Mary has received lots of support from a lone parent voluntary organisation who gave her the confidence and encouragement to start her degree with the Open University. She can’t praise them highly enough:
‘They were really good for me. And I think because they were good for me I was able to pass it onto (her son). (They) talked me into doing my degree. It was always something I wanted to do. I was just needing a wee boost. That wee bit push. They were good for me and I met all my best friends now (there)’.
Mary’s son had been under psychological services in relation to his disabilities but she says ‘he actually come away from them’, meaning that he has voluntarily withdrawn. She says: ‘I feel so vexed for him, because he wants so much to be like the average kid, and no have doctors and no have pills’.
Fiona has been working with two voluntary organisations and has gained a great deal of confidence, support and friendship though this. She originally approached one of the voluntary organisations, who work with lone parents, for support after she and her husband split up and she was left with alone, depressed, with two small boys. She received invaluable support in the beginning and now volunteers with this organisation. She has also undertaken a paid 6-month work contract with this organisation and feels closer to getting a job as a consequence. She describes this organisation as having been a ‘massive, massive lifeline’ for her. She feels that the work she does for this and the other voluntary organisation gives her ‘a sense of purpose’ and gets her out of the house and meeting people which she needs for her wellbeing. She says if she didn’t have these places to meet people she would get depressed again.
Fiona has made a lot of friends in similar circumstances to herself through working with the voluntary organisations and they provide each other with a lot of support. She explains that a couple of them have managed to finish their studying (doing the same course as Fiona) and now have jobs so are in different financial circumstances but still understand how it is for Fiona.
Janice has been working with some voluntary organisations and receiving help and support from them that she has found invaluable. She also works as a community worker for these organisations speaking at local events. She says:
'My mum says, “aye the reason you go to all these (events) and do all this (community work) is because you'll get a cup of tea and a biscuit, something to eat, you're only going for the food!”. I says, “if she only knew how right she was!” No, I do all this because it gets me out the house and I want to help people. I want to highlight the issues. And it gives me something to do, you know’.
‘If they stopped people volunteering I would have nothing to do with my life. I would become more and more depressed. It least this way it is good for me mentally. Otherwise I would just sit in the house, do nothing, moan, get depressed. It's good to get out’.
Jennifer has received support a number of years ago from a voluntary organisation providing support to lone parent families. In time, she volunteered for them, and through them got involved with poverty campaigning organisations. All of this served to give her something to do, build skills, make friendships, networks, confidence, self-esteem and she regards these organisations highly. She said they gave her lots of opportunities, to speak in the Scottish Parliament on poverty issues, to attend conferences, to learn about issues pertaining to social policy and it is through all these opportunities that she decided to go on to college and help other people. Jennifer says:
‘That’s what gave me the fire in my belly, to think, I want people to get the support they need. I want people to be understood. I want equality and all that. This is what I like, the social inclusion thing. Discrimination, the stigma, oh that infuriates me. And I have an awful lot to say about that... I think because of my situation you don’t realise, until I was involved with something like that, about how much if you speak out, the difference it can make’.
Liam has participated in many groups and activities by a variety of voluntary and statutory organisations. Through the council (in conjunction with an organisation called Dr Bell's) he did a parenting class following the Solihull approach called Parenting with Confidence. He has close involvement with the dads’ groups with One Parent Families Scotland; he participates in cooking classes with two other organisations. The Haven project run by Circle who have groups for single fathers in the Edinburgh area.
‘It's sourcing the help. I mean, I know quite a few single dads and they wouldn't go to the groups that I go to... because I think they see that it's like, people are interfering and telling you how to do what you're doing. I think there's a lot of that, a lot of pressures, people don't want to ... the way I look at it is, if it is benefiting my son, it's like I'm going to go and I'm going to take part in things. And it's been really good. It doesn't only benefit my son, it benefits me as well’.
Families’ engagement with statutory services resulted in varying experiences, both positive and negative. The carers in the study report receiving sympathetic treatment and good advice from jobcentre staff who were keen to ensure they were receiving the support they were entitled to access. Lone parents trying to access Jobseekers Allowance reported less positive experiences.
