Rhyl. The town on the N Wales Coast by me that gets the worse press. The screaming headlines Mail-esque of "Benefit Town" "Ghetto Town" "Benefits -by-the-sea" and all that nonsense. Stats are trotted smoothly and disgustingly off the tongue while Tories shake their heads at the town with the highest percentage of people on JSA, the highest percentages of sick and disabled people, and the home of the most deprived council ward in Wales and probably pretty high up on the UK table too.
But while the headlines blast out these stats and headlines, they see little and know nothing of the people behind them. I spent time on a random street in Rhyl and will tell you the real stories.
The first thing that strikes me is the once proud huge 6/7/8 bedroom former B + B's which dominate the street. When Rhyl and the British seaside holiday were in fashion in the 1960's you can imagine the hanging baskets, pure white net curtains and scrubbed doorsteps as owners welcomed in the holidaymakers. Fast forward to 2013 and on both sides all I can see are houses of multiple occupancy. The houses are divided into 3 or even 4 flats and open out directly onto the street with just the tiniest of space between front door and pavement. In these spaces are squeezed the various recycling and waste bins but I notice they are allocated per house not per family and so you could have 4 families all having to use the 1 bin for each option -recycling/plastic waste/Greenwaste/FoodWaste. As I walked along every single bin had been uncollected with huge notices and tags left by the bin men saying each bin was contaminated with different kinds of waste and needed to be sorted out before collection could be made.
Marie lives in a first floor flat with her partner Josh and toddler daughter. I ring the bell and she invites me up. The living room is spacious but I immediately notice all the Christmas decorations up and a Christmas tree, minus fairy lights.
"Don't laugh about the Christmas decorations"she says, "We put them up early to brighten the place up a bit. It just makes the place a bit less miserable.. I bought the tinsel at a local charity shop and the baubles on the tree. My mum had an old tree from years ago she didn't want so passed it on to us. We can't afford the fairy lights - no point adding that on to our electric anyway. We have 2 days a week as it is without electric, just can't keep feeding the pre-payment meter."
I am guilty as charged for ridiculing houses for putting up Christmas decorations in November. Whenever I drive past in the car as a passenger, I always point them out and wonder why people do it. I shall now think twice.
Marie and Josh both work part time and juggle childcare between them - both in the same supermarket at 16 hours a week each. Josh is constantly searching for full time work but can't find
any. Marie tells me that he would get another part time job if he could be confident that his shifts were the same every week in his supermarket job, but they change constantly. Their rent on this 1 bed flat is £570 a month. They both feel they would be better off not working so they could claim full Housing Benefit for the rent. I mention the benefit cap which they are unaware of.
"Every time we feel we are going forward we seem to take 2 steps back. We simply can't afford to pay the rent, heat the flat for 7 days a week, and buy nice food. I end up looking for the most filling food like £1 pizzas in Iceland and £1 bags of frozen chips. Whatever anyone says meat and vegetables cost a lot more."
Marie wants to move out of the flat for somewhere with a garden for her daughter, but she tells me that even though bungalows are in huge supply on the Coast and the rents about the same as the flat, she worries about larger energy bills, council tax bills etc.
As she shows me out, I point to the uncollected bins, overflowing with different types of waste in the
"There are 4 families in this house. We need 4x the bins, but at the end of the day we have just got too much more to worry about. The council send someone round to educate us about what goes in each
bin, but when the bins are full, everyone just crams in where they can. It's annoying as the rubbish is overflowing and the bin men won't take it, but to be honest we have all got far more important things to worry about."
Further down the street, I meet Eileen and her husband Steve.They live in a ground floor flat of one of the formerly grand B+B houses. Steve has multiple illnesses and disability. Eileen cares for him. They too have some Christmas decorations up in the window. " It makes the flat more cheery" says Eileen. They are both in their 50's.
" What's life like living here?" I ask.
"Hell!" Says Steve. " We are the only British people living in this place. The families above are from Poland, Romania and the Phillipines. The Romanians keep gathering on the stairs and outside right in front of our flat until the early hours. It keeps us awake. They don't seem to understand the concept of inviting visitors into their own front room. The Filipinos are hard workers and so are the Polish. Their children are very polite, but ..."
" Kids will be kids" says Eileen. " Laughing, shouting and so on. They have no garden, but then neither do we. We're just living on top of each other. We're on the waiting list for a bungalow or ground floor flat, but the list is huge.'
"What are your thoughts on the Government and the housing situation? Have disability changes
affected you" I ask.
"We get worried every time a brown envelope comes through the door. It's always summoning Steve to yet another interview, whether it's the job centre or housing. We like Sundays. No post on a Sunday."
Next door I meet Michelle, a divorced single mum to two boys. Michelle tells me that recently while her split from her ex- husband was going through and she applied for income support for the first time and had to move out of her house and into this flat, it took 5 weeks for the Job Centre to sort things out. That was 5 weeks with nothing. Her parents lent her some money, but after 2 weeks, she was referred to the local Foodbank as she had no money for food or fuel.
"People don't understand just how rock bottom your life is, to have no food and be asking a Foodbank for a food parcel to feed your own kids. I had gone from having my own home to a miserable flat, lost my ex-husbands income, to applying for benefit. I have every intention of looking for a job, but the split and the move has had a huge impact on me and the boys, they just need me to be there for
some stability for a few months. I can then get on my feet and try to improve our lives. "
"Did you have any idea it would be this difficult to claim benefit?" I ask.
"No idea at all. There is a women's group in Rhyl who helped me with the forms and told me what I was entitled to, but the wait for assessment is too long. I really was on the edge of life, just clinging
on for those 5 weeks. The Foodbank was fantastic and helped me through those weeks and kindly even put some electricity cards in my meter. Their volunteers even put a few packets of sweets in for the kids. I can't thank them enough. "
I can tangibly see, hear and feel her desperation. In life, events take place that throw us out of keel. It maybe illness, divorce, disability. At these times we turn to the state for assistance. But now that state under this Coalition Government are turning their back on vulnerable people in their time of greatest need.
As I walked back down the grim street, the overwhelming sense of "It shouldn't be like this" gripped me. Why haven 't successive governments ploughed council house sales into new build social housing so Eileen and Steve can live in a bungalow in a quiet close? They need a more peaceful existence in pleasant surroundings. There will be huge cultural differences between Brits and Immigrants. Where are the support and integration services that are needed? Why have we got to the stage that two working parents, Maria and Josh don't have enough money for fuel? They work! And why is the Government doing nothing about the sheer scale of Part Timers who cannot find Full Time Work? Why is it taking months to assess people for benefit in a time of crisis in their lives when they urgently need support? And the question I ask continually "Why are Foodbanks operating on such a large scale? A scale so large they will be forced to feed 500,000 people shortly?"
This Government is abdicating all responsibility to voluntary support networks to feed, clothe, house and advise people in their darkest hours. It is mine and your responsibility to stop them. Until we do or there is a tangible change of Government in 2015 millions more will suffer. In fact, as I write Iain Duncan-Smith is looking to scrap the Work Related Activity Group of people on ESA who are currently too ill to look for work. He wants to put 550,000 sick people straight onto JSA whether they are fit for work or not.
There are thousands of Poverty Streets throughout the UK. Think twice before judging them. There are desperate stories behind those overflowing bins.