As part of the Laws Connections Homelessness Case Study, first year students were asked to write a blog post reflecting on their experiences. We selected two of the most impressive entries to share with you here.
Author: Oyinda Fashanu
I chose the topic ‘homelessness’ as my first choice because of my personal experience with it. However, some insight into the true state of the system quickly made me realize that despite how unlucky I felt I was, I’ve never truly had to become homeless, just had the threat constantly hanging over my head- a ceaseless reminder by our landlord that if we didn’t pay the rent soon we were going to be evicted. But for me a solution to that looked like getting a job, picking up extra hours, and giving my mum 1/4 of my paycheck to cover our rent, but for others that looks like simply just not being able to keep up (due to a rise in living costs, but wages staying the same) and being tossed out into the streets-thus creating a vicious cycle of people who desperately need help and support by the government, but are not given that help or support and in turn are never really able to overcome their circumstances, instead are stigmatized and made to live on the edge of society.
The second session we had on the social welfare system didn’t teach me anything new about it, simply reinforced my existing perception of it based on my personal experience with the system. However, it did lead to new questions arising, and connections being made to other topics I never would have thought to think of. In this session, we watched the movie I, Blake, and I cried from how much I saw myself in this character, who, while being fictional, speaks for so many of us out there and exposes the disdain society has for impoverished people at a systemic level.
The first question I asked myself after watching the movie was how my perception of the welfare system had shifted- then I realized it hadn’t- it had only confirmed my already established judgment of the system I now felt justified to hold. I now knew I wasn’t delusional for thinking what I did because I had just watched 1h40 minutes of a movie describing in excruciating detail what I never could. And that is my belief that the government puts barriers in place to make it as hard as possible for people in need to gain access to the help they require. Daniel Blake’s navigation of the welfare system so closely resembled mine I was left speechless. Daniel Blake, me, my mum, the lovely man who lives two doors down from us in our council flat, we’re all people- people who have been dealt some lousy cards in life, and just need some help getting back up on our feet. What we don’t deserve is being pushed to the edge by the same government that promises to help its citizens, or to frustrate us so much that giving up altogether is a much better alternative than a long and drawn-out battle with the system that just never seems to end. In this session, I realized my biggest criticism of the social welfare system is simply its structure. At the very core of it, the welfare system is designed to shut out so many different types of people in need-and this is because of how difficult it is to interpret and understand everything you’re faced with. Generally speaking, the people most likely to turn to the welfare system for help are those who may have very little to no understanding of how the system actually works. They may be immigrants from third world countries who struggle with English, thus being isolated in the process, or they may come from a lower class background where the exposure to anything remotely legal is non-existent, or they simply may just be average everyday citizens who have never once needed to interact with the welfare system, but now they do. The welfare system is designed in such a way that you need to sit through countless interviews and read through never-ending paperwork. With the interviews, you’re on edge the whole time constantly hoping everything you say is ticked off their checklist, so you can qualify for ‘priority need housing’ or your benefits. With the paperwork, you’re going through pages and pages of words that just don’t make sense. Legal jargon you’ve never come across in your life and you just don’t understand. All this for your fate to be decided on the basis of a technicality. ‘You need to have been here for 3 years, you’ve only been here for 2 years and 10 months unfortunately we can’t help you, you’d need to start the process again and go down a different route’. Or ‘we’ve looked into it and it looks like you have an uncle here so unfortunately we can’t give you this council flat, as you don’t qualify for the brink of homelessness, you can either wait for years on the waiting list or start the process again and go down a different route’. My mother was privileged enough to have a close connection with a lawyer who went to a top university in the UK who talked her through the whole process, gave her suggestions and guidance on what would potentially be the best option, and what to do if she did need to start the process again. But what do people who need support from the social welfare system have in common? They almost certainly don’t have access to legal aid; they either don’t have the financial means to seek legal counsel or don’t have the knowledge of where to even begin the process of seeking legal counsel. Thus making the whole system restricted and exclusionary.
Which brings me to session 5 which raised the question ‘Should pro bono be necessary for lawyers?’ There are counterarguments we raised in our short presentation but for the sake of this piece, I’ll only focus on the pros. And the biggest one is taking on low-level pro bono cases takes nothing away from an established successful lawyer but may mean the world to an underprivileged person underrepresented in the law. Making that connection to how much easier it would have been for Daniel Blake to navigate his appeal process if he had been given access to free legal aid- an experienced lawyer giving him advice and guidance on the best way to approach his situation.
And finally, session 4 looked at the criminalization of homeless people, in which sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act were discussed. A quote from s. 3 ‘ Every person wandering… or placing himself or herself in any public place… to beg or gather alms… shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person…’ Which begs the question, if access to legal aid and the welfare system is restricted, what other option do people have than to beg? Rather than criminalize and further ostracize homeless people in turn pushing them deeper into a state of poverty, wouldn’t it do more to solve the root cause of the issues of homelessness? Or at the very least take away the barriers to accessing justice?