I had the privilege of spending the day at Humanity Torbay, a charity based in Torquay. For those not from Torbay, let me fill you in on what Humanity Torbay do.
They are an independent advice and support centre and carry out many functions – for example, disability support, benefit advice, housing support and referrals for food parcels. Not only do they do these things, they provide showers, a washing machine and a safe place for people to come and have a cup of tea, or a small amount of food if they cannot get any immediately from food banks (Humanity aren’t a food bank but do keep small amounts of supplies in case of emergencies).
Their CEO Ellie Waugh has been very successful at speaking out against the injustices faced by the vulnerable in Torbay, with videos of her revealing the truth reaching hundreds of thousands of shares/views. They made national news last year when they were “gagged” from talking about the impacts Universal Credit has had on some of the most impoverished in our society.
It was clear, just from spending a few hours there, just how detrimental Universal Credit has been on people’s lives. Prior to September 2018, the majority of Humanity’s time was taken up by giving food referrals. Within the first weeks of October until present day, 75-80% of the cases Humanity dealt with were Universal Credit related. Sanctioning and ridiculously long waiting times for payments have caused untold damage.
There have now been 10 vulnerable women approach the charity, after being forced into prostitution because of Universal Credit. These women work with Ellie to ensure their sexual health is looked after and that they are safe. But this should be the work of local authorities – not charity.
Within the day I was there, huge numbers of service users, all homeless, had walked through the charity’s doors. On an average day, the charity told me they could have 60-70 people in need of help, and have between 20-30 phone calls. The individuals in question often have complex needs, and often aren’t getting the support they are entitled to from local authorities. Humanity has 650 clients on file. This is hugely damning for Torbay council, who have come under criticism in the past few months, for evicting another homeless charity, PATH, from their premises.
It’s important to note before I continue, that I do not blame the individual workers at Torbay council who work in various departments – they are often overworked and not in control of the system/procedures. They are not to blame. Rather, it is very clear that the system in place to deal with vulnerable and homeless people is not fit for purpose. This goes from council level, to the national policies of this Conservative Government.
I heard stories of vulnerable, elderly people being turned away by the council – and saw the charity housing them, albeit temporarily, with their own money. I saw a young woman, vulnerable as a care leaver, be refused housing unless she got rid of her dog (which she’d had from a puppy, and was one of the only comforts in her life). She was entitled to at least £2000 from the local authority, after leaving care – she never received it. I saw a British citizen return from Spain after 30 years – after the tragic death of his partner – only to be refused help, and for Ellie to have to pay with her own money to house him.
I have heard stories of a mother and her two children coming in for help at the charity – and they had been surviving on a single loaf of bread between them, for 2 days. Of a family on Universal Credit, with £2.47 to live on. Stories of a single Dad and his 6 year old daughter sitting under duvets in their homes, with only a packet of rice in their cupboards – because they couldn’t afford food or utilities.
Often people turn to charities because they cannot get help anywhere else. It shouldn’t be down to charities to fill the vacuum left by 9 years of Tory austerity and authorities being unwilling or unable to help – but this is the reality faced across the country. Charities cannot possibly work like authorities – they don’t get anywhere near enough funding. They are limited as to what they can do – for example, certain food banks only open on Thursday and Friday – so referrals can only be made then.
Ellie’s 12 year old son emptied his savings account over Easter and spent £40 on Easter eggs for service users so that no one would miss out. An extraordinarily compassionate young man – but this should not have to happen in a country as rich as ours.
Whilst on the premises, I witnessed the charity calling the council’s housing team for help – only to be told by an employee that Humanity “probably had a better chance of finding them housing than the council do”. Unsurprising, given the council outsourced its social housing to a private company.
I also witnessed the council claim they had contacted service users about their housing situation – only to be shown by the individuals in question that it was not the case. The charity confirmed that this happens often – either the individual doesn’t get called back, or the council says they have done so, when they haven’t. The council even asked whether the individual had blocked their number, rather than accept that perhaps their department had forgotten to call back.
When speaking to service users, they told me they had been advised to wait 3 hours in Paignton Library (a 30 minute bus ride away) for help. Because the individual didn’t have his national insurance number to hand, they made the process even more difficult.
The total apathy from the council I witnessed seemed to go right to the top. I spoke to an ex-Tory, currently Independent Cllr Robert Excell – who is election agent for the Torbay Independent Group in the May elections. He walked past the premises – so I and one other individual challenged him regarding the council’s shoddy record on homelessness. Excell is also a landlord, according to his Register of Interests on the council website. We spoke regarding the homelessness situation – he was very careful to say he didn’t agree with homelessness, but seemed to suggest it wasn’t his “portfolio”, not in his remit, and maintained that due to the council’s constitution, there was very little he could do about it.
This did not wash with us. As a councillor, you have influence and an ability to speak up on issues – you aren’t just limited to acting with policy. If he spoke to the media about an issue, he could bring it to the public’s attention – rather than doubling down and hoping it’ll go away.
When asked about Universal Credit, he said it was good in theory, but badly executed. He went on to mention professional beggars in Torbay, and say that for some, homelessness is a “choice”. He said that people can choose to be homeless, rather than live in the substandard housing provided to them. Perhaps as a councillor and landlord, he could (and should!) be doing more to ensure housing was not substandard?
He said that in the upcoming local elections he would be campaigning for better regulation of landlords. He assured us he had personally stopped an individual being made homeless in the last few weeks. But still, in a conversation regarding a well-publicised problem for Torbay council, it is hardly appropriate to misrepresent the issue as in part being down to choice or professional begging. Of course, this is not a personal issue, confined to one councillor – the council as a whole clearly needs to take stronger, unequivocal action. Given the number of Torbay councillors who are landlords themselves, I seriously doubt whether such action will come to fruition.
He then signposted us to a senior member of the housing team, who to his credit was very diligent in explaining to us the issues. He spoke to the charity regarding the issues they had raised and resolved to at least enquire. This was appreciated.
The things I have seen, the people I have met and the stories I have heard at Humanity Torbay will stay with me for the rest of my life. In no uncertain terms, Torbay council must do better. It should not be down to ordinary, everyday people to look after some of society’s most vulnerable. The duty of care lies with the council. Something needs to change because lives depend on it. I have no doubt that Ellie and her team of brilliant, compassionate people have saved many lives between them, and helped countless others when no one else would.
If you would like to donate to Humanity Torbay, you can do so by following the link: https://www.gofundme.com/save-humanity-torbay?fbclid=IwAR2oKa96CPDaBH7k7iV0wTW8TlICybAMTX1sqjU04Vcfg59J749jCrco3Ss
Or you can visit their website, and if you so choose, donate to them by going in to their Torquay office.