It was a bad night in Bethlehem when a couple of travelers found themselves forced by a housing crisis to sleep in a lowly cattle shed. Yet, on an ordinary night in England nearly two thousand years later, Jake Sudworth frequently has to do the same.
Sudworth and his nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, know all about sleeping in cattle sheds, as well as sleeping in barns, cars, fields, bus shelters and anywhere else that is dry and quiet where they can rest unobserved before moving on at daybreak. They do not enjoy it. However, they appear to be trapped.
They belong to an uncounted army of rural poor, who slip almost invisibly from one small town to another, far away from the urban cardboard cities; largely unseen by the media. They belong, too, to a smaller group, which officially is not merely invisible, but non-existent – families who are forced to sleep rough with their children and whose greatest fear is that their poverty will incur the ultimate punishment in the confiscation of their children by social workers.
Officially, children like Sarah are ‘priority homeless’, guaranteed to be given shelter by the state, however cramped or temporary it might be. In reality, Sudworth and his daughter have been outwitted by a welfare system which has not only pushed them out into the cold but driven Sudworth to desperate solutions, including crime.
Sudworth is an involuntary vagrant. Now aged 53, he spent most of his working life as a freelance journalist in Africa and the Middle East, where his only failing was that he gathered no savings as he rolled from one job to another. In the early 1980s, he settled in Utrecht with a Dutch academic pathologist; their child, Sarah, was born on July 4 1981. Three years later, Sudworth moved back to England alone, found no work, sold his few belongings including his typewriter, lost his rented room in Sussex and became homeless in October 1984. He survived well enough and prided himself on being clean and well kempt. But in Holland, Sarah’s mother developed a voracious cancer and, eventually, in 1989, she died.
The Dutch authorities appointed Sudworth as Sarah’s legal guardian, and on May 17 1989, the seven-year-old girl, speaking barely a word of English, arrived at Dover to be cared for by her homeless father and the British welfare state. Since then, they have slipped inexorably downwards.
Sudworth told the Department of Social Security that he now had a daughter to look after. They demanded a birth certificate. He explained that the only copy had been taken and lost by the DSS in Eastbourne and that the Dutch authorities would not issue a replacement since they use certificates of residency, not birth, for their bureaucracy. The DSS stuck to its rules and refused to pay benefit for her. His own benefit was not enough to keep both of them in bed and breakfast. And so father and daughter began tramping the rolling hills of southern England, sleeping in stables, squatting in hedgerows, beating a path to the local offices of the DSS, only to be rebuffed.
Sudworth took Sarah to a library, dug out law books and social security regulations, and established that he had the right to go to a Social Security Appeal Tribunal. He wrote a letter of appeal to the DSS in Salisbury; they did nothing with it on the grounds that they could not read his signature. He wrote another letter of appeal to Poole; they did nothing with it on the grounds that he was complaining, not appealing. He wrote another letter of appeal to Salisbury; this time, they did nothing with it on the grounds that Sudworth could not appeal until they had made a decision for him to appeal against and since he had failed to produce a birth certificate, technically, they argued, they had not yet made their decision.
By the end of September, after four months on the road, Sudworth was exhausted. “Living rough with a child is horrible. There are all sorts of weirdos about. You have to carry her sleeping bag and her clothes as well as your own. Her legs get tired of walking. You have to carry her. You get tired, too. You have to look after her physical needs – food, shelter. You have to try and educate her. She knows a lot about barn owls and hares and things. But it’s no good. There’s too much pressure.”
And the worst of that pressure was fear of losing Sarah to a care order. At the time, Sudworth had only his anxiety to convince him that it was dangerous to take Sarah into any more DSS offices. Since then, he has obtained some of his DSS file and discovered that the office in Poole not only denied Sarah benefit but also sent a chilling memo to their colleagues in Winchester: “I understand the claimant is now living in your area…The question of his daughter’s safety is a matter which the Social Services should be made aware of, if he remains in your area.”
