cleaner or assistance from outside charities/volunteers might be a way forward.
All furniture and appliances should be in good working order. In this house, they weren’t.
Think, Network, Help, Kind.
This case study was authored by Karen on 13/04/18 for Birmingham Poverty Truth Commission, highlighting a personal truth by a couple known to Karen, of experience of being homeless. Birmingham Poverty Truth hears stories of both positive and negative experiences of accessing housing.
We went for a coffee…
An aspect of talking part in Birmingham Poverty Truth is to get know our invited commissioners on a one to one basis as well as in the group sessions.
I’m Karen and I was asked to meet up for coffee with Simon Fenton, from Forward Carers. After exchanging a few emails, it was decided to meet up at Coffee#1 on Sutton Coldfield, High St. We were to coincide with a YMCA young carer drop in session.
I’m nervous for many reasons; well I don’t normally stop to have a coffee while I’m out and don’t make plans to meet the people that I do know. It’s also, a different high street to what I am used to. It has already been offered by Simon that he will pay for the coffees. So, I arrange ‘a just in case I’m not back’ school pick up and ask my daughter for advice on what to order, as I’ve seen the advert of looking at a coffee menu. Answer- americano or flat white. O.K. thanks. I got this.
We meet Alan Burrows from the YMCA and he offers support services to young people 17-25 that provide care to a parent or relative. Using the coffee shop as a safe, open and drop in environment and the shop is happy to allow their venue. Simon and I are describing Birmingham Poverty Truth and a lady drops in and she shares her story with us. It’s her daughter’s story really but as a concerned mom, she is involved with getting as much support as possible, to continue with education and raising a family. More people arrive and it’s a good time to leave them to the session.
We find our own table and Simon describes Forward Carers consortium. It’s a social enterprise, not for profit company and he is the C.E.O. (chief executive officer.) It receives an amount of money from the NHS and then working with other partners delivers a range of services that provide care and support for ‘the carer’. Not, the ‘cared for’ but the person that is doing the caring.
Wow. How simple and obvious is that? Make the carer stronger through alternative opportunities of relaxation and special offers. Help to get to personal appointments and peace of mind with a care plan arranged if the carer is taken to hospital.
I’m impressed. It’s all about the carer and no data is recorded of the ‘cared for’. We laugh, as it actually took a while for all of the partners to completely get it and just focus on the carer. Forward Carers allocate funds to these partners to provide the support to as many carers as possible and in as many ways as possible all over Birmingham with easy to reach localities. It’s forward thinking that’s for sure and all overseen by Simon; who I met for coffee one day.
Please don’t judge me because I do not look sick
One of our wonderful Testifying Commissioners, Lis, writes about life with Fibromyalgia…
First catch the flu, then get a sunburn all over.
Next put on really tight-fitting clothes and throw yourself down the stairs.
Stay awake for 36 hours straight.
Randomly put your fingers and toes wet into a plug socket.
Consume beans and prunes and suffer the consequences.
Bang your head ten times against the wall.
Put your jaw in a vice and pull hard.
Sit in a car and have someone crash into the back of you.
Tie cinder blocks to your feet, throw a couple of wet woollen blankets round your shoulders and walk around.
Turn on a heater and a fan, both on high, then alternately stand in front of them.
Spin around as fast as you can and then stop dead.
Throw sand in your eyes then blink really fast while listening as long as you can to a whistling kettle boil.
Walk around all day every day on the verge of tears so no one can see – because pretending to be okay is easier than having to explain to everyone why you are not.
Try to fill in a disability form whilst coping with this daily. Try to explain the day to day different types of pain to a GP. Try to answer the OT who asks you, “What do YOU think you need to help?” Try telling your friend sorry for cancelling that night out for the forth time. Try not to lose your temper when someone says, “you don’t look ill”.
Well, it never occurred to me that one day I’d wake up sick and never get better.
We need to shout up for the people who have symptoms that aren’t visible to others and are able to function, even while in extreme pain. We need to high five the people who fight a daily battle others cannot see. We need to applaud the people who hide their illness well and don’t seem sick. We need to appreciate the people who feel like they are making too big a deal out of their illness because, “it could be much worse”. Shout loud for that person who says, “sorry I’m not the person I used to be”.
The change to our lives leaves us needing the care of loved ones and professionals. Having to have someone care for you is degrading when you can’t shower alone. There’s no privacy when you can’t get off the toilet without help. You’ve no independence when you can’t turn the page of a book. There’s no joy when you can’t enjoy a walk in the park on a sunny day or a snowball fight in the cold.
No one can be there inside your head to tell you on dark painful nights not to feel isolated, alone, angry and in despair.
It is a crushing feeling when you cannot afford to make the changes that might make those days easier.
Does this relate to Poverty Truth…? Yes. This becomes financial, emotional, lifestyle, relative poverty and poverty of isolation.
So please don’t judge me because I do not look sick.
We are getting ready for Birmingham Poverty Truth … what will that look like? Mostly we don’t know yet …
As a small group of people facilitating the process, we started by thinking about the question:
WHAT IS POVERTY?
Is it just about a lack of money?
Or is it much more?
We compiled a list of many different types of poverty, and then sat round a big map and thought about our city. As much as is possible we want our Poverty Truth Commission to look like Birmingham.
WHO WILL TALK ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES OF POVERTY?
We need people who have a story, who want to tell it, and who recognise that their story is bigger than themselves.
We have started meeting with some great people who are interested in being part of Birmingham Poverty Truth, and we are planning our first get-together soon.
We have sorted a room that will be our space, which we will be able to personalise as the commission progresses.
But we are still left with questions like:
- What will our group be like?
- What will our issues be?
- What experiences, skills and knowledge will they bring?
The unknown makes this even more exciting. The other commissions have consistently been impressed and enriched by what their testifiers have brought to their group.
So like we said… we are getting ready for Birmingham Poverty Truth … what will that look like? Mostly we don’t know yet – but our hopes are high.