Benefits Britain: The real stories told

Regained confidence:  Chris (right) at The Bridge Project at The Salvation Army in Blackpool

Regained confidence: Chris (right) at The Bridge Project at The Salvation Army in Blackpool

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The Gazette meets some of the people living on hand-outs in Blackpool

Benefits – the topic that unites a nation in discussion but divides opinion.

Since Channel Five show Benefits Britain visited Blackpool last week, residents in the resort, still reeling from its portrayal in 999: What’s Your Emergency? have been quick to share their own opinions and stories on the subject.

The Gazette revealed yesterday how police, solicitors and charity bosses are seeing more and more people resorting to stealing in the face of “empty pockets and empty stomachs” caused by benefits sanctions.

Today, The Gazette meets some of the people living on hand-outs in Blackpool and discovers the real stories behind ‘benefits Britain’.

Tomorrow we highlight the way forward for many benefits claimants through training and education to show there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of unemployment.

Chris barely left his house in two years

At his lowest point Chris McDowall barely left the house for two years, and he admits he’d go days without changing his clothes or showering.

Bouts of severe depression made it impossible for him to see the point.

He’s now been out of work for 14 years.

The 52-year-old’s mental illness meant he was hard pushed to encourage himself to get back out and about.

And rolling repeat prescriptions for anti-depressants, treating the effect not the cause, and having his most basic needs met by the state meant there was no outside encouragement for him either.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “But I’m determined to get back into work now.”

Before being signed off work with depression Chris, originally from Motherwell in Scotland, had spent three decades working as a labourer and builder all over the country.

His evenings were spent playing guitar in a duo around Blackpool.

It’s only been in the last six months he’s had confidence to try to get this way of life back, since he discovered The Bridge Project at The Salvation Army in Blackpool.

The Project, he feels, has been the first place he’s been challenged, and helped, to change his lifestyle.

While Chris is thankful to have always had a home and for being helped by the state during his illness, there’s a sense that he could have been on the road to recovery sooner if something more than money and a roof had been offered.

“If I’d known about this place sooner,” he says. “I could have played a part in Blackpool.

“I can’t really remember much of the last 10 years. It’s been a waste.

“I do feel my medication has got me better, but doctors don’t give you much except for drugs.”

Chris was signed off from his work as a builder and labourer in 2000, after suffering with depression and alcohol problems.

Over the years his benefit claims have changed from receiving Disability Living Allowance (now Personal Independence Payments) for depression, to Job Seekers Allowance as his health has improved and he feels ready to work again.

He lives off around £72 a week, which covers food, electric, gas, council tax.

A chunk of this also goes to paying off debt he accrued while unwell and at times when he was sanctioned and had his benefits stopped.

Now Chris’s days are busy as he visits The Bridge Project every weekday afternoon, where he has made friends and learned new skills, including earning some certificates in food hygiene to broaden his job prospects.

He goes to church on a Sunday too, and when possible he’ll get to the football at Bloomfield Road.

He said: “I get up in the morning now and look forward to doing something.

“Now my aim is to get a job, I felt happier when I was working. I’m not asking much of the world.

“But I’ve been applying now for so long and you never hear back, it’s like going round in circles, but I’m determined to stay on track.”

‘Don’t tar everyone with the same brush’

Single mum Melissa Kimpton says people should consider the stories behind each benefit claimant before they are ‘tarred with the same brush’ by those with ‘simple solutions’:

Like any mother Melissa Kimpton values every minute spent with her children.

Especially so with two-year-old Alexia, who she almost lost last Christmas when she suffered multiple organ failure and was rushed into intensive care.

The toddler was on support machines for nine days, cared for at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool over Christmas, and was even pronounced clinically dead for seven minutes after her heart failed.

After the “miracle baby” battled back she hit the headlines, but as her story was broadcast both locally and nationally her 25-year-old mother came under fire online.

Melissa is a single mum with two young children, she has never had a job and lives off benefits, in a home on Grange Park – not that any of this related to the stories about her daughter.

But her situation prompted attacks online.

“People say things that are really hurtful,” she said. “We thought Lexi wasn’t going to make it. Yet people are slating you for being on benefits. They say some really nasty stuff.”

Melissa is adamant that not everyone can be tarred with the same brush.

“It’s easy for people to say ‘get a job’,” she added. “It’s not that easy in real life.

“People make out like you’re spouting out children for money, that’s not what I’m doing.”

Despite her being afforded the time to spend bonding with her daughter, watching her grow into a cheery, charming and curious toddler, Melissa says she’d still love to go out to work each day.

“I’m not glad to not be working,” she said. “I’d rather work. You want to be a role model for your children.”

