Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
DEAN STEERS (# 31)
Born in Sutton, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father: Irish / Mother: English
Dean was born into a modest, working-class home and, with seven children to look after, the family was periodically under considerable financial strain. In a recent interview, Dean revisited his childhood: “I had five brothers and one sister ...” he says with a smile, “after all, there wasn’t so much television in those days, and people had to make their own amusement!” However, Dean describes his childhood home as a happy one, with all his siblings close to one other and mutually supportive - this was just as well, considering that the house had only 3 bedrooms. His Irish father was a charismatic amateur boxer who competed in championships - the house was decorated with his many trophies - but he also worked as a painter and decorator and, later on, as an undertaker.
Dean’s mother did work initially at a local factory but having seven children to look after meant that she had little choice but to become a full-time mother and housekeeper, managing only to sustain the occasional part-time job. Dean went to a local primary school in Mitcham: “I was quite good at both gymnastics and drawing, but I must admit that I had some mannerisms which some people thought were insufficiently masculine for a boy. These traits were to cause me considerable difficulty in the local secondary school and I had to leave after only a few months: I simply didn’t fit in. Already, I seemed to be an outsider.”
Then, through the good offices of Dr Barnardo’s, Dean was able to move away from home and take up a place at a well-respected boarding school in Royal Tunbridge Wells. Never before had he been away from his crowded, bustling home, away from his supportive parents and siblings, and he had to experience for the first time what solitude really felt like. The academic standards were also markedly higher than what he had been used to, so on that front too, Dean had to work very hard indeed to keep pace, though he did rather well in Maths and Science, and in sports too. Dean left the school at the age of 16 and generally has fond memories of his years there.
Now a teenager, Dean returned to the family home, and though he describes the general tone of his life during that period as “flamboyant”, it was mostly enjoyable; however, his behaviour inevitably generated some ‘turbulence’, not only in his own life but also in the life of the home. His parents did not entirely approve of some of the things he did.
Having reached the school leaving age, Dean might have been expected to make further progress academically, but his own preference was to pursue a career in one of the caring professions, possibly nursing. To explore this further, he initially undertook volunteer work, including for the Red Cross, going on later to work as an Auxiliary Nurse at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability (formerly known as the Hospital for Incurables) in Putney, later continuing with this work in two nursing homes. Meanwhile, he carried on living at home with his parents, though the tensions were undoubtedly beginning to build up.
Dean continues his story: “Gradually, I turned into a sort of ‘hippy’. I dropped out of work and started to sleep rough, squatting in London with a group of like-minded friends - we saw ourselves as ‘cultural breakaways’. It wasn’t always easy but, to me, this life meant freedom, the freedom I had never felt before: freedom from parents and home restrictions, freedom from school, freedom from the punishing routine of work. But most of the time, I was broke; I experienced real poverty for the first time in my life, returning home occasionally just to replenish my food stocks and to sort out my clothing. I lived this vagabond existence for almost 3 years. These were my years of freedom and perhaps the period of my greatest irresponsibility too, but I was young then.
Matured by his experiences, Dean got a job as a Care Assistant in the Nelson Hospital in Wimbledon and also worked in similar roles in several of the other hospitals within the same group. He succeeded in maintaining employment there for almost three years. Caring for others was work that he enjoyed and he loved working with teams of people who also seemed to care. Then it all went wrong. Following a major conflict with his parents, they threw him out; in almost no time at all, he found he had neither home nor job. Aged around 25, he moved to London: “I had nowhere to live so I had to go into a hostel in Clapham. I was there for about eight months. Though I was unemployed, I felt I needed time for myself - I just didn’t know what I wanted out of life, though it quickly became clear to me that trying to reconstruct your life while living in a hostel would be no easy task. But then fortune smiled on me and I managed to get a flat in Clapham, the very first home of my own, and I went off to Westminster College to study for an NVQ Level 2 in Health and Social Care. (Sadly, times have changed, with hospitals, and care homes too, now expecting their staff to have higher level qualifications; this has proved a problem for Dean.)
During 1997, aged 30, Dean moved into a council flat in Lambeth, where he still lives. For almost ten years, he worked as a Health Care Assistant and later as a Care Support Worker at St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth. Though this was the longest period of stability in Dean’s life - after nearly a decade, he had begun to feel secure - suddenly, virtually overnight, everything fell apart. Hospital economies were hitting hard and while permanent staff were being regularly shed, the use of agency staff was increasing in equal measure.
