Poor People series 5 – helping the hopeless

The Guardian, September 1 1994

They were an odd couple. He looked about 20, she seemed a little younger but, although they were adults, they had the look of lost infants, straying together through the streets of Sheffield, clutching each other for safety, wide-eyed and aimless, drifting towards the sound of a Salvation Army band, and when one of the Salvation Army officers got them talking, he heard a story that was just as odd.

They were childlike in their manner and slow of speech but they explained that they were brother and sister, that their mother was always drinking ‘mucky beer’, that she had beaten them often and finally, that afternoon, she had thrown the brother out of the house. The sister had decided to follow him. Now, they were out in the cold with nowhere to go and nothing to their name, except for two board games which they hugged to their chests. His was a box of Subuteo table football. Hers was called simply The Game of Life.

The Salvation Army officer tried to persuade them to go home, but they reacted with such passionate disgust at the idea that he turned instead to the authorities for help. He went to the police who said it was nothing to do with them. He contacted the social services and the housing department, but both of them said that there was nothing they could do. The odd couple might have the minds of children, but they were over 18, so they had no priority in their queues, and, anyway, they had left their home of their own free will so they would be classified as ‘intentionally homeless’ and barred from official help. The Salvation Army officer was sure they would never cope on their own, so he thought again and decided to take them to Nomad.

Nomad is the creation of poor people in Sheffield, who discovered for themselves that the welfare net which had once broken the fall of the vulnerable had been so riddled with procedural holes that it was possible now to tumble right through it and to land in utter destitution, beyond the reach of all official help, beyond the sight of all official eyes.

Nomad was constructed out of the anger of the destitute, who understood the system well enough to guide others through it and who worked with the nuts and bolts of survival, finding old houses to restore, scooping up unwanted furniture to hand out to the needy, offering their own homes as shelter in a crisis. It was a lifeboat built by drowning people, though the ocean was always going to sink them in the end.

The organisation was started by a woman called Jackie Day, now aged 34, who fell straight through the safety net herself when she and her children fled from various violent partners. On one occasion, they spent three nights sleeping rough in the woods together before trailing back home. When she finally fled for good, with five young children aged between three and twelve, they took refuge on a friend’s floor and spent more than a month there before the housing authorities agreed to give the six of them a single room in a bed-and-breakfast hotel.

Jackie Day was not content to be a victim and she pushed hard to be given a house, hacking her way through the official inquiries which tried to suggest that she was intentionally homeless. But when she finally succeeded eight weeks later in getting hold of the key to a two-bedroom council maisonette, she found herself surrounded by another procedural jungle, because she had no furniture. Her last home had been a caravan 30 miles outside Sheffield. All of its furniture was fitted and anyway she was scared to go back.

She tried social security for a grant from the social fund, but she found that the grants had been scrapped. She asked them for a crisis loan, not knowing how she would ever repay it, but she found that she didn’t qualify because she was new to the city. She tried social services but they wouldn’t help her because she had no social worker and didn’t need one. She tried the probation service but they said she hadn’t broken the law. In desperation, she went to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and told them that her children were at risk. But they could not help, explaining apologetically that red lshe had never been prosecuted for cruelty or neglect.

“Are you telling me I’ve got to go back and batter my kids? Batter one for a suite and do another for a bed?”

“We’re sorry,” they said.

Jackie Day went to her family and they said she could always come round, but there was no room for all her children to sleep there, and they were all poor themselves so they had no spare furniture. One relative gave her a floor rug to get started. So Jackie moved into her maisonette with her five children and a couple of carrier bags of their clothes and settled down to live in a bare shell. They ate in cafes – they had no cooker nor pots nor pans to make their own meals. If it rained, they stayed in and made sandwiches. They sat on the floor and ate on the floor and, at night, they slept together on their rug on the floor.

Finally, Jackie Day managed to fiddle the system to make it do its work. She had a nephew who was on probation and whose probation officer was sympathetic. He managed to smuggle them two double beds, some kitchen equipment and some chairs by pretending to believe that it was Jackie’s nephew who needed them. It was then that she decided to fight back by forming Nomad, because, by that time, she had discovered that she was not alone, that she belonged to a swelling crowd of exiles who had been locked out of normal life.

