This article first appeared in 9th May edition of Radio Times
When I hear people say that those who have to claim benefits, as I do, are scroungers, I get angry. Channel 4 may call my road Benefits Street, but the people on Kingston Road, in Stockton-on-Tees, claim benefits for a reason. My reason is that I had to give up my job as a youth worker to take care of my son, Reagan.
When Reagan was nine months old, he had a heart attack, and I was told he wouldn’t survive. Thanks to the amazing staff at the University Hospital of North Tees, he did, but with severe brain damage. While I loved my job, I didn’t love it as much as I loved my son. And because of Reagan’s severe, complex needs, I have been housebound for 15 years, making sure that he had the best possible quality of life.
In January, Reagan passed away. It’s my aim that when I’m emotionally stable again, I’ll go back to work. If that sounds like scrounging to you, I can tell you that money doesn’t interest me. If I could have my son back, I’d live in a cardboard box.
This myth that everyone who lives on a council estate is a down-and-out or a scrounger needs to be shattered. For most of the adults I know, the jobs that are available are at the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour and on a zero-hours contract. If you’re not needed that day, you don’t get paid. How can you pay your bills and plan your life around a zero-hours contract? Then there are benefits sanctions. I know people who’ve been told that if they don’t make 26 job applications in a week, they’ll lose their benefits. But there aren’t 26 jobs out there to apply for.
A lot of us feel like we’re living in a Robin Hood economy, only in reverse. Everything seems to be taken away from those who need it. Take the bedroom tax. Since Reagan passed away, there’s only my 13-year-old son Cameron living with me, but this is a four-bedroomed house. So I could end up having to pay £35 for those two empty rooms. If that happens, I’d be left with nothing. All my money would go on paying my rent, gas and electric. People might say I should move to a smaller house, but I’ve brought my six kids up in this house, and I’ve lived on this street for 27 years. It’s where my six grandchildren and my community are.
It’s that community that I want viewers of Benefits Street to see. Some people talk about poverty porn, but we’ve got the richest community ever – because of what we’ve got, what we give and what we do for each other. I don’t know anyone who lives around here who’s living in poverty. We have to watch our pennies, but there’s nobody here who’s poverty-stricken.
Nothing’s too much for anybody. There’s always somewhere or someone we can go to for anything. If someone needs stains taking out of their clothes, they know where to go. If someone needs a Sunday dinner, they know where to go. Nobody ever just cooks for their own family. There are always a few extra plates of food that get put out, and there’s always someone who comes along and has one – and they’re welcome. We may not have much, but we share.
I watched the first series of Benefits Street, and I’ve seen people like White Dee make some money from the tabloids. We’ve all talked and said that if anything did come out of this and we did get the chance to do something sensible and practical, we’d do it, because we’d be daft not to. But I’d never move away from here. If I had the chance to buy my house from the council, that would be my ideal for life.
There aren’t many communities like mine any more. People in their big, posh houses can sneer and say what they want, but half of them won’t even know their own neighbours. We’re there for each other, and anyone who moves onto this estate is welcomed. Whatever comes out of Benefits Street, I would never move away.
Benefits Street concludes tonight (Monday 1st June) on Channel 4 at 9.00pm