“Sensing the inevitable,” Dean recalls, “I left and joined an agency but very soon discovered to my horror that the pay was just not enough to live on. Being paid £5.70 to £6.70 per hour, I could barely pay my rent. For the second time in my life, I was experiencing what poverty really meant. Though my outgoings remained constant, my income steadily declined, until I found myself in ‘the poverty trap’ - my earned income was lower than if I had been on Unemployment and Housing Benefit. I was aware that some agency staff took second jobs in order to get by but I found that, after a long, physically demanding shift at the Hospital, I simply had no more energy left; I had to recover my strength, both in body and in spirit, just to be able to function the next day.”
Therein lies the absurdity of it all: established, full-time staff are shed by the public services in order to cut costs (allegedly saving taxpayers’ money) then the same organisations hire contract staff via agencies at a lower cost while the staff supplied by these agencies are paid wages that they cannot live on. (A recent survey has revealed that almost 50% of employers in the Care Sector are paying staff below the statutory Minimum Wage.) Consequently, the state is then obliged to subsidise these individuals with various benefits and support, funded from the public purse, just so they can keep body and soul together. Some observers see this as the economics of the madhouse.
Dean continues: “Then came the time when I nearly became homeless. I could no longer afford to pay my bills, my rent and rates. The agency work was simply unsustainable and most of the other jobs I was offered were ‘McJobs’ or jobs on ‘zero-hour contracts’ that no-one could survive on. Poverty was knocking on my door, with Hunger tapping on the windows.” Everyone talks about the decency of a ‘living wage’ but when so many people are having to work for the Minimum Wage or less, it is hardly surprising that so many are suffering acute poverty.
In a recent address, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has said: “We live in a world where income inequality means that the concepts of fairness and income equality are struggling to survive. Indeed, 1 in 5 people in the UK who are in work are not paid a Living Wage – and indeed 6 out of 10 families in the UK living in poverty have at least one adult in paid work. This is an absolute scandal – given our corporate wealth as a nation.
We will not make this country stronger by impoverishing others. Indeed the end result is more likely to be that our society becomes more dysfunctional and less cohesive as a result.”
After a pause, Dean continues: “It was getting very difficult: I had to ask people to lend me money, just to get a loaf of bread, milk and the basics. I tried to manage on Social Security payments as they were called then, with Housing Benefit to cover the cost of my flat. That was also the time when the new Jobseeker’s Allowance was being phased in, after which I only had that alone to survive on. Even when there was the chance of a part-time job, often I couldn’t afford the cost of the travel to get there and back. I felt trapped and frequently desperate. Depression plagued me and I came to think that this misery would never end.”
“Then, in 2009, just when all my hopes seemed to have been dashed, my guardian angel descended once more and I succeeded in getting a job at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, in the Intensive Care Unit, and for three blissful years, normality returned to my life. But, true to form, this normality was abruptly curtailed one day when I was physically assaulted by another member of staff; I had no choice but to leave. As before, I fell back on the only other option readily available, agency work, but again the low pay it offered plunged me into poverty; the rent arrears, the unpaid gas and electricity bills, and the fear of homelessness all returned.”
To date, Dean remains unemployed. He is back on Jobseeker’s Allowance and searching for that elusive job, the job that would actually pay enough for him to live on. The pressures brought to bear upon Jobseekers are intense though, Dean says: “I am required to attend weekly interviews and forced to apply for jobs that either I clearly wouldn’t be able to do or that are so-called ‘zero hours contracts’ which offer a pittance in wages and no financial security at all. Of course, I keep applying for jobs, hundreds of them, and I attend interviews, sometimes with the feeling that no job really exists, that they are just going through the motions. I am now 46 and find myself competing with young graduates, fresh from university and desperate for work; they are much more attractive to employers than me. It feels as if the system is now deliberately stacked against us all: if you fail to go after a specified job or, because of transport problems, you fail to arrive for interview on time, or you turn down the job because you know you couldn’t do it, or even if the workplace is simply horrible, you are immediately penalised with sanctions: you lose your benefit for two weeks, one month, even sometimes for 53 weeks.” Being sanctioned means that all of the Jobseeker’s Benefit is cut immediately, along with any associated housing benefits; almost 600,000 such sanctions have been imposed in the last eight months alone and this figure is rising.
