“Where are you living right now?”
“I’m just staying on his floor for now. It’s a bit dodgy because I have to leg it every Friday when the landlord’s son comes to collect the rent – he can’t know I’m living here.”
“You’d definitely be a priority for a place in refuge. How soon can you get here?”
I blinked. Some faceless person on the other end of a phone wanted to help me. I pushed down the flicker of hope that had ignited within me. There was probably a catch. I couldn’t trust that I might finally be free.
“If you text me when you arrive at the station, I’ll come and pick you up. I’ll text you my number now. See you soon.”
As promised the text came through. I sprang to life. Throwing the few belongings I had left into a suitcase, I began a journey that took me across London, to one of its outer suburbs. As promised, there was a car waiting. I was driven to a large, spacious house with a garden.
The case worker showed me to my room, gave me a bag of toiletries, then went back down the stairs. Once I was alone, I sank to the floor, completely numb. It was over. Being homeless, getting abused, was over.
But I was left with a question: how could this happen? How could Universal Credit change someone’s life so disastrously?
“Work hard at school, you don’t want to end up on the dole,” I was always told, when I was growing up.
“On the dole” – it’s an expression that conjures up images of poor people lined up, Oliver Twist-style, begging for money from the government and being smacked down when they tried to take too much.
No, I never wanted to be a benefits claimant. I didn’t want to be stinking rich, but I also didn’t want to have nothing. So I achieved AAA at A-Level, went to university in Exeter, and spent three years drinking champagne on balconies overlooking the Devon hills. I did work experience at The Huffington Post, became a news editor at my student newspaper, and everyone around me told me I’d make a great journalist.
I had worked hard from the word go. I had various jobs alongside my studies. Waitress, pizza chef, stockroom assistant, door to door sales – anything to keep me ticking over. When I went to university, I got all the work experience I could in journalism, as I already knew it was the career I wanted to go into. I knew it would be competitive, and was completely fine with working in Tesco or McDonald’s until I could get my way in.
That did not happen. I applied for graduate schemes, internships, trainee reporter roles, and for jobs in retail and hospitality. I got interviews for all of them. For the graduate roles, I got told I was too good or not quite the right fit. For the jobs in McDonald’s and Tesco, they worked out I had a degree and wouldn’t hire me, presuming I’d leave the minute I got a graduate job.
I watched my friends get internships at top businesses, start their lives in the working world, and presumed I’d get my break soon enough.
But I didn’t get anywhere, was forced to apply for benefits and watched as my life fell apart, completely destroyed by a system I had no control over.
And what system was this? Universal Credit, a year before the mass rollout that’s currently plaguing the nation.
Living in London is hard enough, but when you’re trying to get started in life, it’s even harder. “Go home to Mum and Dad,” some may say. What if that isn’t possible?
“Ask your family for money to tide you over,” others will argue. What if you can’t do that, either?
“You’re a graduate, you’ll get a job in no time,” yet more will say. But the reality is that nothing is guaranteed in life. Anybody can lose everything in the blink of an eye.
I’d moved to the big city because I’d been offered a three month internship at a media organisation – which had fallen through by the time I’d made a down payment on a rental. As my tenancy in Exeter was over, I felt I had no choice but to try and make it in London.
When my money started running out, I faced the realisation I would have to become a benefits claimant. I was living in a trial area for Universal Credit, and was told it would be a much simpler system that made work pay. There would be one allowance that covered all my costs. I simply had to apply online, then I’d get an appointment.
I applied, and I waited. Kept going to job interviews. Kept getting rejected. Watched my money running out. After four weeks, I called back.
“Your application got rejected because your old address is on file,” I was told.
“I gave you my new address,” I replied. I was forced to make another application.
My irritation mounted as I went through the questions again over the phone. But once I hung up, the anger turned to worry. What if this application didn’t go through, either? Would I be left to wait for another month, watching my money run out completely, and call up to be told the same thing again?
My fears were realised. A month later, I called up, and got told to go to my nearest Jobcentre to make a claim there. I walked in, and got told I needed to make a claim online. I explained my situation, took a seat and filled out the thick booklet I’d been given.
After 20 minutes, an adviser came up to me. “That’s the wrong booklet, that’s for Jobseeker’s’ Allowance. And you’re on the wrong floor,” he said.
So I went upstairs and sat down there. I was told I needed to file a change of address form in person, wait for it to be processed, call up the service centre, make a new application, wait for an appointment, then come back to the Jobcentre.
Half an hour later and five Jobcentre advisers were standing around a desk asking what a change of address form was and where it could be. They eventually gave up and told me to go home, they would sort it.
Home. This was a loose term by now. You see, my landlord had clocked I was on benefits. He wasn’t keen on having benefits claimants as tenants because “benefit allowances can get changed”. My days were numbered. I simply hoped I could at least get money soon to support myself because if not, I didn’t want to think about what could happen.