Prior to losing her son’s child-related benefits in the third year of the study due to his leaving college because of his health difficulties, Mary reports a prior positive experience of being at the jobcentre when she had a specific lone parent advisor that was sensitive to her son’s disabilities: ‘I was at my lone parent advisor yesterday and they are really, really good with me, really good. They’re really chuffed that I’m doing my open university and I’m doing my night class and stuff and that (her son) is moving on and stuff’. Mary says she had been discussing the possibility of obtaining part time work while studying for her Open University degree when her lone parent advisor explained that a carer is only allowed to work up to 10 hours per week before losing their carer’s allowance and income support top up benefits. She would therefore have been much worse off financially.
Fiona, who had had poor experiences with job centre staff during the period she was on JSA, reports a positive engagement with the jobcentre during a review of her carer’s allowance:
‘(They were saying) “so you’re still looking after your granny? Is there anything we can do to help you?” It’s a totally different attitude to if you’re on jobseeker’s allowance. On jobseeker’s allowance they’re totally hard on you whereas she was nice and said “mind if you do decide you need to go for a job come and speak to us. If you need your granny’s care package upped or looked at, ken, come and speak to us, we’ll help you”, and I was like ‘Oh!’ It was a totally different attitude’.
Jennifer, who was a student at the time and going to the jobcentre to apply for JSA during her college holidays says:
‘(Going into the job centre) is like losing all your dignity, because the way they talk to you, patronising, like you’re nothing, the same as the alcoholic sitting next to you, or the drug user next to you. It's horrible. Before I went in I felt sick. It's a horrible horrible experience. It doesn't have to be, it’s just their attitude, the stigma because you want to claim a benefit. I don't choose to claim a benefit, I don't want to, but I don't really have a choice.’
Pauline thinks that the major dearth of service that she experienced was the lack of benefits provisions service. She said that having to speak to people on the phone or online was really troublesome. And not been able to go into an office and speak to someone as problematic:
‘Gaps in the benefits provision. Complications in the over, God… The reliance on having to phone up or do stuff online and not just be able to go in and speak to somebody. The benefit system, was a major major, major (problem)… It’s a dreadful… I would have been at a food bank three year ago. It took them nine weeks to sort out.'
The Scottish Welfare Fund
When asked, interviewees had never heard of the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF). This is an indictment on the accessibility of the fund as some of these participants would be more likely than others to have heard of this.
Mary has a 17 year old son with extensive disabilities including learning disabilities and mental health issues. Until August 2014 Mary’s son had been at school and was then undertaking a supported place at college. However, after this time he was no longer able to manage going to college due to his disabilities and withdrew. This meant that Mary’s money changed overnight with a huge reduction in her income as she lost child benefit, child tax credits and disabled child tax credits. Mary says: ‘It’s a lot less. I’ve lost my child tax credit, I’ve lost my child benefit. So, I’m rapidly getting in debt’.
When asked how she was managing after the removal of all monies she received for her disabled son, Mary says:
‘I just dinnae eat. I had to phone… What do you call them? When you get emergency help? I can’t remember the name of it. It was through the council. (Was that the Scottish Welfare Fund?) That’s it! I phoned them and I explained to them what had happened (that her son had left college). But the way it happened, obviously I never knew that my money was going to stop there and then. I thought maybe, oh, there will be a week backdated or something. But nothing… They stopped it that week and I was left with 4 pounds in my purse.’
Mary was told all her benefits would stop from that day forward and that she should go to the Scottish Welfare Fund as she had a disabled son.
Mary described accessing the Scottish Welfare Fund as excruciating and explains that she had to answer many questions on why she had not money left, with the person on the other end of the phone making comments about how she should better manage her money. Mary says:
‘And I thought, “who are they to judge?” You don’t know what comes up in somebody’s life. Somebody phoned me back the day later and said “we’re going to entitle you to £18.63. You must buy food with it and that will have to do you until you get your income support on the Wednesday”’.
So Mary was awarded £18.63 from the Scottish Welfare Fund. She had been humiliated by the process, put through the wringer when she was already extremely fragile, and awarded a paltry amount to feed herself and her 17 year old son. When asked how she felt about this, Mary said: ‘I think I cried for about two days. I wasn’t expecting that’.