Close to tears, Dean says: “I’ve been penalised too: suddenly, I lost all my support and I was cast into total poverty again. Soon after, ever nastier letters started to arrive through my letterbox, threatening eviction because I simply could not pay the rent. Then, faced with a Court Order, I knew I was close to being evicted. The very thought of sleeping on the streets, on people’s sofas, or in cars at the age of 46, filled me with dread. I was even referred to SHP, the Charity for Homeless and Vulnerable People in London, so I could live temporarily in one of their hostels if I got evicted - thankfully, the current eviction proceedings are temporarily on hold.”
Dean was faced with a life without any money at all and thus had no choice but to rely on food banks. We used to see on our televisions the queues of hungry people in the USA waiting for their local food bank to open, so they could survive; now, in ‘Austerity Britain’, food banks are a reality here too with new ones opening every week. But this is not free food for all: to be given a parcel of three days’ food, applicants must first be referred by a recognised agency, viz: the local Jobcentre, a prescribed charity, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or their GP, all of which agencies can hand out the necessary vouchers. Under current rules, nobody can have more than three vouchers in succession. Already, over half a million people in Britain have been forced to use food banks and this number is growing.
Dean says: “Even now, I also rely on the charity food vans which drive around, stopping on London streets at around 10 o’clock in the evening, issuing sandwiches to hungry Londoners. If you’re lucky, you might also get a goody bag containing some orange juice and biscuits or crisps. I often don’t eat anything at all during the day; I’m hungry until the van comes round and hands out the sandwiches. Roaming through the streets of London hungry, looking at window displays full of delicious foods, restaurants overflowing with customers, bins full of unwanted, uneaten food that’s been thrown away, sometimes I honestly feel that I don’t belong to this city at all. I feel like an absolute outsider, almost a stranger in my own city, in my own country, pushed aside, completely rejected. Begging for food and accepting handouts is deeply humiliating.”
“I am now a volunteer at SHP and help others who are struggling with homelessness and with poverty in general. I can do this because I’ve been through it myself; I am still going through it; every day I have to struggle myself. Having medical training and having done courses in wellbeing, I am able to guide others on how to stay healthy and clean when they’re living on the street, in a hostel, or on a friend’s floor; I know where to get food, to get a shower, and what places to avoid to keep out of danger.”
“While I am receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance, I have to keep looking for a job, of course. I still hope to return to a permanent, worthwhile job in the Care Sector but as time goes by, my hopes are diminishing: the qualifications now required are such that I would have to return to the classroom for another two years to get re-qualified and I don’t have the funds to pay for such a course and to support myself at the same time. Every day, I am plagued by the fear that I have unintentionally broken one of those obscure, bewildering rules and I will be sanctioned again - once more left completely penniless, hungry and homeless.”
Asked what he feels the future might hold, Dean replies without hesitation: “The future? Each day is a bit of the future for me. I can’t see or plan beyond tomorrow. I don’t even know if I will have enough to eat and my only hope is that the food vans bearing free sandwiches will not fail to arrive. I don’t fear just for myself, but for the others too. I now hear that Britain is apparently prospering again, but while the rich seem to be getting richer, all I see is that the queues of hungry people are getting longer and longer, with more and more people surviving on discarded food, handouts, charities like SHP and, of course, the proliferating food banks.”
Interview Date: 15th November 2013
Updated: 28th November 2013
To donate or to learn about the work of SHP, the charity for Single Homeless People in London, go to:
Dean couldn’t pay his bills: agency work in the Care Sector was unsustainable; the other jobs on offer were ‘McJobs’ or jobs on ‘zero hours contracts’ that no-one could live on. Poverty came knocking. With huge numbers on the Minimum Wage or less, is it surprising that many Londoners are reduced to destitution? Wandering hungry through the streets, gazing at shop windows stuffed with food, restaurants packed with diners, bins full of wasted food, Dean feels he doesn’t belong in this city at all. He’s an absolute outsider, a stranger in his own city, shoved aside, rejected. Talk of the decency of a ‘living wage’ is a joke: Dean must rely on food banks, on charity sandwich vans, on begging for food and handouts; he finds this deeply humiliating.
Photography: London 15th November 2013