I raise 2 kids on £5 a day
The rich don’t care about us
Hollie lives on the outskirts of a city in south wales with her two young children. At 37 weeks pregnant, she was forced to move into a house that was ‘disgusting’. Now on Universal Credit and struggling to survive on £5 a day, she says she doesn’t feel the political system represents her.
Words by SC Cook, Images by Veronika Merkova
When she first found out she was pregnant in her late teens, Hollie remembers feeling anxious.
“I was a bit upset,” she says. “Because I didn't have the money and I couldn't just quit my job like that.”
She worked in the care sector and regularly did over 40 hours a week, constantly lifting people and moving them around. After having to take a period of sick leave due to the pain of pregnancy, she asked her employer if they would reduce her hours to a more manageable 20 per week. But they came back with an ultimatum: either stick to 40, or resign.
“They said they couldn’t afford it,” Hollie recalls. “It was either I accept the hours they give me, or leave.”
Unaware of her rights as a pregnant woman and not in a union, Hollie felt she was given no choice but to quit her job. As she says: “I was thinking about mine and my child’s safety.”
Unemployed and heavily pregnant, Hollie went to her nearest job centre to apply for housing benefit and job seekers allowance. Given how close she was to birth, Hollie’s case should have been straightforward but she was told she would have to wait before qualifying for help.
“They wouldn’t give any me money for 6 weeks,” she remembers. “Because [the Job Centre] said it was my fault for leaving my job.”
She appealed the decision, explaining her situation to the department of work and pensions, but it was thrown out.
At this point Hollie was living with her mother and supported by family. When her housing benefit eventually came through, she found that it was almost impossible to find somewhere that would take her. “Have a look around here,” she tells me. “No one accepts DSS.”
“I had to look for somewhere to go because there’s no room in my mum’s house and I was obviously having a baby.... I was looking around and this house accepted DSS, [but] only if I decorated it.”
But when she went to view the house just three weeks from her due date, she was shocked by what she saw.
“You should have seen one wall, it was disgusting. It was full of damp.”
Hollie tells me that there was even dog faeces in the house.
“There was all dog’s poo everywhere, where the washing machine was. In the front room all the floor was reeking of dog pee. And they let me go in like that. They didn't even clean it before I moved in there.”
Anyone who has given birth or been close to someone who has will understand the need to be in a clean, safe environment well ahead of the due date. This was not an option for Hollie, however. Speaking outside her house one summer’s evening, she explains the state of desperation she found herself in.
“I had to take it because I had nowhere else to go.”
Her mum and stepfather helped her to decorate. “Imagine if I was on my own. I only had three weeks to drop, it was crazy,” she recalls.
Despite being listed as furnished, there were no appliances except an oven she couldn’t use.
“There was a cooker in there, but it was all rusty. They [the letting agency] told me to clean it up and keep it but I had to go and get [a new one]”
On top of having to buy an oven, Hollie had to buy a new microwave, washing machine, dryer, and a bed on credit.
“I’m still in debt, i’m still paying it off now,” she says in exasperation. “With it all, [it was] like £2,000.”
Despite finding her this property that was a health hazard with no appliances, the agency responsible made Hollie pay a months rent in advance plus an agency fee of £300 before she could move in.
I query what this £300 was for and Hollie says it was “just the agency fee.” She tells me the name of the agency but asks that I don’t repeat it for fear of reprisal.
She has subsequently been asked to pay almost £100 each year to ‘renew’ her tenancy, something she has refused to do.
“I haven’t renewed it in 3 years so they can chuck me out within a week,” Hollie says.
“They’ve threatened me since when I was pregnant with my eldest, saying: ‘if you don’t pay on top of your rent your landlord’s gonna think about giving you your notice.’”
She describes “crying on the phone” to her agent to try to stop him pushing for eviction just because she wouldn’t pay this additional sum of money.
Tenants unions would likely question it’s legitimacy of this spurious payment, but part of the reason Hollie hasn’t paid it is simply because she cannot afford it.
Now in her early twenties with two children both under the age of five, Hollie was moved onto universal credit last year. The notorious five week wait before any payment was made was hard enough, but the money she now receives from the new system is nowhere near enough to live on.
Once she has paid bills and rent, she is left with just £50 for the month and then receives a weekly payment of £30 in child benefit. And that’s all. It amounts to roughly £42 a week or just over £5 a day. From this money, she must buy food, toiletries, nappies, clothes and shoes for her children, pay for transport, school trips, the occasional treat and any other additional cost that is not rent or bills. She has her kids’ birthdays coming up, she explains, but doesn’t know how she’ll afford presents.
