Policies implemented under the guise of ‘austerity’ have had harmful psychological effects. Austerity measures (such as, bedroom tax, universal tax credits, reviews of claimants, closure of key services and zero hours contracts) have increased poverty and social inequality, and there has been an increased media focus on these issues. The consequences of these increased environmental pressures have resulted in a negative impact on people’s mental health which have been broken down into five key factors: humiliation and shame; fear and distrust; instability and insecurity; isolation and loneliness; and being trapped and powerless (Psychologists Against Austerity, 2015).
As a group of Psychologists and Trainees, we have witnessed the effects that social and economic changes have had on the communities we work with. As a result of our shared experiences, we decided to join with the Walk the Talk collective and engage in a form of social action within our local community.
Braunstone is a residential area within the city of Leicester. Until the 1920s, Braunstone was mainly farmland. However, as the population of Leicester increased and the city expanded there was a demand for affordable housing. A large council estate which was built in Braunstone as part of a ‘slum clearance’ programme in 1936. Within the wider community, Braunstone has seen as a deprived area and has been associated with negative views and unhelpful discourses.
What we did
A group of 15 of us visited Braunstone collecting stories from the local community about the themes of Walk the Talk: The benefits system, homelessness and food poverty. This neighbourhood has historically been disconnected from ‘Big P’ Politics; they have expressed disillusionment with politicians and feel that their voices are not heard by those in positions of power (‘I'd love to see the MPs swap places with us and see how it's works for them’; ‘Will our voices get heard?’). However, the people of Braunstone are highly politically aware and have strong views. We asked community members what they thought was important for Walk the Talk to report back to parliament. We have organised these under headings reflecting the five key factors:
- Humiliation and shame
- Food banks: ‘it’s very difficult the first time we walk through the door’
- ‘Even food banks are stretched thin - not enough to cook a proper meal.’
- The local Foodshare is currently distributing 96 bags per week and demand exceeds stocks, this means that the Foodshare is having to consider allocating resources based on eligibility criteria which they have resisted so far.
- Using Foodshare could be a shaming experience if eligibility criteria are brought in. For example, if benefits have stopped a family may have no choice but to access Foodshare, this shame may then be compounded by the experience of being told that you have ‘exceeded’ that ‘quota’ (the implication being that this person has been somewhat irresponsible for not having appropriately managed their resources and is ‘draining’ finite community resources in a selfish way; these messages are perpetuated by media of ‘benefits scroungers’)
- Fear and distress
- Confusing to navigate ever changing systems that are there for social support.
- The system was described as ‘overwhelming’ and there was acknowledgement that not only are people in crisis, but the system is in crisis.
- Feeling ‘blocked’ – ‘everything you try to do is blocked’ – ‘feeling exhausted by it all’; ‘I feel like throwing in the towel’. People we spoke to had noticed that help was not forthcoming at the first request; they spoke of keeping ‘on and on otherwise no one will do anything’.
- ‘Feels like you're fighting a losing battle all the time’
- We heard from one woman who sought support after she fled domestic abuse. She told us: ‘there is only one mental health bed in Leicester for women trying to get away from domestic violence’ when this wasn’t available she was placed in a mixed homeless hostel alongside people who ‘filled me with fear’ on top of the fears related to fleeing domestic violence. She felt very vulnerable and unsafe.
- One housing support service described their pleas with statutory services on behalf of a service user: ‘You need to stop the pressure, this person’s going under’.
- Support staff: ‘If all the people that needed us came to us we wouldn't be able to cope ourselves!’
- Tenancy support organisation told us that benefits claimants feel threatened by sanctions if they don’t fulfil certain expectations, sanctions can be for months at a time placing them in arrears with their rent and at risk of not being able to feed themselves.
- Sanctions remove access to much needed support, leading to ongoing mistrust of well intentioned services.
- Instability and insecurity
- The community was very aware that support services locally are currently in flux; 400 sure start centres closed across the UK over recent years.
- We visited a women’s service. It was described as ‘the only support I can get - if this closes down it'll not end well’.
- Privatisation of probation services has meant that one of the services we visited has had to cut back from 7 staff down to just 3. As a result they have had to drop some of the services they offer – and there appears to be less therapeutic work.
- All the services we visited had had to cut posts over recent years: One spoke of ‘Shrinking services but increasing need due to changing outside world impacting on people’.
- ‘The outside world has changed massively - destabilising tenancies. We've had to adapt to the changes.’
- ‘We are seeing more young people coming in saying they're sofa surfing.’
- There has been a general rise in the cost of living but benefits have been frozen since 2011.
- ‘Cuts mean we can only offer short term support - but some people need continual support - have to discharge them, hope they muddle on for a bit and then open them again.’
- Isolation and loneliness
- Sense of community: reaching out to people that don’t access services is harder to do due to 1:1 work and outreach work being cut in favour of group work and office-based support, there is a hidden population that is not accessing resources. They are only discovered when there is a crisis.
- We heard from a mother who cared for disabled parents (who each lived in their own home) and children (who lived with her). She was a lone parent and acknowledged she had no one to support her. But was unable to regularly access the women’s centre as didn’t have child care or money for travel. This increased the sense of isolation and loneliness. The Women’s centre is about to move premises due to funding cuts, and was one of the few outlet’s she had for frustrations and difficulties she had encountered.
- Current system to access social housing is presents challenges to pre-existing communities. New social tenants who have never had any connection with the area can move to an estate making settling in more difficult and making it more challenging for the sense of community in the area to be maintained. It also means that young people moving out of their parent’s home have to accept that they may be asked to move away from their community and everything that’s familiar to them. Generations of the same family are being separated this way.
- Cuts to local authority budgets have led to closure of crucial support services (eg libraries and bus services) which makes getting support in a crisis more difficult (eg access to the internet when there is a financial problem or when Universal Credit is introduced).
