Taking stock of the newly destitute


Destitution is a loaded word, but charities such as Simon and St Vincent de Paul report that, quietly but surely, many people are edging in that direction, writes KATHY SHERIDAN.

Destitute: without resources, in great need of food, shelter, etc; devoid of (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

HOW BAD IS it out there? As bad as it gets, if Simon Community Northern Ireland has an accurate picture. When Carol O’Brien of Simon’s Northern Ireland branch used the word “destitution” at a Simon Communities of Ireland (SCI) event this week, she was well aware of its potency.

It was a word that harked back to another era, the era of poverty described in Angela’s Ashes by the late Frank McCourt, she noted, but she was struck by how often it had cropped up in conversation with colleagues and others in the past 12 to 18 months: “Destitution, unfortunately, is coming and creeping through society in an insidious way,” she said.

So have we come to this? “It’s not a word we’d be using regularly here in Simon Communities Ireland,” says Patrick Burke, chief executive of the island-wide Simon federation. “We are more inclined to use the term ‘poverty’ or ‘consistent poverty’ which is the Government’s approved poverty measure, developed by the ESRI. As far as we are aware, there is not a great difference in the situations of people contacting the Simon service north or south of the Border.”

Over at the St Vincent de Paul Society they were equally wary. “It’s such a loaded word,” says John Mark McCafferty, head of social justice and policy at the society. “Destitution is in the eye of the beholder. If someone feels destitute, they are. But because it’s such a loaded word, we’d be reluctant to label people as destitute. Would that be how I would describe myself [if I was a client of Vincent de Paul] – or I am I having a little bit of a rough patch?”

The over-arching feeling, however, is that quietly but surely, many people are edging in that direction. “There hasn’t been a huge increase in the obviously destitute,” says a successful Dublin 4 businessman with a long-standing involvement in various charities. “But there certainly has been an increase in the secretly destitute . . . There is the secret destitution of people living in hell, in houses they can’t pay for; people who have set up lifestyles they can’t sustain, who are facing ruin, who have absolutely nothing and nowhere to turn . . . It’s more a destitution of hope, of prospects. It’s not the begging in the streets kind . . . This is new.”

SCI agrees. “There are those people whose homelessness or risk of homelessness is hidden – they are staying with friends and relatives, sofa-surfing, borrowing to pay rent or mortgage, not in contact with services and supports. When they can no longer stay with friends or relatives or borrow more money for rent etc, they will turn to homeless services,” said Patrick Burke. “It can take some time before people define and classify themselves as homeless due to reluctance and/or lack of knowledge about where to turn for support. Therefore, the impact of the current economic situation will not result in an immediate marked increase in the numbers of people who are homeless but will be slower and must be monitored over the longer term.”

A SOCIAL WELFARE official says firmly: “It’s bad out there. Really bad. People may not be in danger of starving but there are plenty who have seen a really drastic change in their circumstances. Their homes are threatened, their cars have been repossessed, their furniture has been repossessed. For seven or eight years up to a year ago, people lived in a culture of no-tomorrow, of plastic money, of lending institutions firing money around willy-nilly and now reality is beginning to bite.

“And I can tell you, it’s causing untold stress, hardship and disharmony . . . Two or three years ago, these people were concerned with where they’d go on their fourth or fifth holiday, now they’re concerned about the next bill coming through the door. Look at the increase in unemployment numbers and people claiming social welfare benefits – that has a snowball effect inside the home, believe me.”

He notes that many self-employed in particular have emerged with no welfare safety net. “Quite a lot of the people affected would be self-employed and the class of insurance they contribute towards provides no form of unemployment or sickness benefit. The only thing their insurance entitles them to is the old age pension. Therefore, all they’re left with is assistance – about €204 for a single person, another €160-€170 if there’s a spouse and a couple of children. That’s a fair comedown from what that type of person was probably earning in the boom years. I’ve heard of tradesmen working on building sites who were taking home €3,000 a week . . . You’re looking at people like that or professionals like solicitors who specialised in conveyancing, earning a lot of money and living up to every penny of it [who] now have been laid off now with virtually nothing.”

