Stephen Gordon has done everything he can to get his life back on track since leaving prison, but when his benefits were cut for two months due to a mixup, he had to borrow money just to eat
Stephen Gordon is desperate to find work and turn his life around after spending time in prison. But since his benefits were stopped for two months due to an administrative error, he was left destitute and has lost almost two stone in weight.
Stephen, 32, from Cheetham Hill, north Manchester, was attending a course at Salford City College, arranged by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). His problems began in January when he missed an appointment at Salford Job Centre Plus because he had not received a letter about it.
His £53-a-week jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) stopped the day after the missed appointment and he was sanctioned for four weeks. The DWP then claimed he wasn’t doing enough to find work and sanctioned him for another month.
Stephen didn’t receive any benefits at all until the end of March. Despite making official complaints, the DWP have refused to backdate any benefits.
“How am I supposed to live?” Stephen asks. “I’ve being going to a course three days a week, plus I’m applying for ten jobs every fortnight – and [the DWP is] saying I’m not looking for work? It’s [their] mistake and I’m suffering,” he said.
“If it was my problem, and I missed the appointment on purpose, then I could understand, I could accept it. But I didn’t do anything wrong.
“I went without food for days. One day I might borrow a couple of quid and get some pot noodles, and then not eat for a day or two. Maybe every day or two I’d get a bag of chips.”
Despite the sanction, Stephen successfully completed his six-week rendering and plastering course at Salford City College, and received an NVQ level 2 qualification.
He walked the five-mile round trip from his hostel to college three days a week as he couldn’t afford the bus fare, often going without food while there.
Stephen lives in Project 34, a Salford-based hostel for single homeless people. His JSA covers the hostel’s £20 a week service charge, as well as food. During the sanction, he had to borrow money to stay after the hostel threatened him with eviction.
“I felt really low: suicidal, depressed. I just thought that no-one was helping or caring. If I’m trying as hard as I can, and following all the rules, and they won’t even pay you to survive, you feel like there’s no point. So why should you even try?”
Stephen has been unemployed since he came out of prison in October 2011 following a 21-month sentence for drug dealing. He is hopeful that the company who ran his course will give him a two-week trial that could lead to a full-time job.
“I’ve been trying to get a CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card to say that I’m safe and competent to be a labourer. I want to be a health and safety officer. I’ve applied for jobs; but they don’t even seem to want to ask you in for an interview. I have decent qualifications. Having a prison sentence does hold you back.”
For the past 30 weeks, Stephen has been attending a support group for ex-offenders run by Church Action on Poverty. They have produced a handbook for prison-leavers, and a DVD to persuade young people to keep away from crime.
“I don’t want to go back to prison. But it is tempting, when I’m sat there with no food, to just go out there and make some money [by committing crime]. But if I ended up back in jail, it’s going take me back to beginning. It’s taken me a year to get this hostel place. So it would be wasted time if I go back to jail now.
“In the hostel, every other week you see someone [who has been sanctioned]. The DWP don’t seem to care. They think we’re scum. Maybe some people don’t want to work. But a lot do want to better their lives and get a job. We shouldn’t all be treated the same. If we’re trying to get work we should get more help.
“After all that rioting that went on [in 2011] it’s going to cause people to give up. It’s just going to get worse.”