Thursday, 22 August 2013

Depression, Discrimination, and (no) DSS

Last year I became depressed. Really depressed. Clinically can’t-get-out-of-bed just-want-to-die depressed. So depressed I could no longer handle my job and had to go on long-term sick leave for several months.  

I got sick pay but it came nowhere near to paying my rent and living costs, but I found out I was entitled to housing benefit. Now all I needed was a letter from my live-in landlord to prove I lived there and paid rent, as I had no tenancy agreement.

The landlord refused to give me a letter. He told me that if he did he would have to pay taxes and raise everybody’s rent, and “you don’t want that, do you?” “No” I said, intimidated.

Since he wouldn't give me a letter and the rent was paid in cash, leaving no paper trail, I could not prove I paid rent and so receive housing benefit. Over the next few months I spent my life savings (around £1000) on living and rent. Most of the time I was still too depressed to get out of bed.

As my savings started to run out, I panicked and started looking for flats. All I see is

Some don’t say this. So I call up and ask, explaining my circumstances – and they tell me “NO DSS”.
My fragile depressed mind could not cope with this constant rejection, nor the quickly looming threat of homelessness. I had no one I could stay with.

I try a local homeless centre, who only had very limited flats in obscure places with old men. As a young woman who has had a lot of bad experiences, this does not feel safe to me. I am scared and frightened and can’t cope and just want somewhere safe to live.

Desperate, I decide to lie. I start pretending I’m still working when I call potential landlords. The first flat I see is hellish, 14 stories up in the middle of nowhere with a balcony I could see myself jumping off.  The second, however, seemed perfect. Nice room, nice area, nice kitchen. Unfortunately like the last landlord the landlady lived-in and demanded cash-in-hand. But my money was almost gone and I needed to move fast, and I was able to claim housing benefit at this address, without her knowledge.  

A few weeks after moving in she became suspicious of my presence in the house. Although I had planned to make myself scarce during the day, my depression got the better of me and I spent too many days in bed. She was heavily pregnant so she didn't work.

She pulls me aside one day and starts shouting and demands to know if I’m on DSS. I deny everything. She says if she finds out I’m on DSS she will kick me out.  She won’t tell me why she would kick me out.
Because she is a live-in-landlord it is perfectly legal for her to evict me for any reason with ‘reasonable notice’ – which can mean any time.

Being threatened with homelessness again, being watched at home and forced to be out the house eight hours a day, pretending I’m at work, with nowhere to go, no money and no one to talk to - sent me into a suicidal tailspin.

Between visit’s to A&E and the Samaritans, I applied to council housing, stating my depression made it really hard for me to live with people and I couldn't cope anymore. It took forever and was a real struggle to get together. Exhausted but victorious, I handed the application in. The sour-faced assistant told me it would take 13 weeks just to look at my application. My application had several signed statements saying I was suicidal and my housing stress was the major contributor to this. I was advised that if I wanted it any sooner than this, I would have to make myself homeless. Then they might put me in a hostel. Or something.

Needless to say I couldn't cope with making myself homeless. The council was true to their word and didn't get back for 13 weeks, by which time, thankfully I had found accommodation. A friend’s landlord took pity on me and agreed to rent out the small room to me, knowing I was on DSS and was struggling to find a place to live. I can only imagine this was because she met me as her tenant’s friend first, realised I was a decent human being and not ‘DSS scum’.

I’m now four months into my tenancy, complete with a real tenancy agreement, and I love my new flat. So a happy ending for me. But my happy ending was due to sheer luck, and the story could have turned out a lot differently. And I’m sure has turned out very differently for lots of other vulnerable people.

I am still so frustrated that it is perfectly legal to discriminate against people on housing benefit in this way. Perhaps it would not be a problem, if the government was not relying so heavily on the private sector ‘to provide’ for DSS tenants, whilst offering no incentive for doing so or penalties for not doing so. Furthermore, despite low rates of occurrence ‘benefit fraud’ is never out of the papers, but I have yet to read about the private landlords who are dodging taxes and exploiting vulnerable tenants.