The maisonette which she had been given was in the very poorest patch of Sheffield, known as Pye Bank, a sociological house of horrors, which has captured 2,500 people whose lives have been stunted and twisted out of shape by the force of their circumstances. It is less than a mile from the thriving centre of Sheffield but this is a place where just about no one has money to spare because just about no one can find regular work. Of all those who are able to work, only just over a fifth of them have jobs, often part-time. All the rest (76%) are unemployed. Among families with children, it is even worse – more than four fifths of them (82.3%) have no wage earner at all. The jobs which were supposed to ‘trickle down’ from the new rich of the 1980s have never materialised.

Twenty years ago, it was a thriving place, a working class estate where most people worked and where those who did not were protected by the state. First the jobs went, draining out of the steel industry and its network of support services. Then, as the money left the pockets of its residents, so the local businesses deserted their streets. The high street banks ran for cover, leaving only the TSB behind them. Most of the shops went including the old Wilson Tupholme department store with the self-service grocery. The Studio Seven Cinema, one of the working men’s clubs, the local authority youth clubs, three of the post offices, two of the primary schools – they all fled. Even the churches abandoned their flocks leaving only a few maverick ministers behind them.

By the time that Jackie Day arrived, Pye Bank had become an obstacle course for everyday living. It is not simply that its residents are poor, although they certainly are. Most of her neighbours are scraping a living out of the bottom of the benefit barrel – 67% of them are on income support, which is calculated to provide the bare minimum and no more – so that, for example, while most homes in the suburbs have at least one car, in Pye Bank, 85% of them have no car and no access to one. But more than that, they are suffering from being poor.

In Pye Bank, they have the highest rate of hospital admissions in the city. They die from heart disease at three times the rate of their neighbours in the suburbs. Their children are shorter and lighter. The adults die sooner.

They get depressed. When the sole surviving Church of England vicar, Don Sparkes, spent a week on the cemetery rota, he was warned twice, as he was about to conduct a funeral, that the body he was burying was a suicide. The rows of battered doors conceal people who live in a pit of isolation. Don Sparkes has been trying to help one man who lost his job 15 years ago and then ceased to have any kind of contact with other people. He stopped washing himself or cleaning his flat and emerged only occasionally to sign on and to shop before shuffling back to his life as an urban hermit.

There are single mothers buried in the blocks of maisonettes like coffins in a graveyard. Nearly half the children in Pye Bank (46.5% of them) live with only one parent – and these families have nothing. 99% of them have no car. They have no hope of work because they have no hope of childcare. A few of the women are pushed into prostitution. Just this May, one of them was murdered. She lived in the middle of Pye Bank, in Fox Street, with her little son. She was 19 when she was strangled and dumped out in the hills near Castleton. There was another a few months earlier whose body was tossed into a rubbish skip on wasteland across the other side of Burngreave Road. But most of the single mothers simply suffer.

Some of the men turn to drugs, as much for income as for pleasure. You can see them down on Catherine Street any day of the week, dealing to the passers-by. Those who buy from them commit crime to find the money – and most of the time they pick their neighbours as victims. There is a block of 30 flats at the top of Nottingham Street which has been evacuated by just about every family which has lived there, fleeing from the burglars. An elderly woman who hung on to her home of 25 years waved goodbye to her closest neighbour on one day last month and was left with no one to comfort her the next day when her husband died.

One family in Pye Bank has just been evicted by the council after subjecting the estate to a wave of crime so deep that the police set up a special hot-line to deal with their offences. The six children of the family, whose youngest is eight, attacked old people in the street, burgled flats so frequently that families were afraid to leave their homes empty, and systematically ambushed churchgoers to steal their handbags. When one of their neighbours was taken to hospital with leukaemia, they burgled his home. They broke into a community centre to smear it with their excrement and took advantage of Don Sparke’s absence at Sunday service to ransack his vicarage. It is not so much that the residents of Pye Bank are victims as that the entire estate is a victim of the new poverty.

