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Nov
2013
Wednesday 27th
posted by Morning Star in Features

BERNADETTE HORTON takes a look behind the headlines to meet some of the people struggling to get by in one of Britain's most deprived areas


Rhyl - the town on the north Wales coast that gets the worst press.

We've seen screaming Mail-esque headlines of "Ghetto town," "Benefits-by-the-sea" and all that nonsense.

Rhyl does have one of the highest percentages of people on jobseeker's allowance, and among the highest percentages of sick and disabled people. The ward of West Rhyl is the most deprived council ward in Wales and is probably pretty high up on the UK table too.

But while the headlines blast out these stats, they see little and know nothing of the people behind them.

I spent time on a random street in Rhyl and will tell you the real stories.

The first thing that strikes me is the once proud huge six, seven or eight-bedroom former B&Bs which dominate the street.

You can imagine how things were when Rhyl and the British seaside holiday were in fashion in the 1960s, the hanging baskets, white net curtains and scrubbed doorsteps as owners welcomed in the holidaymakers.

Fast-forward to 2013 and on both sides all I can see are houses of multiple occupancy.

The houses are divided into three or even four flats and open out directly onto the street with just the tiniest of space between front door and pavement.

Every single bin I see as I walk along is uncollected, with huge notices left by the refuse collectors saying the bins had been contaminated with different kinds of waste and needed to be sorted out before collection could be made.

Marie lives in a first floor flat with her partner Josh and toddler daughter. I ring the bell and she invites me up.

 

As I enter the living room one of the first things I notice is that all the Christmas decorations are up, including a Christmas tree, minus fairy lights.

"Don't laugh about the Christmas decorations," Marie says.

"We put them up early to brighten the place up a bit. It just makes the place a bit less miserable."

"I bought the tinsel at a local charity shop and the baubles on the tree. My mum had an old tree from years ago she didn't want so passed it on to us. We can't afford the fairy lights - no point adding that onto our electric anyway. "We have two days a week as it is without electric. Just can't keep feeding the pre-payment meter."

I am guilty as charged for ridiculing houses for putting up Christmas decorations in November. Whenever I pass them I wonder why people do it. Now I shall think twice.

Marie and Josh both work part-time and juggle childcare between them. They both work in the same supermarket at 16 hours a week each. Josh is constantly searching for full-time work but can't find any.

Marie tells me that he would get another part-time job if he his supermarket shifts were the same every week, but they change constantly.

Their rent on this one-bedroom flat is £570 a month. They both feel they would be better off not working so they could claim full housing benefit for the rent. I mention the benefit cap, which they are unaware of.

"Every time we feel we are going forward, we seem to take two steps back," says Marie.

"We simply can't afford to pay the rent, heat the flat for seven days a week and buy nice food. I end up looking for the most filling food like £1 pizzas in Iceland and £1 bags of frozen chips. Whatever anyone says, meat and vegetables cost a lot more."

As she shows me out of the flat, I point to the uncollected bins, overflowing with different types of waste in the wrong bins.

"There are four families in this house," says Marie.

"We need four times the number of bins, but at the end of the day we have just got too much more to worry about. The council send someone round to educate us about what goes in each bin, but when the bins are full, everyone just crams in where they can.

"It's annoying as the rubbish is overflowing and the bin men won't take it, but to be honest we have all got far more important things to worry about."

Further down the street, I meet Eileen and her husband Steve, both in their fifties.

They live in a ground-floor flat of one of the formerly grand B&B houses. Steve has multiple illnesses and is disabled. Eileen cares for him. They too have some Christmas decorations up in the window.

"It makes the flat more cheery," says Eileen.

"What's life like living here?" I ask.

They say they find it very overcrowded.

"We're just living on top of each other. We're on the waiting list for a bungalow or ground floor flat, but the list is huge."

"What are your thoughts on the government and the housing situation? Have disability changes affected you?" I ask.

"We get worried every time a brown envelope comes through the door. It's always summoning Steve to yet another interview, whether it's the jobcentre or housing. We like Sundays. No post on a Sunday."

Next door I meet Michelle, a divorced single mum to two boys.

Michelle tells me that after her recent split with her ex-husband she had to move out of her previous house and into this flat. While the divorce was being processed she applied for income support for the first time. It took five weeks for the jobcentre to sort things out.

That was five weeks with nothing. Her parents lent her some money, but after two weeks she was referred to the local foodbank as she had no money for food or fuel.

"People don't understand just how rock bottom your life is, to have no food and be asking a foodbank for a food parcel to feed your own kids.

"I had gone from having my own home to a miserable flat to applying for benefit. The split and the move have had a huge impact on me and the boys. They just need me to be there for some stability for a few months. I can then get on my feet and try to improve our lives," Michelle says.

I wonder whether she had any idea it would be this difficult to claim benefit.

"No idea at all," says Michelle says.

"There is a women's group in Rhyl who helped me with the forms and told me what I was entitled to, but the wait for assessment is too long. I really was on the edge of life, just clinging on for those five weeks.

"The foodbank was fantastic and helped me through those weeks and kindly even put some electricity cards in my meter. Their volunteers even put a few packets of sweets in for the kids. I can't thank them enough."

 

I can see, hear and feel her desperation. In life, events take place that throw us out of kilter - it may be illness, divorce or disability. At these times we turn to the state for assistance.

But now the state, under this coalition government, is turning its back on vulnerable people in their time of greatest need.

As I walk back down the grim street I am gripped by the overwhelming sense that it shouldn't be like this.

Why haven't successive governments ploughed money into new-build social housing so Eileen and Steve can live in a bungalow in a quiet close?

Why have we got to the stage that two working parents, Maria and Josh, can't afford to buy nutritious food? They work.

And why is the government doing nothing to help the huge number of part-timers who want but cannot find full-time work?

Why is it taking months to assess people for benefit in times of crisis when they urgently need support?

And the question I ask continually: "Why are foodbanks operating on such a large scale?" - a scale so large that the number of people forced to turn to them is rapidly approaching 500,000.

This government is abdicating all responsibility to feed, clothe, house and advise people in their darkest hours to voluntary support networks.

It is mine and your responsibility to stop them. Until we do or there is a tangible change in government in 2015 millions more will suffer.

In fact, as I write, Iain Duncan Smith is looking to scrap the work-related activity group of people on employment and support allowance who are currently too ill to look for work. He wants to put 550,000 sick people straight onto jobseeker's allowance whether they are fit for work or not.

There are thousands of poverty streets throughout Britain. Think twice before judging them. There are desperate stories behind those overflowing bins.

 

Bernadette Horton blogs at mumvausterity.blogspot.co.uk




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