What many don’t realise, says Wicklow county councillor Irene Winters, is that even for employees who have contributed pay-related social insurance for many years, non-means-tested benefit is finite.

After 12 months, any further unemployment assistance depends on a rigorous means test, one that many people stranded with unsaleable assets bought in the good times will have difficulty passing. A small savings pot, a second unsaleable home, a spouse who is earning above the prescribed amount may disqualify an applicant.

A couple in their mid-40s who had worked hard since their teens, each running a small business, had bought an old house and were slowly doing it up, but failed to sell their first home before the slump. Now they can’t sell either. Both businesses have come to a stand-still, but for welfare purposes they are regarded as asset-rich so are entitled to no benefits. They are currently surviving on hand-outs from family members and the Vincent de Paul, as well as food parcels left on the doorstep by concerned friends.

Another man who lost his job last year has only now realised that he is a month away from losing his allowances. His revised mortgage payment schedule with the bank was made on the flawed understanding that his €800 a month benefit would continue. He has no idea what lies ahead.

“If he and his wife were in private rented accommodation, they would qualify for rent allowance – which would be paid to the big developer who owns the house and which would make him wealthier. The Government seems to have all the money in the world for them,” says Winters.

“Most people who haven’t engaged with the system before and don’t know how to maximise benefits have no idea what they’re heading into. They are asked to produce bank statements and they produce them – only to find that no help is forthcoming until they’ve made themselves completely broke. This is what is coming down the line for many, many people . . . They’re on their way to destitution and they don’t even know it yet. People who lost their jobs in the past year may still be eking out their savings; maybe a family member is still working [and the] banks haven’t come the heavy yet, but that’s only a limited time frame as part of the bailout deal. Now the year is nearly up and there seems to be no Government plan for what is going to happen next year. Many of these people will not be eligible for State benefit under current rules; they can’t pay their mortgages, have no jobs to go to, no place to emigrate to and can’t sell their house or assets. There will be people with no money to pay for their children’s school books.”

THE ENDING OF the school books grants scheme for low income families not designated disadvantaged is only one of the concerns challenging the SVP. Others include the abolition of the Christmas bonus, reductions in rent supplements for social welfare tenants, the suspension of the community supports scheme for older people, all coming on top of the various cuts and charges recommended in the McCarthy report, such as welfare rate cuts, reductions in child income supports and increased charges for school transport, prescriptions and home helps.

But the system doesn’t seem to care, says a woman who rang the Department of Social Welfare to report someone who was working while claiming benefits. She told the official that the person had been pictured in his place of work and named the newspaper. The official’s response was to ask for the person’s PPS number and registered employer’s number. “No PPS, no case. That was the response,” she says. “How do they think the average citizen is going to come by that information?”

There is “a fair bit of abuse” of the system, agrees the social welfare official, “but what can you expect when you hear a distressed small farmer in Cork talking about suffering a 50 per cent drop in income [due to cuts in the Reps scheme] from a Minister who has taken only a 10 per cent cut in his own? If politicians wanted to show true leadership, they would take a 30-35 per cent cut. But that’s not what we’re seeing and it’s that sort of thing that will make the abuses even worse. For one thing, you’re going to have a much bigger black economy than ever before.

“All government support seems to have gone in so many areas of deprivation,” says the Dublin 4 businessman, “and it’s made worse by seeing people who are blatantly getting away with it . . . The developers are still living in their mighty houses and none have been thrown out even though they owe fortunes, but the people who’ve fallen a few months behind in their mortgages are being threatened with eviction.

“Yet the Government can still find money for the horse racing and greyhound industry – over €600 million in nine years in grant aid. And where does it go? Byzantine, the horse that finished second last in the Irish Derby – beaten by 52 lengths – still got €15,000 in prize money. That, remember, is taxpayers’ money, being handed over to owners who are already very wealthy. Yet they’re cutting back on special-needs schools.”