The household’s income comprises disability living allowance for Lexi, carer’s allowance for Melissa and income support.

Melissa is very much her carer, having her own sleep interrupted to check the child is still breathing through the night.

Lexi’s development has been delayed by both her heart condition and having been born with hip dysplasia, meaning she didn’t take her first steps until she was 20-months-old, where most children start walking at around one-year-old.

“It’s constant, round-the-clock care for Lexi,” said Melissa.

“She can get very poorly, if she’s cold she turns blue, and her heart rate can jump up. It’s very scary.

“So she gets Disability Living Allowance and I get Carer’s Allowance for looking after her and income support too. We’re not exactly loaded. It just gets us by.

“I have to keep the house really warm so she doesn’t get cold so a lot of money goes on that.”

Each week £12 is deducted from this total for the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, which the mother pays out to have separate bedrooms for her children.

Melissa added: “It can be quite a big chunk of what we have to live off but I just pay it because I don’t want them to move us out.”

Melissa moved to the resort with her family five years ago, from Macclesfield.

She took up a course in travel and tourism at Blackpool and The Fylde College in which she excelled, earning a ‘student of the year’ accolade.

Then as she was looking for work she became pregnant with Lexi.

Melissa added: “When I was younger I wanted to work as air cabin crew. When I had Lexi I took a year out and then it all happened last Christmas.”

Nearly one year on as Lexi is fighting fit Melissa decided to return to education in September, taking up a course in health and social care at Blackpool and The Fylde College, inspired by the medics who cared for her precious daughter.

But after suffering health problems in the first few weeks of the course, Melissa dropped out and is now focussing on getting herself right for study.

She said: “I don’t want to be sitting on my bum all day.

“My biggest problem is that I’ve got no work experience. I’m conscious of why anyone would hire me, they look for people with experience,” she said. When I was at the Job Centre once the woman said there’s not much point me even applying for stuff.

“It’s like I’m stuck in a vicious cycle.”

Val’s habit of turning strangers into family

When people turn up at Val Taylor’s house, it is usually because they have nowhere else to go.

It is an inconspicuous building on Dickson Road – from the outside, it looks just like any other.

But inside, it is home to a group of 11 people who were once complete strangers. Now they are a family.

Some of them have lived on the streets, some have learning difficulties, others cannot read or write – all have been shunned by society.

Yet for more than 30 years, Val has been giving these people a roof over their heads and three warm meals a day.

Speaking from the kitchen, where she is preparing a meal for her residents, she makes no effort to hide the problems they face.

She says: “If they don’t live here, they don’t manage.

“In the past I have had druggies and alcoholics – I have looked after them. I cook everything freshly for them. I take them to the doctors if they need it.

“I honestly love this job,” she adds. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. And they all respect me – they don’t swear in front of me.”

She recalls the first time the council approached her, more than three decades ago, about using her property – a former hotel – to take in a family on benefits.

She said: “The council started me off doing this – it was November 6, 1982, the year the Illuminations went on for another couple of days.

“They sent me family after family. I’ve still got every rent cheque since I started.”

Now she rents out rooms to people who would otherwise find themselves sleeping rough.

Some pay their way using their own savings, most rely on housing benefits.

But with government support often taking seven weeks to come through, she says, many private landlords would lose patience and kick people out on the streets.

She said cuts to benefits, including legal aid, have hit her residents hard.

“We had a solicitor that came and sorted legal aid for four or five people,” she added.

“When they stopped legal aid, he stopped coming.

“It can be heart-breaking and it’s getting worse, not better.”

Val and her son Nestor recently invited Channel 5 into the property to film to film a segment for Benefits Britain.

Nestor, 30, who has been helping to run the place for the last seven years, said he wanted to highlight all the positive work his mother does for the resort. “All they want is to be accepted,” he said.

“They have got noting and just want to be part of something.

“When you treat them as equals, that is all they want.”

One of the long-term residents, who asked not to be named said: “They are genuinely good people.

“I went to one hotel in Blackpool, run by two men, and to be absolutely frank they didn’t care about anything.

“The only thing they wanted was the rent up front.

“But the family has been absolutely fabulous – they couldn’t have been nicer.

“Val is a genuinely good person. I can’t say anything against her.”

Nestor said: “We are not doing this for money – the money all goes back into the property.

“Some of the people here we are not getting paid for because it takes seven weeks to get housing benefit. It’s completely outrageous.

“A property like this does not run on thin air.

And he said the stigma attached to people on benefits is not helping the situation.

“You can criticise them and look down on them but that is not going to help them,” he said.

“We are on the front line, taking people who have nowhere to go and putting a roof over their head.

“We are here picking up the pieces of people who are not wanted.”