However, Mary’s humiliation was not complete. In order to receive the £18.63 she had to go to a local shop with a ‘Paypoint’, with a code given to her by the SWF, which the young girl behind the counter didn’t know how to use. Mary lives in a very small town where everyone knows each other. There were people behind her in the queue and she was deeply embarrassed when the young girl shouted to the manager to say she didn’t know what the code was for and the manager replied in full voice ‘this is a crisis fund’. Mary was embarrassed and wished she had not applied for the fund in the first place. Mary says:
‘I was desperate… I was so embarrassed… I was so embarrassed. I wish I had just left it. It was so degrading. I know we all need help in life now and again, and you have to hit the bottom before you come up again, but it was so degrading… I’m not caring if I’ve got half a slice of bread I’ll never do it again, never ever’.
Janice hasn’t applied to the SWF, although she has heard about it, because she thinks it will be just as bad as trying to get community care grant, which she found humiliating.
The experience of receiving advice from housing services was positive for older existing council tenants looking for bigger properties even when the outcome was that they were not able to be housed and had to find accommodation in the expensive and insecure private sector. For the younger mums in the study who were trying to obtain a council house in the first instance the experience was different.
Jennifer had been on the council waiting list for the bigger house for 6 ½ years and they said they had nothing to offer her.
‘There is nothing. Whenever I pushed and tried to get an appointment with someone, they would say “Jennifer it’s not anything personal, it’s just the fact that there isn’t any houses, there isn’t any houses we can give you, unless you want to move to a really undesirable area”, which I’m certainly not doing with my kids. Especially because I love my house so much. That was my only option and the council said “that’s your only option is to look at private accommodation”. So, I spoke to my mum and dad about it and they were really, really worried, thinking I’m going to get myself into a mess financially and stuff, “how are you going to afford it?”… I was so stressing about it and so worried about it but then after speaking to that lady in the council that day, she was lovely, she really helped me, and I felt so much better’.
Jennifer says that her application for a council house is still active but that she probably has even less chance now that she has entered into private accommodation than she did before.
A number of people had worrying housing situations. Three respondents were living in the private rental market as a result of insufficient housing stock and two more left their social housing to access private sector housing.
Ashleigh moved back to the city in January 2014 when her son was 16 months old. She stayed with her mother at first and she now privately rents a flat two minutes away from where her mother lives:
‘Me and (the baby) moved in there (her mother’s) until I found myself a property. I went to try and go council but I am quite fussy. I don’t like to be… They were telling me that I’d have to go and live in a B&B, with my child, that’s only thing they would give me. They goes: if I made myself homeless that’s the only way I would get a property. Living with my mum they don’t see me as priority so they told me I would have to make myself homeless to get a property, live in a B&B, and it can take up to a month, two months before they’ve actually found me somewhere (to live). I’m not, like I can be quite snobby, but I can’t see myself living in a single to one room with my son. No way am I putting him through that at all. Or put myself through it. If that was the case I would go back and live with my partner. Living in a B&B is so much worse. So I wasn’t putting myself through that so I ended up going privately and found a place… I am still on the council list, I’m just obviously really low priority’.
Rebecca’s housing situation is unsatisfactory and unstable. She is in a temporary furnished flat for homeless use and was told she would be there for three months. By the time of our meeting in February 2015, she has been there since July 2014 even though she had been told she would definitely have a house by Christmas 2014. She has since been told that there is a necessary piece of paperwork missing from her claim for housing and so she is still waiting to be housed. She says she’s been told that if she doesn’t apply for specific houses by March then should be allocated a house by the council that this can be anywhere in the city. She explains:
‘They actually came and said to me, “you could have had a house if you had filled this in (a particular form)” but the mistake that wasn’t filled in properly was made by the woman (from the housing department). So she basically flattened me. I’ve now been told that if I don’t get anywhere by March they can put me wherever they want in (the city). Now I’ve been in (this city) since I was three on and off so I know exactly where I would like to go and where I wouldn’t like to go. The good parts and the bad parts. Yes, you can’t be picky and choosy, but I would like to go somewhere I know is going to be safe. I do have quite a lot of people who dislike me through my last name and my family so that’s another reason I would want to choose where I want to go’.
