Sunday, 24 June 2012

Local Housing Allowance Cuts & The Idealised Family

This is a Daily Mail link, thus the succinct and witty title:
Cameron to axe housing benefits for feckless under 25s in war on wellfare culture
Or as I would have put it: Under-25s to be denied Local Housing Allowance. Maybe.

The Conservative Government have an idealised view of normal families being wealthy, upper middle class, living in large houses with plenty of space, where everyone gets on well, everyone works and spends time outside the house and parents are committed to providing for their offspring for as long as it takes for them to get on their feet. Getting on their feet, in the mind of David Cameron, seems to mean saving up to buy a house (a neat trick at the best of times, let alone when you're poor enough to be on benefits).

I know a lot of nice families. I don't know any families like that.

My parents are great, but they didn't see parenthood as a lifelong financial burden and expected my sister and I to be independent. I started paying rent (though admittedly not much) at sixteen and moved out at eighteen. They helped my sister through university to the best of their ability but have provided no further financial assistance to either of us since. They are generous with their time and energy, I get Christmas presents I couldn't afford to treat myself to, but as far as they are concerned, they've done their bit.

By the time I was eighteen, I couldn't stand living with them any more. They were not abusive. They weren't terrible about my illness, but they weren't coping with it at all well, at a time when I wasn't coping with it at all. They struggled to see me suffer and half the time they treated me like an infant, while half the time they kept their distance and made it difficult to ask for help. They were, at that time, fantastically homophobic*. Both of them were also under a fair amount of personal stress; Mum's father had died the previous year, Dad was unemployed and I was frequently caught up in the middle of their arguments. And this was making me ill. It wasn't the only thing making me ill, but it was a big contributing factor to the suicidal depression that took hold.

As it was, I met a thirty-four year old man who took advantage of my considerable vulnerability - including my housing situation - and whisked me off to the other end of the country. This seemed like a really good thing at the time; I had a rock bottom self-esteem and was used to being treated like a child, so I wasn't able to identify verbal abuse, controlling behaviour or even the violence for what it was. What's more, being sent home to my parents in humiliation was used as a constant threat and since I couldn't live by myself, I felt this was my only other option. It was only much later, when I realised that I had friends and several family members who would be prepared to provide refuge should I need it, that I was finally able to leave.

I needed to move out when I was in my late teens. A change in legislation wouldn't have stopped my story happening, but it would remove a vital option from other young disabled women (and women who are poor for other reasons). Young and vulnerable women without any option of independent housing are going to be even more vulnerable to older abusers who don't have to work too hard to seem a more attractive option than staying with Mum & Dad.

The difficulties of living with parents are exaggerated for disabled people - folks who find it easy to live with their parents are usually extremely independent, able to go out whenever they like and only pop home to sleep off the hangover. When you're at home most of the time, need meals cooking, let alone help with bathing and so forth, there's far more pressure on that relationship. Some parents of disabled people are so used to being anxious about and protective of their kids that they take a long time to realise that their children have grown up. If indeed, they ever do.

That was my situation, but there are myriad other reasons that young people cannot live with their parents, apart from obvious things like having no parents or having terrible parents (who are by no means restricted to parents who beat you up - one exceptional circumstance the article acknowledged). These include

  • Parents live in a house too small to accommodate you, e.g. they've got a smaller house now, Gran's moved into your old bedroom or you'd have to share a room with two five-year-olds and a budgie named Elvis.
  • Parents' house is physically inaccessible. 
  • Parents' house is an unhealthy environment for you - I had one young friend with ME who wound up in a hostel because the noise and chaos of her multiple younger siblings made it impossible for her to get sufficient rest.
  • Parents make it difficult to be yourself in some way (e.g. they disapprove of your sexuality, religion or lack thereof).
  • Parents live in a completely different part of the country to where the young person lives and works. Not only it is perfectly reasonable that young adults move to other parts of the country, for studying, work or because somewhere is more suited to them, but it is even more reasonable that young people shouldn't have to move back - or indeed follow their parents around the country - if something goes wrong. You might have begun to establish a career in London, only to be unemployed at the age of twenty-four, and rather than staying in London while you find a new job, you have to return to Orkney where it is impossible to apply for London jobs.
When I was twenty-nine, I was forced to move back in with my parents. This situation changed soon after and I now live less than half my time with my own folks and the rest of the time with my boyfriend's parents - who are, in fairness, somewhat closer to Cameron's ideal, only without having any money to spare. 

