Day in the life

A Day In The Life Of A Graduate On Benefits

I am awoken by the sound of a small child screaming.

I live in a refuge, which involves sharing a house with other women and children.

The screaming stops, as the child’s mother takes him out for the day. The front door slams shut.

I check the time. Just after 10am. I’d been up until 4am, talking to a friend as I browsed job portals and applied to as many roles as I could.

My phone and web is getting cut off soon as I can’t afford to pay the bill. I need to update my Universal Jobmatch – the online portal that logs my job search activity – before it becomes a lot harder to do so.

I find it hard to sleep due to the anxiety I feel every day.

I feel anxious because the jobcentre are refusing to pay the full amount of rent for this house. I’ve been here for almost a month, without making any payments. I would if I could, but I’ve had no updates from the DWP about whether they’ve reassessed my claim.

Because I’m on Universal Credit, but this borough of London doesn’t fully operate under that system yet, my benefits claim is incompatible with my housing situation. Once someone is on Universal Credit, they can’t switch to Jobseekers’ Allowance and housing benefit. However, the rent for this house is higher than the maximum Universal Credit will pay.

“There’s a dilemma,” my work coach told me, waving me out of the building.

I was going to ask the supported housing officer here for help, but she’d been ill for 7 working days. Last week, I got a letter from the director informing that she’d left due to unforeseen circumstances.

Looks like I’m dealing with this on my own, then.

I check the money I keep in my phone wallet – £20, to last me 10 days. That’s good – I’d thrown £50 onto my Oyster the minute I got my benefit payment last month, in case I was needed to attend interviews. I don’t have to count 5ps out of the mug on my windowsill to buy a loaf of bread this week.

God, I hate pouring coins into a cashier’s hand, and waiting as they count every one. It’s worse if there’s a queue behind me. I feel like I’m in the way.

But then, I feel like I’m in the way all the time, right now. I still can’t get used to having a room, all to myself. I’m waiting for it to get taken away from me. Like the other houses were, when I could no longer afford to pay.

I miss being able to pay for things. I remember being University staff, and going out to the cinema, to a club, to restaurants, with my friends. I remember buying an item of clothing because I liked it. I remember the satisfaction I felt every day, waking up and knowing I had a purpose. A place in the world.

I go to get dressed and find that my favourite trousers have a massive hole in them. Usually I’d just cover it up with a jacket, but this one is too noticeable. I throw them away.

My shoes are falling apart. I just hope nobody notices when I wear them to my next interview.

I power up my laptop – one of the few valuable possessions I kept, after selling everything else. I write so much, I feel that my final coping mechanism would be taken away, should I give in and sell it. And I need to write. Nothing else gives me the sense of purpose that writing does.

I check my Universal Jobmatch. I’ve been sent links to jobs to apply for. Well, I say jobs. Casual factory cleaning. Unpaid work experience at Savers, stacking the shelves for a week. None of it provides a stable income.

“It gives you experience, and references,” my work coach told me.

I’ve got experience. I’ve worked in customer service roles since the age of 16. A hotel, a shop, a restaurant, a stockroom, a call centre. I worked throughout my undergraduate studies, and worked in retail alongside my job at the University until they ran out of funding for me.

I’ve got references. A list of them. Stacking shelves for a week isn’t going to improve my job prospects. It’s just going to save the shop money, because I’m providing slave labour.

Yes, I’ll say slave labour. Because I’ve been bullied into unpaid shelf stacking before by the jobcentre. Telling someone that they have to go and do manual work for free, threatening to take away their living costs if they don’t comply, is slave labour.

I spend the next few hours applying to jobs. Retail, hospitality, marketing, writing. I want more than anything to be a reporter, but if I don’t apply to a range of jobs, I’ll be sanctioned. I worked for 4 years, gaining experience in journalism, but I have no issue with working in retail for a while longer. Anything, if it means I can get off benefits. Anything, if it means I can earn enough money to get by. I don’t want to be rich – I just want enough money to survive.

The application forms begin to get boring after I reach the 26th form. Name, email address, phone number, CV, cover letter, apply. Name, email address, phone number, CV, cover letter, apply. The forms that annoy me are those that ask for you to attach your CV, but still want you to fill out boxes with your education and employment history. The form ends up timing out, and you lose all your work.

My inbox pings. “Unfortunately we have decided not to progress your application further.” “Unfortunately there were other candidates more suited to the role.” I highlight them all and press Delete, then carry on.

I wish I had someone to talk to. My friends are all at work. They reply to my messages when they can, but they’re busy. I remember being busy. It was nice.

At least I don’t have to go to the jobcentre today. Whenever I walk in, it’s always the same.

“You’ve been unemployed for four months. That’s a long time.”

Yeah. I’m aware. I do have a brain, believe it or not.

It’s the patronising tone that gets to me the most. The feeling of superiority these people so clearly have. “I’m employed, and you’re not.”

I remember being listened to by a work coach, once. “I can see you’re working hard – I get the feeling the reason you’ve not gained employment yet is…circumstantial.”

Yeah. Try being offered a job, having it fall through due to a change in funding, being evicted by a landlord who terrorises everyone in the building, finding a new house, being asked to leave because you’re in receipt of benefits, sleeping on a man’s floor in his filthy bedsit for two months, fleeing across London when you get offered a lifeline, and watching the debt you were forced to get into due to the DWP not processing your claim for five weeks rise, with nothing you can do about it, because they cut your money every month, for no fucking reason. None. I do everything asked of me and more, and still get punished for existing.

I go for a walk. It’s cold. Summer is well and truly over. I wrap my cardi tightly around me. I can’t afford a coat.

But you know what is free? Happiness. I choose to be happy, because there is no point in being dragged down by others.

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

So I smile, and keep walking.

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