Sunday 16 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I lived in the same flat in Havana from the day I was born to the day I left to come to the UK. I breathed the air of the same streets for more than a quarter of a century. My two primary schools (I was transferred to a different one in Year 6 due to a shortage of teachers) were within walking distance of my house. And I mean walking distance! I could have skipped to either without knackering myself out in the process. I learnt how to ride my bike in the local park and whenever I go back home these days I see other children learning to ride their bikes in the same park. Despite the myriad economic, social and political problems we face in Cuba and which I have discussed here, returning to Havana and watching those children on their bicycles gives me a sense of continuity and feelings that perhaps in the near future the situation will improve. As long as it is sans Castro. However, if truth be told, my family did consider moving to a different borough in Havana because six people living in a one-bed flat was, you might imagine, a tad bit tight. On the other hand, part of a child's job description is not to be bogged down by adults' concerns and problem. When I look back on my childhood through the rose-tinted lenses of maturity I see a carefree existence.

Will children born and raised here in the UK have the same memories I have of my barrio? Some will, many won’t. Especially those whose families are in receipt of housing benefits.

Soaring property prices in London mean that not only those looking to buy a house or flat are affected. Those at the bottom of the property chain are bearing the brunt, too. You could say the latter are in an even more desperate situation. They have seen the financial support they receive towards their accommodation suffer as a consequence of an increase in the government’s welfare bill.
What kind of memories will today's children have of the houses in which they grew up?

The way it works is simple. An unemployed or low-waged person rents a house or flat in the private sector. After a lot of form-filling the new tenant is able to pay the rent with her or his housing benefits. The landlord or landlady receives the money directly from the tenant’s bank account. In theory everyone’s happy. Including the children, if any. But the reality is anything but uncomplicated.

Earlier last year the overall benefit cap of £500 per week to cover rent was introduced. Immediately tenants renting in the private sector found themselves out of pocket. On top of that housing benefits sometimes can take weeks to be processed, meaning that your rent goes in arrears. Even the most sympathetic and understanding landlord/landlady will come knocking on your door one day. Unfortunately those in receipt of housing benefits will not be able to come up with a proper answer. Eviction, then, becomes a reality.

Since part of my work consists of advising families who are in this situation I will not include any of the cases I come across regularly. Suffice to say that I can provide enough examples of people who are going through this type of crisis and whom I have met in my personal and private life.

There is, for instance, the single mother of two who is going through her fifth move in two years. She started in south London where she was born and grew up and is now about to be sent to Ipswich. No more London for this Londoner, whose missing intervocalic “Ts” will no longer delight the ears of yours truly.

There is the other mum of a boy and a girl who until recently had a job she loved in the social and community sector and was respected by her neighbours. Her only crime was to live in a flat that cost approximately 400 quid per month. Once the benefits cap was introduced in April last year she found herself about £150 short. Her children had been in that apartment since birth and loved the area. This mother felt safe and despite this being London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth and therefore prone to causing detachment and isolation sometimes, there was a strong sense of community amongst her neighbours. Because she worked locally she was also able to form solid relationships with people.

What of the children? The little people are the ones of whom I think the most. My most indelible memories as a child is the sense of protection I had around me. If I got myself into trouble I could always count on a neighbour to knock on my house’s door and tell my mother or father. What will become of the children who have to move houses six or seven times before they are even eight years old? On one hand we want resilient individuals but on the other hand we are not making that possible. A house and the sense of security it brings is probably one of the most important influences on a human being’s life. Of course, if you are of a peripatetic nature, then this post does not apply to you. Some people like moving, they like change, they can never settle anywhere long enough. It might have something to do with our nomad existence millennia ago; the constant search for the right conditions.

It is different however when we talk about little ones who do not know the meaning of the phrase “housing benefits”. Without wanting to sound socialist (I’m not, believe me), everyone should have the right to a decent habitable abode where their offspring (if any) can realise their full potential. When will we, in this capitalist society, realise that the happier the workforce, the better the results? That the more satisfied families are with their living conditions, the more positive their contribution to society will be? When you look at Nordic polities, for example, and you analyse new, forward-thinking laws and their impact on people, like paternal leave, you will see that the carrot always works better than the stick. It has been noted in countries like Norway, for instance, that men feel much happier after they have been on paternal leave. Their productivity levels increase and there’s less risk of the couple splitting up. The consequences of what many children in the UK are going through right now because of the change in housing benefits and increase in property prices will only come out in the future, both immediate and mediate. Loss of curricular times, instability, psychological damage, conflicts between children and their parents (to the former the latter will be the ones to blame for yet another move), withdrawal symptoms (when you are in your fifth or sixth school making friends is more difficult, and anyway, what’s the point? You will be sent somewhere else soon), the list of adverse effects goes on. All the for the sake of a few bob.