Knowing I’d mess up my credit score but that I needed money for survival, I’d taken a bank loan out to tide me over – but it was down to the last dregs, and I wasn’t eligible for any more credit. My options were quickly running out, and I felt like I was free falling with nothing to hold onto.
Sometimes I’d sit awake until 3 or 4 am, chain smoking out of the window, looking out at the concrete jungle and wondering what I’d done to deserve this feeling of intense isolation. I felt like I’d been cast aside and forgotten about. Then the money for cheap tobacco ran out, and I started buying up loaves of bread instead so I could at least feed myself.
Six weeks later, I received an appointment. I was told it would take another seven weeks to get my money through. I asked them if my payment would be backdated, considering it had taken several months for an application to go through. They said a decision maker would decide if I wanted to make a claim. By this point, I knew there was no point arguing, so I went home and let the anxiety consume me.
One evening, I walked in and my landlord was waiting. “I wanted to discuss you potentially moving out, there’s someone else who’s interested in the room,” he said.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” I told him.
“Yeah, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he told me.
“I’ll need a few weeks to find a friends’ sofa or something,” I said.
“Yeah, let me know when that’s sorted,” he said, scrolling through his phone.
The panic had set in by this point. I had 50p in my bank account, was walking to job interviews, walking to the Jobcentre, and taking trains where I knew I could dodge the barriers. Soon I’d be sleeping under a bridge like the homeless people I saw every day on the streets.
What’s more, my work coach had given me homework and told me to attend a workshop on how to compile a CV. I already had two CVs – the one with my graduate experience and the one with retail experience. So in between packing up my belongings and asking friends if they had anywhere I could stay, I attended appointments and workshops where I explained what LinkedIn was to other claimants, helped them with their own CVs and asked the advisers who looked at their phones more than us if my money was coming through soon. They didn’t know. “Life is hard,” one of them told me.
Yes, it was hard. I was exhausted. My friends were working in exciting jobs, going out and living it up in London. My clothes were falling apart. I was being evicted. I had 50p to my name and lived off bread and jam. Now my only living option was with a friend of a friend, who offered me the floor of his bedsit. I felt unsettled by the way he looked at me – like I was a delicious treat, not a person – but what other choice did I have? I’d begged the Jobcentre staff for weeks to help me and been met with nothing.
So one afternoon, I packed up my belongings into suitcases and made the journey across the city, juggling more than I could carry. I was exhausted. Lack of food was giving me a constant headache and leaving me incredibly dizzy.
When I got off the train at London Bridge, I sank to my knees under the weight of what I was carrying. Beads of sweat dripped down my face, and I felt tears coming. What had I done to deserve this? What would I face when I arrived at his bedsit?
I refused to let myself cry in public. At that moment, I decided to get through whatever life was going to hurl at me. I would get through it in one piece. I would probably come out of it scarred, but I would heal those wounds when I had time. For now, I had to deal with what was in front of me.
So I rose to my feet and started walking again.
When I arrived, all I wanted to do was sleep, but I found myself having sex instead. He seemed unable to comprehend that I wouldn’t want to.
“You’ve got a body that deserves to be fucked,” he told me once.
Whenever I was reluctant, he would whine, “you wouldn’t be so cruel as to deny me”, wrapping his lips around my ear and tugging at my hair. I gave in, because I worried that if I didn’t, the filthy mattress that covered my back in sores would be taken away from me, too.
Every night as I tossed and turned in bed, his wheedling voice would echo in my dreams.
I soon got into a routine. Each week, I took a bus to the Jobcentre and got told I wasn’t working hard enough. Sometimes my money would be cut. Sometimes I would get on the phone to the service centre and ask them why my money wasn’t through. Sometimes my work coach would yell at me for not being lively enough.
Why wasn’t I lively? I was living off a combination of jam sandwiches and 15p couscous sachets while my roommate forced me into sex multiple times a week.
I soon became used to feeling hungry. Sometimes two or three days would go by when I would eat a slice of bread, with the mould picked off, and a sachet of couscous mixed with cold water – the electricity meter had run out – and just push my stomach repeatedly, as if pushing it enough would push the growling pains away.
I never knew when he’d return. Sometimes he was there a few nights in a row; sometimes he would disappear. Whenever I heard the key turn in the lock, I felt cold fear trickle through my entire body. Slowly at first, then a wave that rushed through me and left me feeling nauseous.
He’d thump down a massive box of condoms and I would know what his plans for the night were.
It was worse when he sat and ate his evening meal first. Watching someone else gorge themselves while you’re starving is difficult. But I never let myself cry in front of him. The tears only came at night, when I could smother them in the pillow.
Every inch of my humanity had been drained from me, and I could see no way out. I felt like nobody would care if I dropped off the face of the earth. Sometimes I wished I could, and I would consider putting an end to the miserable hell that was my existence.