Father and daughter were now not only on the road, but also on the run. Sudworth came up with a plan. In Holland, he had set up a small PR business with a local man and he was still signatory to their bank account. “I decided to defraud this man, who had been my partner, of £2,000. I then got all dressed up, took Sarah by the hand and walked into a small private school. We saw the secretary and the head and by the end of that day, she was a pupil – a boarder. I used all the money to pay the fees for one term.”
With Sarah safe and warm, Sudworth renewed his efforts to obtain benefits for her in the hope that he might eventually get some permanent housing. In October, he finally managed to start an appeal using a poste restante address at a Dorset post office. Months went by and he heard nothing. The school term ended, and Sudworth decided to defend Sarah against the cold and the social workers by hitching to Dover and putting her on a ferry back to Holland where she could spend the Christmas holidays with friends of her dead mother. At the end of the holidays, he met her off the ferry, scooped more money out of his former partner’s account and hitched back to school with her for a second term.
Three weeks later, he discovered that he had missed his appeal. The tribunal had sent him a letter on December 20, telling him the date of his appeal hearing; the Dorset post office had held the letter for two weeks over the Christmas holiday and then returned it marked ‘not called for’ the day before Sudworth called in to see if there were any letters for him. In his absence, the tribunal had ruled against him. “It is entirely Mr Sudworth’s neglect if he fails to collect his post,” they said. He tried to appeal again. But officials did nothing on the grounds that he could not appeal against a decision which had been made more than three months ago.
“The DSS punish people. They use the rules to contain them, not to benefit them. And I’m not the only one with a child like this. Up on Ninebarrow Down in Dorset last month, I was looking for somewhere to sleep and I found a man with two daughters – they must have been about 12 and 14 – sleeping on a ground sheet in the open air. No-one was helping them. He said the police had moved them on several times and done nothing about them. Near Banbury, I met a civil engineer whose wife had died and left him with a young girl and, because he was looking after her, he had lost his job and then his home, and he couldn’t get unemployment benefit and he couldn’t get housing benefit – just like me.
“After a while, this chap managed to find some work and put the child in school. Then, of course, she had to wait outside the school for an hour and a half for him to come and pick her up. The teachers saw it, and he lost her – into care because he had ‘an itinerant way of life’. He was extremely cut up about it.”
Sudworth has kept fighting. In April, he asked again for benefit for Sarah and hit a baffling new problem. Officials at the DSS insisted he was a lone man with no dependant daughter and that he must sign on at the Unemployment Benefit Office as ‘available for work’ before he could receive any money; but the Unemployment Benefit Office insisted that he was a single parent who was looking after his daughter and was, therefore, precisely not ‘available for work’ and must go back to the DSS and sign on as a family. Round and round he went. The result was that neither he nor Sarah could get any benefit.
Without money, he turned to petty pilfering to survive. The next time he applied for benefit, officials insisted that they had to know how he had survived without state aid. Since he would not sign a confession to theft, they said he was failing to provide required information and blocked his application. He lodged more appeals but they were stopped on the grounds that his current predicament does not qualify as ‘a decision’ against which he can appeal. Last month, he sent an appeal by registered letter direct to the regional social security commissioners in Cardiff; they say they did not receive it.
With some help from a charity in Holland, Sudworth has kept Sarah in her boarding school. Every three weeks, he emerges from his hedgerow, scrubs himself down and walks into the school with all the other parents to take her out for the day. He has not paid the fees for last term. He has no way of paying for next term. Last week, the Christmas holidays began. Sarah joined her father on the road again, clutching her school report in her hand.
She has learned to speak English, she came top in maths with 83%, she won a prize for crossword puzzles and her headmaster wrote: “She has had another splendid term. Her wit and her common sense are most encouraging in one so young and I am sure her future here should be bright indeed. I hope that she enjoys a happy Christmas and that 1991 is as successful for her as 1990 has been.” When Jake Sudworth read that, he started crying.
UPDATE: When this story was published on Christmas Eve, the Guardian switchboard lit up with readers calling in to offer help for Jake Sudworth and his daughter. Sarah’s school also offered help. The result was that Jake was able to start renting a room in south Devon, and Sarah continued with her education. Since then, no news…..