In the past couple of years whenever I’ve been in the park with my daughter or walked through my local market or popped down to the shops I have run into people whose faces I recognise from living in my same barrio. After a courteous “hello”, the conversation immediately switches to those who are absent and have no chance of coming back. Remember so and so? They will ask me. Then a name pops into my head followed by an image. They’re gone, they’ve been re-housed. Re-housed, what a funny word. Re-housed until they are moved on again. And the children? They will be lucky to find a park where they can learn to ride their bike.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on 19th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I was born in a time when ordinary people didn't own their own homes.... before borrowing from banks or building societies was heard of. Life seemed to be much easier then. We had our own class in society and were satisfied with it. We lived through wars and made do with what we could get in the way of food and cash... but as soon as the fighting stopped men got greedy and look where we are now... as you described. Yes, there's something to be said for the old days.

  2. Not sure what it is going to look like soon, as greed rises more and more, many are lucky to be living homeless at a warm shore

  3. Loved the music.
    After reading this piece I am just thankful for all I have.
    I feel for the kids you spoke of.
    I cannot imagine moving 5 times in 2 years, that is tough.

    Thanks for sharing and keep up the 'good work'

  4. A neighborhood in a metropolitan environment and a small, rural community have at least one major element in common: It is possible for a child to grow up knowing virtually everyone around him and, in many ways, it is living in a rather idyllic setting for anyone seeing the world through the eyes of a child. The small, rural community was my childhood, and I became a nomad when I was eighteen.

    While in a sense I think everyone has a "right" to have as many children as he or she might wish, I also think it is an individual's "responsibility" to have only as many children as that person can afford to raise in a reasonably comfortable manner.

    In the U.S., for instance, some argue that many unwed mothers are in the "business" of having babies because the more children they have, the more federal government dollars they receive. How does a society handle such instances of "irresponsibility" on the part of adults while not causing children to suffer the consequences?

    The ultimate problem stems from adult irresponsibility, not government failure, in my opinion. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions (perhaps, no solutions at all), but the search for utopian existence, whether in a religious or a political sense, pushes society more toward a dystopian reality.

    Another interesting and well-written piece, CiL. I enjoyed it a great deal. And, another "anthem" of the rock era to accompany the words. Well done.

  5. Sad and bad. And all too familiar. Our welfare payments only contribute a fraction of the rent. And the wait for public housing can be years. And years.
    So we have a generation (at least) of those people who need the most support, but who have never known housing security - with all the benefits which flow from it.

  6. I had an idyllic childhood in London many years ago playing completely freely in the streets or up the woods - totally without any adult supervision - it is sad how times have changed and the sense of community is vanishing...Greetings from Nice

  7. Fram, I agree that adult responsibility has a role to play. The two mums I mentioned in my column, however, had the odds stacked against them. They chose to become mothers but they didn't choose to become single parents. To me, ultimately, it's a case of balancing a person's right to choose with the government's duty to safeguard this person should they fall by the wayside. I have always advocated for free will, for the freedom to create, innovate, contribute, not just to your own finances, but also to the country's coffers. Independence to invest in yrou future needn't be tied to an individualistic agenda. That's one of the reasons why I can't and will never be a socialist. Was born in it, lived it, bought the T-shirt and gave it away for free on eBay. I honestly believe that we could have the kind of social housing in the UK that could enable hundreds of thousands of families to live comfortably (we're not talking luxury here). I'm sure that the majority of those families will contribute positively to society. There will always be the rogue one, but 1 out of 20? Maybe out of 30? I can live with that number.

    Thank you all for your kind comments. I hope you have a brilliant week ahead.

    Greetings from London.

  8. we rented and moved around a bunch til we had kids....after that i got out of the corporate arena and the required mobility of the last 20 years i moved 15 or so times...but since the boys were born only twice....we own now...i will say i wish we did not own...its as much a liability in this age as it is a security...

  9. It is all very complicated. I so agree with you though re happy workforce! People have gotten very unwilling to give to others here in the states-- or to the poor I should say-- and there is great bitterness all around. K. Manicddaily.

  10. I am extremely grateful that as a person over 65 years, I am able to receive government assistance with my apartment, which is actually one room large enough for a small kitchen area, a bed, table, and a chair. It is all I need and honestly all I want. I think that a lot of people who want cut-backs in funding for housing for families and seniors think that we live in some sort of fancy houses and only think of how we might get over on the government. I find that ludicrous.