When asked if she might manage to find something before March, Rebecca replied:’if it’s private, yeah’. When asked why only in the private sector, Rebecca explained that she doesn’t know what council housing is available to her or how to look for it or apply for it. She believes the process is that you put your area choices on your form, and that after that, ‘there is nothing I can question, nothing I can do’ to facilitate getting a council house. She also explains that if offered a house, ‘you can’t say no. You only get one choice’. ‘If you say no, you’ve rejected a home over your head, so it’s your fault, and you now have to house yourself’.
While Rebecca has been successfully negotiating services relating to housing and benefits for a number of years she does not fully understand the intricacies and details of the processes that these services follow. She also explains that she is reluctant to ask questions because she feels they treat her as though she is stupid. ‘They think I’m pretty stupid because I’m young and because they think it’s my first time doing this but I’ve watched it happen my whole life and I’ve done it myself…I think they misjudge you because you’re young’.
She says she feels stupid by asking questions and so doesn’t ask:
‘I asked some questions, but then, sometimes I feel stupid for asking questions so I just, kinda, figure it out myself. I tried to find a house and it didn’t work’.
For Rebecca, this poor engagement with the housing services is leading to confusion in the process of housing, entitlement, what type of service she should receive, and how to access it effectively. This is leading to her not having been housed already and there is a risk that she may be offered housing that is not entirely suitable for her needs. This suggests that young people are not effectively engaging with services. It’s not that they are not trying to access the services, and one can assume that it’s not because the services don’t wish to engage with them, but there is an unsatisfactory level of communication between this young person and services that exist to help people like her. There is a risk that the services assume that she has more knowledge about the processes and procedures than she actually does and her fear of looking stupid is preventing her from asking the necessary questions.
The families in the study who are struggling with debt had tried to access and receive money/debt advice to varying degrees of success. Mary has sought advice on managing her debts and reports a positive experience. The woman from money advice gave her a card to show people who were coming to her door asking for money. When Mary plucked up the courage to show the Provident women the card the woman didn’t come back to her door. Mary also asked the money advice service whether she should make herself bankrupt and they said no because the total amount of debt was not high enough to warrant it.
Pauline has also accessed services in relation to her significant debts but is less impressed with what they could offer her so found her information online:
‘I phoned up a debt advice place... You do a trawl of the Internet and you have to put your details in. You get inundated with these people offering you these semi-bankruptcies and all these different types of things’.
Pauline also received advice from her mortgage provider who knew that she was in trouble with her mortgage. ‘They advised me of a non-profit one (debt advice agency). So, I phoned them up… he gave me lots of advice about bailiffs at the time that I phoned them up but that was before they actually arrived at the door. I was only being threatened with them at the time’. Pauline chose not go to the Citizens Advice Bureau because she feels that the queues are too long and that she can find her information elsewhere. She found information on the Internet.
Ashleigh has not had involvement with many services. Her main source of information and advice on issues relating to housing, benefits and tax credits et cetera has been her friends who have had similar experiences.
When asked if there are any services that she wished she could have more help with that she wished existed, Ashleigh said that childcare was the biggest issue she faced. She explained that she is looking forward to her son receiving his 16 hours three nursery from January next year. She thinks it is good that they do this so that mums can find work more easily without having to fork out money on childcare. She says although it’s great that they do this she doesn’t understand why they haven’t done this a lot sooner i.e. at a younger age of the child, for people who are struggling. She says:
‘The whole system is just not structured properly for single mothers, or any kind of mothers so… It should be flexible a lot sooner, because at the end of the day, like for instance (my friend) is struggling to find work because (there is no childcare available for younger children)’.
Rebecca thinks that there should be a first holistic meeting for a young person who finds herself pregnant and homeless that guides her through the services available to her and helps her to negotiate the systems. She feels that because you don’t know what questions to ask, you don’t ask them and you remain ignorant to the services that are available to you. She says that no one sat down with when she came back with her baby last year and told her what she can and cannot do, what she can and can’t seek, how to access help or services. She says:
‘I never get the help or the answers I’m looking for so I’ve just stopped (asking)… I’ve never been aware of any other services that I could use (except housing and health visitor)’. She has been feeling around trying to work things out for herself. She says: ‘You’re made to feel quite alone‘.