- Trapped and powerless.
- ‘The Welfare reform act 2012 has been an absolute disaster for people.’
- ‘Benefits cap is very detrimental to families.’
- Community members and support staff are anticipating future problems, ie Universal Credit
- Universal Credit is based on a business model which is not appropriate and is inadequate in a social care context: it will be a live system which demands claimants use the internet and have an email address to access. The claimant has responsibility for immediately updating the system if change happens. Many people who aren’t computer literate and those with disabilities or complex needs could be disadvantaged by this arrangement and this may lead to further social exclusion. ‘Some people don’t feel comfortable using computers, some have low literacy levels; many people in Braunstone do not own a computer.’
- Support services are ‘stockpiling food’ in preparation for universal credit coming in and people being left without money.
- It was clear that it really won’t be helpful to enforce it upon those who are unable to handle a monthly lump sum. Women with children we spoke to were anticipating having to make a choice between essentials when their monthly lump sum appears (eg new school shoes or rent) ‘It's Hobson's choice.’
- ‘It's scary to think that when our children grow up there’s gonna [sic] be nothing for them - we're already living in poverty.’
- Powerless workers: Ex-housing worker for a local council is now on long term sick ‘I'm not sure I’d want to do the job anymore.’ – speaking of how worn down she felt by not being able to effect change. She spoke of how difficult she found it having to turn people away and ‘gate keep’ scarce resources when, actually, she wanted to help those in need.
- Powerless workers: Zero hours contracts – We heard an account of a previously ‘looked-after’ young person who was disadvantaged by retrospectively applied regulation that people under 34 years cannot have own flat (if they are accessing social housing they have to live in shared housing or at home). The young person was unable to live at home but didn’t have enough money for her own home. She took a private tenancy because she didn’t want to live in a shared house with strangers and housing benefit only covered 70% of rent. She worked on a zero hours contract which meant that some weeks she worked and some weeks she had no work at all. Her debt spiralled as she had to top-up rent.
- A local housing support service ‘used to be prevention whereas we're moving more and more to crisis work’ – they spoke of not getting to work as much with prevention any more due to time being taken up by crisis work.
- The service used to do a more therapeutic role but now it's more about maximising income – ‘How can we help get you as much money as possible so you can doggie paddle and keep your head above water?’
- ‘We see lots of statutory overcrowding - people sleeping in every room.’
- Service users and service providers feel bombarded with mixed messages and information about change, about politics and become over-whelmed when trying to make sense of all this information. Service-users often have to make sense of this in the context of managing their own difficulties (mental health, housing, financial). This leads to a sense of feeling trapped, unable to make an informed decision or action change, despite best intentions.
- Barriers to employment:
- Stagnant debt whilst unemployed - becomes ‘live’ as soon as you start working.
- ‘Most people don't have a computer at home. And if you don't have a computer and you're trying to find a job you're buggered.’
One woman we met told us exactly what was important to pass on to those in positions of political power:
‘Tell them that their pledges to support victims and survivors of childhood abuse are meaningless when they close down all the services survivors rely on to recover and feel part of society as adults.
In the [homeless hostel] almost everybody when I was there regardless of class, race, age, gender had a background of abuse/neglect/being in care and that's why they'd ended up with the problems which lead to them becoming homeless, and also why they couldn't rely on family support to keep a roof over their heads when things went wrong as adults. As you'll know, abuse survivors are more vulnerable to domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health problems, 'antisocial' behaviour, physical health problems...many of my own physical and mental health problems are as a result of my childhood. So when they close hostels, refuges, cut benefits, cut restorative justice services, mental health services, it's abuse survivors who suffer...living in poor conditions, using food banks, no heating, no disability care, no emotional support, no hostel places, isolation…’
How do we maintain hope?
Braunstone was awarded nearly £50million in New Deal For Communities funding in 2000. This led to big changes over the past decade such as increased access to leisure and health services. It has also left the area with a sustained income from assets acquired by the receiving organisation (‘Braunstone Community Association’, now known as ‘BInspired’). Profits from these assets continue to be used for the ongoing benefit of the community through provision of support services (eg employment and education support and the Foodshare). Foodshares are based on the principle of sharing excess food produced by a society with the community (as opposed to ‘Food Banks’ which are designed to meet a need for people who don’t have enough to eat). The Braunstone Foodshare is open to everyone and has become a place to share meal ideas, bring together cultures and promotes openness between residents and enhances a sense of community. Residents described Braunstone as ‘a really good community to live in’.
We spoke to staff teams on the estate who have developed a stable set of team values. Despite the current difficult context, one of the teams has suffered little or no staff turnover. Workers there were passionate about what they did and considered their roles to be ‘more than a job’. They are continually working to sustain this. There was an acknowledgement that Universal Credit has the potential to simplify a very confusing system and prepare people better for moving back to work.
Isolation and loneliness are being fought via the Foodshare, regular garage sales, farm projects, a parenting group, a meet and chat group for older adults and a food festival with foods from different local people's home countries.
The community was persevering despite these five areas of difficulty. They were not giving up, and were doing their best to keep services consistent. There was a palpable sense that the community was courageous; their advice to others was to be assertive and not be afraid to repeat requests for support. They were bold and were supporting each other to persevere.
What we’d like you to do
We acknowledge that our elected representatives are undoubtedly incredibly busy and that Braunstone represents just one set of a host of needs amongst the nation. However, Braunstone is not unique; many communities in the UK are facing the same issues. We urge you to hold in mind the people behind the stories mentioned here and to ensure that their voices are heard (and really listened to). To carefully and empathetically consider the very real and human impact such policy changes have to those relying on help from the state. Please don’t tire of speaking up for them.