    I've worked in several social service agencies and known many single parents but have yet to meet one parent who has children for the sake of receiving welfare. I really don't know how anyone could think there are people who have children for this reason. There are indeed parents who are emotionally or mentally ill and know no better than to have children and may possibly have children for such a bizarre reason but I would guess there might be as many as one in a million.

    I am a bit of a socialist myself and I appreciate how you seem to have a strong sense of caring for others. I think one may have to be in situations where there is little to no choice for whatever reasons to understand or have a sense of what makes many poor or marginal people tick. Regardless, it is refreshing to see how you care, and I for one appreciate it very much.

  11. this is a sad development... we moved houses when my eldest daughter was in fourth grade and for her it was extremely difficult - though the younger two did fine - it depends a bit on the kid's character as well i think

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  13. I am not sure I ever have left two comments for a post before, but I will this time to continue the discussion.

    Nearly one-half (that is nearly fifty percent) of all births in the U.S. today are to unwed mothers. I am not sure what the percentage is in the U.K. And, this is not to say all these mothers are dependent on government assistance. It is to say, more often than not, the salary of one person alone is not sufficient to care for a child, much less multiple children, as frequently is the case.

    Fathers, whether wed or unwed, need to be held accountable for supporting their children. Too often, they are not, which is a large part of the financial problem.

    There is a difference between helping people who need help and supporting them ad infinitum, which, to me, seems to be the trend.

    Also, I do distinguish between people in their prime and the elderly; between people who have real disabilities and people who do not.

    And, incidentally, I know there are statistics and damn statistics, but charitable giving has been on the rise in the U.S. for the past few years.

    All right. I will sit down and be quiet now.

  14. Prometo volver con mas tiempo, pero me gustaría leer tu blog, paso a paso.
    Un saludo desde Palma

  15. It's a policy that makes no sense - on so many levels.

    It makes no sense economically, as families have to be 're-housed', which (as there are so many families in this situation and so few houses) effectively means staying in bed-and-breakfast accommodation which cost more than the additional benefit would do.

    It makes no sense in terms of social diversity, for all the workers from essential but low-income jobs will move away from high-cost-housing areas, and then who will sweep the roads or collect the rubbish?

    Most of all it makes no sense to families - and I worked in Child Protection, and, like you, can evidence the harm done to children when there is no stability at home.

    So - the whole thing is simply bonkers!

  16. Oh how this post resonated with me!
    I often compare today with my childhood, and it makes me fear for our children's future.
    What will their lives be like then? There is so much greed and fragmenting of society, even within family units.
    Reading this has really made me think...and I feel so privileged to live the life I have. I would simply hate to be moving house every few years...being uprooted and isolated, only to bond with neighbours then move away again. Seems like a peculiar way to build a community!

    Oh but I loved the music...really lifted my rather sombre thoughts :)

  17. Nobody really chooses to be on the dole. The happiest nations are those whose citizens pay high taxes and can expect high support in times of need. Too bad we're all schooled to be capitalists, seeing the needy as spongers, not realizing we're all, in some way, one paycheck away from hard times.

    Very thoughtful post.

  18. dear friend, i ran out of time...but i'd like to wish you a great week ahead.
    ...and thanks so much for all your lovely comments on my blog!:))

  19. There is something quite weird and wrong going on, and I think politicians are afraid to tackle it. Some of it, though, as Valerie suggests, is about peoples own expectations. Things changed very much when Thatcher aimed her sights at a property owning Britain.

  20. Como siempre, gran música, U2 y Green Day utilizaron la intro de esa cancion para Saints Are Coming, saludos.

  21. I'm with you Cubano. Displacing people and robbing them of a sense of security will affect society as a whole, in the long run. I had the unfortunate situation of having to move three times last year because our house caught on fire and the repairs took 8 months. The upheaval, not being familiar with my surroundings and having few of my own belongings really taxed me, not to mention my children. We are ll securely back home now but I do feel concern for the thousands that live that undteady existence.

  22. Wow - 6 of you in 1-bed flat and you were a happy kid due to the neighborhood. There is a lesson to be learned in that.

    We "needed" to move house when my daughter grew out of her crib and my son needed space for desk to do schoolwork. People laughed when we moved directly across the road, but we loved our neighborhood, on the same street as the elementary school.

    How horrible for those people in the UK who may need to move due to a change in government policy. They are lucky to have you to help them.

  23. I am angry at these times, the greed for money (not money itself) is the root of all the evil and suffering in this world. If only the cake were divided up fairly eh?



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