However, my parents struggled with this. They wanted to help, because I'd found myself in very insecure accommodation where I didn't have access to freezer space or a functional washing machine, let alone the help I needed. But they didn't understand why I couldn't get social housing with a snap of my fingers and move out again right away. They couldn't understand that Local Housing Allowance wouldn't pay full rent on any suitable place I might want to live - in fact, it wouldn't pay for any place I could reasonably live, such that I could afford to eat as well, in this not at all posh part of rural Suffolk.

My parents house is inaccessible, and while folk in other areas of the country can't get the basics, I've had to turn down all kinds of adaptations from social services because this is not my house and my folks don't want the place looking like a nursing home. They would never consider getting a vehicle that could transport my power chair, so I can't get out much while I'm with them and have to ask my boyfriend's Dad to help me on most significant journeys. And apart from all that, it's been a struggle. Not an insurmountable one, but a struggle, nevertheless.

This is a normal family. Some people reading this might judge my parents badly, but others will know how lucky I am that I've got a comfy room and a roof here and get on with them well enough that this is okay for now - especially as I don't have to be here all the time. But there is nothing remarkable about my situation or the attitudes of my folks. They love me and they have done their best for me. Even if they were to be judged badly for that, it's not something I - let alone my desperate eighteen year old self - have ever had any control over.  

* They weren't as bad as all that, really, but I love my parents, and when I think about things they said then, when I was having come to terms with my sexuality in secret, I find it very shocking and hurtful. However, I know they could have been worse, and if they'd found out about my sexuality then, they probably would have dismissed it as an abhorrent phase  as opposed to throwing me out or anything nearly so dramatic.


  1. Great post. I made the point about abuse on the Yahoo version of the story and someone said that if a family was abusive "surely that would be a case for the police". So f*cking ignorant it's unbelievable. Kidscape's research suggests that 1 in 5 people reach secondary school already having experienced serious neglect/abuse; that's 20% of the population, twice the proportion that are gay (though obviously LGBT people with intolerant parents are ignored too), and yet they're airbrushed out of the picture. The whole thing is revolting.

  2. It's not even that some people don't want to live with parents. I'm autistic and would have liked to live with my parents forever, but they abused me so it wasn't safe

    Now I live totally abandoned with no support as I can't afford £20 per hour for a support worker. I want to be adopted but they don't allow adult adoption in the UK.

    I'm not eligible for supported housing as I work.

    So what happens to those of us who NEED to live with carers but can't afford it? Especially if your parents won't be your carers? Especially when there's a shortage of supported housing schemes with ever-tightening eligibility criteria?

    As an autistic, I'm screwed.

  3. This pretty much takes the words out of my mouth about this whole issue. I've been lucky as my parents have allowed me to live more-or-less rent free for most of the time since I've left college (I've had on-and-off work and a failed university course since, alongside three periods of unemployment including a two-year stretch from October 2008) and they've also supported my sister when she decided to give up work and retrain to become a nurse, and have a baby mid-way through. However, I can easily see how my situation could have broken down -- it might have taken just one argument and I'm not sure I could have stayed with someone in my extended family if so.

    The present government assume that all young people either have families to help them along, or can find work easily. I believe the same assumption motivated the Major government when they denied unemployment benefits to under-18s, insisting that they take up "Youth Training Schemes" which, in practice, were not available, instead. The result was that many were left destitute and even homeless. There was also propaganda about how some of these youngsters had walked away from their families because they couldn't take a bit of discipline, when some had in fact been abused.