John Vincent a Methodist minister, whose church in Lopham Street hangs on with its flock of five, has been here for 24 years. “An area like this has become invisible, a place that people drive through as quickly as possible on their way to suburbia. In my view it is astonishing that there is not more crime and violence from areas like this. The separation between ordinary society and the poor has become more and more vicious.” It was people who were enduring this kind of life who created Nomad as a breakwater against the tide of poverty. It was never going to be easy.

Jackie Day started the struggle by saving every penny she could for a link to the outside world, a telephone. While she was saving, she and her friend, Barry Sefton, beat a path to the library and started thumbing their way through copies of the Children’s Act and the housing laws and all kinds of council leaflets so that they knew all of the rules of the game, and all of their failings. In short, they found that if you were merely poor, the authorities would give you enough to survive (and no more) but if, in addition, you were young or mentally ill or alcoholic or if your life suddenly ran into a crisis or if, in any way at all, you failed to fit the rules – for example, if you appeared to be ‘intentionally homeless’ – then the Government would simply dump you through a hole in the net. You would become a Nomad.

With her phone finally installed on the kitchen wall, Jackie Day started advertising. She and Barry Sefton printed cards and posters announcing the formation of the Nomad Homeless Advice and Support Unit, inviting anyone in Sheffield who lacked a home or furniture to get in touch on the new phone at any time of day or night. They walked across the city distributing their calling cards, in DSS offices, pubs, libraries, post offices, doctors’ surgeries, shop windows.

Then they went out knocking on doors asking for spare furniture and distributed leaflets asking for more. Jackie took £5 a week out of her income support to rent a garage on the estate and soon it was filling up with second-hand treasure. Local newspapers began to report their work. Before long, there were people turning up uninvited to bring cookers and sofas and tables direct to the garage. They appealed for a vehicle, and a church offered them a minibus for only £100. They didn’t have £100, so the church agreed to take £40. Jackie paid up with more cash she couldn’t afford out of her benefit.

She decided that if she was asked for help by anyone who could still squeeze a solution out of the welfare state, she would pass them along to the authorities. That still left her with a torrent of cases who had to be picked up and thrown back into the safety net. Like the homeless woman whose children had been taken into care: as long as she had no home, she could not have her children back; as long as she had no children, she could not get anywhere close to the front of the long queue for housing. She was simply lost in the system until Nomad went and slapped it on the back so hard that it was forced to cough up a solution.

It was the same with the runaway brother and sister who were brought to Jackie’s home by the Salvation Army, clutching their board games to their chests. She never did quite understand why they were so keen on their games, but they refused to be parted from them, and kept them by them at meal times and even took them into the bathroom. It was as if the games were little symbols of the life they longed for. It took Jackie three days of badgering and bullying but finally she blackmailed the authorities into providing them with sheltered housing.

She soon saw a pattern develop in the way that the Government dealt with the poor. They would give them the bare minimum – ‘keep their end of the bargain’, as Jackie always put it – and then show them the door. There was one woman, for example, who had been released from Middlewood Hospital after decades of treatment for mental illness. She was given her freedom and a nice flat all of her own. When she wandered into Nomad, her first request was simple. She wanted a job. They said they had none, that they were all volunteers, but they could see there was something deeper which was wrong. In talking to her, they discovered that she had been in her flat for eight weeks and that she still had no possessions.

“But why is your flat empty?”

“Because I haven’t got a job,” she said.

“So why don’t you sign on?”

“What’s that?” she asked.

When they took her back to her flat, they discovered that she had a small pile of DSS forms which she had been handed by her social worker without ever understanding what they were for.

More volunteers came forward to help them, most of them people who had survived homelessness themselves and knew what it was like.They started running jumble sales and pub raffles to raise cash for Jackie’s phone bill and for petrol. They thumbed through more books in the library looking for anyone who might give them a grant and realised they should register themselves as a charity. Donations started to trickle in, £50 here, £100 there. Someone gave them some stationery. Someone else produced a type-writer and a desk.

