That tortured and stateless youth are discharged from asylum support, unable to afford to rent, was bad enough but it can little surprise us in this new economic order where 60 year olds with mental health issues are living on buses, unable to access housing or the support they need to make it happen. Spending many years on the frontline I see what is happening to people, and it is neither functional nor fair; the pendulum is swinging so far from the socially responsible Welfare State of the post war era to a Welfare Reform agenda that seems designed to turn all the good into a huge human and societal wreckage. And the political forces driving Welfare Reform have not abated while Brexit looms ever closer, bringing its own choppy weather.
Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish art critic and philosopher, also described a storm; the fruit of his reflection on a painting given to him by a friend. The painting was Klee’s Novus Angelus (see the image below) and it certainly is not a conventional looking angel. Benjamin perceived in it the figure of the Angel of History and this is what he said about it:
His (the angel's) face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.
For the best part of 2017 I must admit I felt like the Angel of History myself! So many heart wrenching human situations developing before my eyes and though I wanted to try and do what I could to repair and restore, there was a constant pressure pulling me into the next moment and the next problem as the needs piled sky high in front of me.
This sense of intensifying desperation in the face of narrower and narrower options is very real; what we depended upon yesterday to protect people we cannot depend upon today. For example, the Housing Act of 1996 empowered us to obtain housing rights for significantly vulnerable people, using the concept of 'priority need', a term now literally dead in the water. Another good the storm has blown sideways is the Children's Act 1989, which delineated the responsibilities of parents and government for the care of children with its attention to the concept of 'significant harm'. Yet Universal Credit, introduced by the Government, denies parents' income for the first five weeks, rendering them unable to feed their children without borrowing, begging or using Foodbanks. In so doing this government IGNORES its own statutory obligations.
At The Manna, our client group are predominantly singles and people without dependants, but the internal inconsistencies and contradictions of Welfare Reform affect our clients too with devastating results, like gale force winds blowing one way and then another. Life is so very disorientating and so much that is done is wasteful and cruel. Many Work Capability Assessments are unnecessary as the claimant's condition has not improved and may in fact have worsened, which a phone call between DWP and the GP would have resolved and saved our taxes as well as so much mental anguish.
Storms blow clouds, but clouds are reputed to have silver linings and we did enjoy some bright and transfiguring moments while the winds battered on. Through painstaking work, welfare rights were contended for, clawed back and won for vulnerable and impoverished adults, including some handsome pay outs for people who had been excluded with nothing to live on for months at a time. Maladministration and downright untruths by welfare bureacracies were seized upon and exposed for the advantage of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable people. And to win these victories, we had to position ourselves quite literally in the eye of the storm, attending those awful assessments, recording everything said, gathering every shred of evidence, to be able to challenge unjust DWP decisions.
Now we see the same clients coming into The Manna with a more cheerful demeanour, emotionally more stable, less depressed, because now they can afford to rent, or to heat their home, when most of 2017 had been spent wondering if they were going to survive the storm; the one that some people call Progress.