Universal credit makes you jump through so many hoops, you just want to give up | Sharron Spice

Everybody’s got to do a side hustle, get another job. I do youth work and I’m a youth offending supervisor at the weekend. And then I have my full-time job as a project support worker with adults in supported housing. I assist with varying needs, from wellbeing to benefits applications. I have a three-month contract. Overall, I work six days a week, sometimes seven.

Everything’s gone up. Food’s gone up, rent’s gone up, Netflix has gone up. Pasta, rice, your deodorants, soft drinks. We know that energy is due to go up again in October and I feel that the government is not doing enough to support us. To get to some of my service users in the community, I need a car, and right now petrol is at 191p per litre. Now I’m thinking, “I need to conserve my petrol.”

I do reward myself because I don’t want to just work to pay rent. But before, I’d spend £20 on a Chinese takeaway each week. Now it’s down to maybe £11, £15 max, and I only have a treat like that once a month.

I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues who say they turned off their heating when it was cold. Somebody else I spoke to recently said they don’t put the light on. He said, “The electric, it’s too much.” I’m frightened of the dark. When I was growing up, it was very chaotic. Sometimes my parents would leave us and the electric would go. Now, at night I have to have a lamp on. That’s one of my things to do with post-traumatic stress disorder, which I was diagnosed with in 2014.

I was working as an administrator in the City in 2019, alongside running my theatre company and putting on productions, but when my six-month contract ended, I couldn’t find another job. I used up all my favours, I had no money left, and I had no choice but to apply for universal credit. Because my last salary had been £2,000 per month, they took that into account when they did their calculations. I had to wait five weeks to get my money. When it came, it was £70 for the month. I was like, “What can I do with £70? I can’t pay rent, I can’t buy my food, I can’t pay my phone bill.” I said, “What do I do?” The adviser just said, “Well, you’re eligible for a loan.” I had no choice. I had to take it, to pay the rent, to buy food.

That was the very beginning, and from there it doesn’t get any better. It’s trauma. I did suffer. It affects your mental health. Just the fact that you can’t afford to look after yourself and you have to keep asking friends who you then become a burden on. They’re saying it’s OK, but are they really OK with it? There were times when my electric ran out so I was in the dark; in the dark with the fear. That was my lowest ebb.

That’s what inspired me to write a play – it’s called The Perils of Universal Credit. I was on universal credit for six months before I got a job. But then in 2020 I got made redundant during Covid. At first, I was furloughed. I was the office manager of an expensive office near Leicester Square. They got rid of the office because we were all working from home. I had to go on universal credit again. I didn’t want to go on it. There is that stigma attached. And you don’t want to go through the process because it’s not nice. You have to bare your soul. They want to know the whole of your life. It’s like you need to jump through so many hoops that are put there in order for you to give up.

I’ve always done youth work, even when I’ve had a full-time job. Youth work doesn’t feel like a job, I enjoy it, you can inspire people. You can change lives. So I retrained during the pandemic and got a full-time job in the sector. I saved and saved, so that the next time I became unemployed, I had enough money to allow me to find another job and pay the rent.

I’m still trying to save. I’m trying, trying, trying, but the cost of living is making it very difficult. I’m still paying two debts. I’m anxious about what the future holds.

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