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"Housing benefit saved me as a teenager"

The government’s plans to scrap housing benefit for young people have incensed Sali Hughes. Without it, she would have ended up on the streets 25 years ago

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By Sali Hughes on

It’s now widely acknowledged that last week’s budget hit low-income working families harder than anyone else. While people understandably became enraged at having been duped by a campaign that hung its hat on helping hard-working families, fewer seem as aggrieved by George Osborne’s decision to scrap the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18- to 21-year-olds (he suggests, extremely vaguely, that exceptions will be made for “the vulnerable and other hard cases”). The cut has been made to stop kids from leaving school and wilfully embarking on a life of leeching from the state.

I’m exceptionally grateful that George Osborne wasn’t chancellor when I arrived in London at age 15, having run away from a pretty intolerable situation at home. I had no qualifications, a PE bag full of clothes, high hopes of becoming a journalist, and precisely £7.50 to my name. My much older boyfriend allowed me to stay in his flat share while I scrabbled together some cash from any casual work I could find. When we (mercifully) split a little over a year later, and his flatmate moved in her new partner, I had nowhere to go. Even bedsits – costing pennies compared with today’s absurd rents – were so beyond my means that I took a job at a hostess club (a fledgling career that ended abruptly four hours in, when I refused to give an American tourist a handjob) in the hope of making some rent, and very seriously considered work as an escort.

Being away from home and completely skint isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s hell

Faced with certain homelessness, I managed to get together a flat deposit by taking £585 from an elderly uncle who, not to put too fine a point on it, owed me a debt he could never begin to settle. I went to Westminster housing office (a Tory-run council operating under John Major’s Tory government) and asked for help. After several forms, interviews and a letter from my teenage brother (the council insisted he at least say he’d give me a tenner a week as it was “unbelievable” that anyone could be living on as little money as I genuinely was), they agreed to pay my rent. They didn’t scold me, or treat me like a scrounger, and my age wasn’t a factor in my claim. I found a very modest one-bed flat in the paper, lied to the landlord (no one knowingly took housing benefit tenants then. These days, they represent a great opportunity to double the rent. Right-wingers rarely point the finger at greedy landlords when moaning about the housing-benefit bill, funnily enough), and moved into a pretty dodgy but basically fine part of west London.

I pick up the tabloids in 2015 and read fantasy descriptions of life on benefits by people who’ve clearly never had to rely on them. So, let me paint a picture of a fairly moderate case: I would go to the supermarket once a week and buy one bag of pasta, a bag of potatoes, some butter and value cheddar, then spend the rest of the week alternating between cheesy mash and plain spaghetti. I walked everywhere, always, unable to afford travel cards. My electricity ran on a key meter that constantly ran out, and I had no phone. The prostitutes next door, their revolting clients and harassing, intimidating pimp kept me awake at night and, for well over a month, I had to sleep with a duvet in an empty bath because my mattress and the entire building was infested with cockroaches. I’m very aware that my life on housing benefit sounds like some cliché Channel 5 documentary, but it’s also true that I was lucky, because I had a locked front door and a roof between London and me. And, crucially, I was allowed to seek work (this is another misconception about housing benefit – most claimants do work, they just don’t earn enough money to pay for Britain’s insanely unaffordable housing), taking up magazine work-experience gigs, babysitting and make-up assisting jobs. I acquired monetisable skills, made life-saving contacts, formed a career plan and planned my earliest-possible escape route.

We are talking about just 20,000 kids who desperately need help, just as I once did, in avoiding the unimaginably terrifying prospect of homelessness

Frankly, George Osborne and David Cameron’s open assumption that this life is anything a teenager would choose is one that could only come from people who’ve never been broke in their lives. The vast majority of kids really want to be happy at home with their families. Being away from home and completely skint isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s hell. It’s the least fun and most depressing experience any person can have (one night, at just 18, I ended up in a psych ward and was put on Prozac – mental-health problems are rife among Britain’s poor). One doesn’t go to bed at night feeling remotely great not to have earned any money, nor smug to have lived another shitty day at the taxpayer’s expense. One feels intolerably laden down, isolated, horribly vulnerable and desperate to experience a normal, pleasurable life.

Housing benefit did its job and, ultimately, gave me exactly that. Contrary to the common assumption that benefits at a young age breed feckless, state-dependent adults, my 10 or so months of free rent represented the first and last time I’ve sought any financial assistance in 40 years. I’ve never once signed on the dole, nor claimed any income support. Why? Because at 17, alone, broke and with nowhere else to turn, housing benefit gave me hope, safety and some breathing space to do something better before it was too late. It put me in a position where I could build a productive, meaningful and safe life, and avoid becoming an escort or sleeping on the Embankment with kids who weren’t as fortunate (a third of all homeless people are under 25. Both Centrepoint and Shelter are already predicting the loss of housing benefit will cause these figures to rise sharply, resulting in an overall national saving of only £3m). I strongly believe that every last thing I’ve achieved since those days – solvency, a successful journalism career, my homeowner status, significant contributions to the state, happy children and a frankly insane work ethic – comes as a direct result of being kept off the street and off my back at such a critical point in any person’s life. 

I also know from experience that teenagers on housing benefit don’t come from nowhere, cap in hand, hoping to scrounge whatever they can from the state. There’s a high chance they come from a care system that consistently fails them, or from family homes to which they cannot, or must not, return. Even if we assume that kids being directly abused might still be able to claim, others may come from homes where parents take drugs, turn tricks or have evicted them because money’s too tight, or simply because mum’s new boyfriend demanded it. Parents may have died, left, been made homeless themselves. We are talking about just 20,000 kids who desperately need help, just as I once did, in avoiding the unimaginably terrifying prospect of homelessness – a predicament that is proven to seriously obstruct job prospects. In cutting off the lifeline of housing benefit, we are denying these kids the social mobility I was afforded, taking away their chance to turn things around and make something of themselves. We’re not encouraging them into work – we are sending them on to the streets, and into the cracks of society, condemning their young lives before they’ve even begun.


Picture: Getty Images

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