    Also, while I take the point about disabled women being vulnerable to older men who would take advantage of them, a man might just have no way out as it depends on a woman being willing to take him on and reverse the roles. Even if he did find such a person, his position would still be a vulnerable one - despite the fact that men are usually stronger than women, that's often not the case when the man is disabled or ill and the woman is neither. And if he is part of a culture where men are expected to provide (as in many religious communities), he might have very little chance of starting a marriage if he cannot work or "do the business". It would likely be a case of staying put, or going into a care home.

    I wrote an article about converts with special needs in my particular religious community, although some of the situations described are not unique to them, here: How well does the Muslim community accommodate special needs?

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    Jan - Absolutely. Out of everyone I have spoken to who has experienced domestic violence, only two or three have ever had any contact with the police. And then what? Does the young person have to go through the police and legal process so their parent has an actual conviction before the rules say that young person can get benefit, or will they work off on the basis accusation (in which case, there may be one or two dodgy accusations)?

    But as I say, a lot of terrible parents aren't *criminally* terrible. But verbal abuse, breeches of privacy, passive aggression, the silent treatment, drunkenness etc. can make a home environment completely intolerable for someone who hasn't chosen to be there. It seems a very basic human right that we should be able to choose not to live with someone we can't stand.

    Anonymous - That sounds awful, and I'm very sorry you find yourself in such a situation. I think adult adoption would be a very useful thing for lots of young people - and for older people who want to extend their families.

    I hope that the situation improves for you, and I also hope that one day, you might be able to create a kind of chosen family who will be able to support you in the way you deserve.

    Matthew - I used gendered language there, because although disabled men certainly do suffer domestic abuse at the hands of female partners, are often criticised and controlled through the ideas of masculinity you describe, and other cuts in benefits have made all disabled people more vulnerable, that kind of abuse doesn't nearly so often follow the pattern of an older woman preying on a younger man.

    Young women are much more often offered, to put it very bluntly, a sexual solution to a practical problem. Not that they're likely to see it like that, but if you're a young woman with terrible self esteem who is desperate to get away from your parents, someone coming along and telling you that they think you're all right really, and they want to take you away and solve all your problems, you might be inclined to think yourself in love.

    That doesn't often happen to young men. Other bad things happen to young men, and they enter abusive relationships in different ways, but I do think this cut is particularly dangerous to young women.

  5. Now Scameron wants to go like the US system where you get welfare for 2 years and then just bog off and die. Its like the man is deranged - People were jealous of our NHS and jealous of our welfare system that cared - Now Scameron has copied his american pals and says if you cant find work in 2yrs then just die cos you are worthless trash.

    If you have more than three kids then the rest of the kids are worthless trash.

    Oh to have been born with that conned silver spoon in my mouth like YOU WERE SCAMERON!

    That thing (cannot say man he isnt one) makes me sick

  6. Indeed. None of what my ex-mother has done to me is illegal, but it's still so bad that if I'd been forced to live with her until I turned 25 I would have killed myself ages ago (of course, my rapist, that she covered up for, was my not much older sibling, who under these rules would have been in the house too, so yeah, suicide waiting to happen). I am very very frightened for young people in a similar position. Hopefully this will never actually be implemented, but one never can tell. If I had my health I'd think about starting a shelter specifically for people in that situation, but even then I think I'd be overwhelmed by the tide of tragic cases. Most people don't talk about their specific reasons for needing to get out of the family home, but HB for young people is an essential part of the clean-up of the abuse epidemic. I think this plan would kill people, for certain.

    Re. exploitation, I do usually object to any gendering of abuse due to my experiences of being marginalised, but I appreciate that the above example is one out of many that could be touched on; really you could write a book on why this plan is a shit idea. I think there is more demand for young women than young men in the sex trade, which is something many turn to already of course. And poor people entering are very likely to be streetwalkers rather than escorts, which is both more difficult and more dangerous work, though any sex work is abuse if participating in it is not totally free choice. A Canadian study found that a quarter of male streetwalkers were picked up by women, so obviously it's a problem, but this is just additional detail.