By day now, Jackie sat by the phone fielding calls. By night, she was out in the van delivering. The more she worked, the more work she had to do. She flew along on her instinct. She went on the radio to ask for help in setting up a Christmas party for the homeless and when they asked her how much she had been given so far, she heard herself announcing that the gifts were already pouring in, even though the truth was that she had had only one sack of potatoes. She didn’t know why she said it. She just felt that if everyone thought that other people were giving, they’d give too. And they did.

The kitchen of her council maisonette soon became a casualty station for the walking wounded of city life. There were so many of them: families who pitched up on the streets with no idea of how to look after themselves; a frail old woman with a wicked sense of humour who had walked out on her husband after 40 years of grumpy marriage; adolescents wandering from crisis to crisis. One of them was an old homeless man called Albert who became a kind of scout, spotting vulnerable people in the dark corners of the city and bringing them up to Pye Bank to be rescued, and then stopping for a quick bath before going back on to the road.

It was like trying to stop a tidal wave with a teaspoon. What could they do with the teenaged girl who sat in Jackie’s bath with bruises all over her body and her scalp crusted in blood, refusing to say what had happened? She whispered an alias which turned out to be well known to the police who mentioned that she was HIV positive. None of the hostels would touch her. What was supposed to happen to the young lad who was living in isolation in a flat which was almost bare? Nomad gave him furniture and offered him friendship, but it wasn’t enough and the next time they heard of him, the loneliness of life in a dead end had got on top of him, and he had killed himself.

It was exhausting and harrowing, and yet it kept making sense. There was one young woman who turned up at Jackie’s home on a winter afternoon after fleeing from a violent partner with her two toddlers. There was no bed-and-breakfast available, but the housing department had given her the key to an empty council house. Jackie told her that they had given away just about all the furniture they had but that they were expecting to pick up more that evening, and she promised to drop some round to her later.

It turned into a long evening and by the time that Jackie stopped the minibus full of beds and tables and chairs outside the woman’s new council house, it was half past ten on a cold winter night. As she walked up the garden path, she could see the young woman through the uncurtained window, sitting on a duvet spread out on the bare boards, with tears of desperation running down her face while her two small children huddled under her arms and cried into her hair. Jackie stopped and watched them for a moment, like a distant image of her own past, before she knocked on the door.

But it couldn’t go on. There were simply too many people who needed help: the Government had manufactured too much poverty. All through the 1980s, the poorest ten per cent of the population became poorer. Between 1979 and 1990, their real income fell by 14%. At the time, the Government had had a theory to deal with it: they would cut the benefits of the poor to encourage them to get jobs, and they would cut the taxes of the rich to encourage them to invest in the jobs which the poor people needed. But the whole theory had collapsed in disarray, because the new rich had not generated the jobs, so the new poor were stranded in huge numbers. There was no way that Jackie Day and her telephone could cope with that.

For a while, Nomad carried on growing. A local businessman gave them three derelict houses to restore. They started to attract bigger money in grants – from Comic Relief and Sheffield Urban Fund. They moved out of Jackie’s kitchen and into offices in Sheffield and Rotherham. They restored the derelict houses and used them to shelter the most needy of cases, including a woman named Sharon who was deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ with her children and was faced with the ruin of her family.

The end crept up on them quietly and with a poignant symbolism. Unable to handle the new workload from the chaos of her kitchen, Jackie Day handed over to a new management committee which started to attract professional helpers who were trained to run agencies, though they themselves had generally never been homeless. They had to be paid and they made a few changes in the way that Nomad ran its affairs.

Instead of being open for 24 hours a day to deal with any emergency, they decided to offer advice only three days a week during office hours and not at all during their lunch break. Instead of offering everything for free, Nomad started to charge £12 for every delivery and then they added low-cost prices to some of the bigger items, like cookers and freezers, to help them to cover their costs.They had an argument with Sharon and sacked her, which meant she lost her house in Rotherham and was homeless again.

It was inevitable. Jackie knew that. Nomad was becoming more and more like the world whose sickness it was trying to cure. The people who ran it were doing their best and Nomad was still doing good work, but it wasn’t the same, and she decided she had had enough. She went back to her children and got rid of the phone and concentrated on helping her family to survive the Game of Life.