“It’s stress every day,” she tells me. “Every day my life is stress. Some days I don’t even eat. I just eat a sausage roll or something. But I make sure my kids eat. I cry over stupid stuff and all that crap…. like having no money and paying my bills that are so expensive.
“And obviously it's gonna be the six weeks [school holidays] off now. I’ll probably have no money again to do anything with my kids coz it’s literally pennies we have.”
There is no room for a financial mistake in Hollie’s life. She must stick to such a tight budget it’s suffocating. For the past 9 years, chancellors George Osbourne and Phillp Hammond have said the poorest must suffer in order to reduce public debt. In fact Osbourne even famously described people like Hollie as lazy and work shy.
But it is Hollie and others like her who have been made to pay for the financial crash of 2008. The irony is that she was still at school when the banks went bust; the people who built the system are richer than ever.
Because of the immense financial pressure she is under, Hollie was unable to pay her water bills recently and has now been sent a letter saying she owes £250. “I gotta pay that as well otherwise they’re sending someone out for the money,” she explains.
We met Hollie just by chance as we were walking through the area speaking to people at random about the issues they faced. Spending time outside with some other parents in the neighbourhood, Hollie was only the third person we had spoken to that day.
But she says the issues she faces are widespread. “Everyone struggles. Like, everyone I know. They struggle all the time,” she points out.
Hollie’s grandmother, Jean, tells us that people have been ‘left with nothing’ thanks to universal credit.”
One of Hollie’s friends - who has a child and also rents in the area - is being hit with extra agency fees. “She’s struggling and the landlord’s actually kicking her out in February,” we’re told.
Another woman she knows was recently evicted when she was about to give birth to her fourth child. The house had been in need of basic repairs but they were never done. When the landlord kicked them out, the house was soon done up and put on the market. Hollie says her friend has now been housed in temporary accommodation with four children, the oldest of which is 16.
Near where Hollie lives is a new housing development. She’s heard that some will be available as social housing, but she wouldn’t qualify because she is not ‘priority need.’ And even if she was, a quick search shows that she would still be at the back of an enormous waiting list. “I really would love to [live in a new build],” she says. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
In the meantime, Hollie has to raise her two children in a small, unfit house with the threat of eviction hanging over her. She describes her home as ‘disgusting’, and says “It needs knocking down and rebuilding; everything's falling apart.” She explains how she had to throw out everything in one cupboard because it was full of damp. When she got the council to inspect it, they told her it was just condensation.
She contemplated putting in a shower but cannot afford it and her landlord refuses to put one in. She even said she’d try and pay for half of it and her landlord said ok, but he’d have to up the rent if she did. “I’ve just got a bath, I'd had it for four years,” she says.
I call Hollie on the phone a few days after we meet. She breaks off the conversation saying someone has come to look at the boiler. Over a week later we speak again and she tells me her boiler has now been broken for 10 days.
If she wants to wash in warm water, she must walk to her mum's house and put money on the metre.
On her child’s first birthday, she had no hot water and has been giving her kids cold baths. “They hate it,” she tells me.
I ask Hollie how she feels about having kids now. “I wouldn’t change them for the world,” she says. “They keep me busy so… it's good to have someone … like when I was pregnant, I didn't know what to expect but its just mad. Love just comes as soon as you see them.”
She says she would ‘obviously’ join a movement and take to the streets against the situation she and others are in, but wonders how she would find the time as a single mother.
Hollie describes the Tory / Lib Dem coalition who enacted welfare changes and have overseen a broken housing system as ‘stupid.’
“Would they like to be in our situation,” she asks, “with nothing?”
She says she feel unrepresented by the political system. “Politicians don’t really look out for us, do they? Because look at the way this world is. There’s loads of homeless on the streets. They don’t care about us. The rich care about themselves. They’re selfish.”
There is a palpable anger towards her landlord and agency. With the lack of action over basic repairs and the dire state she found the house in, she says: “they should owe me money.” I am told that people have discussed withholding rent until things change.
Hollie can see how her situation is not uncommon. She says the world is “cruel and messed up” because of the way she and others are treated. In places like this though, people are starting to join the dots and think about getting organised through tenants unions and community groups .
Hollie says working together makes sense. In the circumstances, it may be people’s only hope.
* Some names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of individuals involved . If you have a story about housing, universal credit or poverty please email firstname.lastname@example.org