On my worst days, when I knew I had five or six days alone with nothing but abuse and stale bread, I wouldn’t bother getting out of bed. Instead, I urinated into a saucepan that lay next to me, as I didn’t believe I was good enough to use a toilet.
Sometimes I would message my friends online, pretending to act normal and like everything was fine. They were oblivious to what was going on, and already starting to drift away into their new careers and friendship circles. I didn’t want to bother them with what I was going through. And I was ashamed. I’d been such a high flyer at university. Now what did I have? Nothing.
One night, I had a massive row with him, and walked out of the bedsit. I sat in the park opposite, shivering, and knew that I had to change something. I had to try and leave. If not tonight, then soon.
I tentatively messaged a friend, explained the bare minimum of what was happening, and they told me to seek refuge.
I wondered why anyone would care enough about me to offer me sanctuary – it wasn’t as if the government was giving me enough money to live on, or telling me the 40 job applications I made each week was good enough, so why should I believe I deserved anything? All the same, I made the calls, because it was something to do.
After I described my existence to the case worker in a listless monotone, she said I was a priority for a place in refuge and told me if I could get a train to meet her, she’d pick me up and take me to a safe house.
Something woke up inside me when she said that. It felt a bit like hope, but I was scared to think it might be. It was then that I made my flight across London.
I didn’t have enough money on my Oyster card to get through the ticket barriers. I knew that as I got on the train. But it was either climb over the barrier, risk getting in trouble, or give up and go back. And I couldn’t go back. When I arrived, a barrier was open, and I darted out – and towards a safe place.
As a journalist, I always have words. They are my bread and butter; what I rely on every day. But when I first arrived in refuge, for the first time in my life, I had no words. I couldn’t even process thoughts. For four weeks, I sat staring at the wall, sitting on the bed – which felt like such undeserved luxury after the stained mattress I had been sleeping on – and only leaving my room at night.
My key worker made a fresh application for Universal Credit for me, now I had moved. The housing element didn’t come through. They didn’t give me enough living allowance to get by. During the six week waiting period, I lived off tinned donated food. But I didn’t feel like I was nothing anymore. The people at the refuge cared enough to keep a roof over my head, even though I couldn’t get the funds to pay for it. They gave me food, even though I could not give them any money in return. I was reminded that compassionate people exist, and it gave me a reason to start smiling again.
During my first appointment with my key worker, I told her I had no money. “That’s OK, do you need food? We have plenty of food,” she told me, smiling and opening a cupboard.
She packed a bag full of cereal, pasta, rice, baked beans and bread, and asked if I needed any more toiletries. Then she walked me back to the house and unpacked a bag of kitchenware, loading them into a cupboard. “This is your cupboard,” she told me. Mine. I had something that was mine.
The women who worked at the refuge made me feel like I mattered, in stark contrast to the work coaches at the Jobcentre, who could only tell me I wasn’t doing enough and take my money away.
Things weren’t perfect by any means. Getting any form of benefit money was a battle that took as much energy as a full-time job.
One day, I had to get a bus to the next borough over to file an appeal. I joined a long queue of people – tired mums, screaming kids, elderly people. I was reminded of the mental images of people on the dole I’d been dealt when I was younger. Well, I was part of them now. But I wasn’t a benefit claimant because I didn’t work hard enough. Yet I worked so hard it hurt. We all did.
I watched the other women in the refuge getting rejected for benefits claims, getting cuts sent through from the Department for Work and Pensions, throwing their letters against the wall in anger because they didn’t know how they’d feed their kids. But it was easier because we were together. The weekly meetings with the job coach weren’t as difficult, because I had a safety net.
Over the next few months, I started caring about myself again. I ate normal meals. I went for walks. I slept in a clean, warm, comfortable bed. Sometimes the nightmares came, and sometimes flashbacks hit me during the day, but I started believing in myself again.
I applied for a job as a journalist, and the deputy editor emailed me back to say he was interested. A month later, I was sat in the garden when I got the call saying I’d been successful. This time when I cried, they were happy tears.
Since then, I’ve made new friends to replace those that drifted away, and I’m in touch with some of my family. I moved out of refuge and into a flatshare. A year on, and I’m an editor. Every day when I go into work I pass the spot I sank to the floor at London Bridge, the day I moved to live on that bedsit floor, and I am grateful that I found the strength to get up again, knowing that I’d face months of pain before I found my place in the world.
Universal Credit does not provide a safety net. Everyone who falls through it will experience what it means to live in poverty. And it can happen to anyone. I came from a middle class family, went to one of the wealthiest universities in the country, graduated with a 2:1 and had reams of work experience under my belt. Yet I had every ounce of my humanity sucked from me. Much as Theresa May tries to argue otherwise, Universal Credit is not a system that works. It is broken, and it breaks people. More than that – it destroys them.