Sunday, 19 April 2015
Job #9 Benefits Office
Today's job was getting an insight into the vast roles that combine to provide us with a housing benefit service. This is a scary one to blog about as it’s a rather controversial topic! Obviously I can’t go into any detail about people I met, but it was a very eye opening experience.
The morning started on the 'meet and greet' desk where I observed the huge amount of queries that the staff there have to deal with. I can't imagine what a first day there would feel like! You’re asked everything from can you order me some recycling bags (which FYI if you live in a flat Gravesend you don’t get yet), right through to asking about housing developments to see if there are any potential new properties on the horizon. There are around 3000 people waiting for houses in Gravesend alone, I actually met someone that had made it to number 12 on the list - must be an amazing feeling! Anyway I've got off track. The guys on the front desk certainly cope amazingly under pressure, it's impressive how calm they remain - there was a que to speak to them for most of the hour and that was a quiet day apparently! In the past they have had someone bring in a rat to prove they had a rat infestation, another time someone emptied their rubbish sack in the entrance (I'm informed this kind of thing only happens once a month!). There was however a member of the public having a panic attack this morning which was pretty scary - but the staff took it in their stride…I did help out a little with that. Certainly seems there’s never a dull day!
I'd just like to add I'm writing this in the cafe where the staff have made me feel amazingly welcome (I know some of them now that this is my third week) all whilst there are a group of people singing and playing the guitar - the community feel of this building is great!
Anyway, next was the face to face drop in service where people can get help with their housing benefit. This could be anything from completing their application to informing the council of changes of circumstances. It was quite upsetting how much stress some people were under, some were even crying where they were in circumstances that they were unable to change. I can imagine how stressful trying to do everything that you need to is - especially if you aren't functioning properly which some people wouldn’t be. One person had a small increase in their income which meant that after recalculations taking this into account they actually ended up paying out more than their increase…so lost money!
I know that there is a lot of stigma around people that receive benefits, but as someone who had their life turned upside down beyond my control, I can completely understand that sometimes you end up in a position where no matter how much you would like to, you simply can’t support yourself.
Everyone that I witnessed in my few hours at the counter seemed like they genuinely needed help, one person had actually knowingly not claimed thousands that they were entitled to (they weren’t backdating their claim), but now needed the help of the council.
The team were so kind, and wanted to do everything that they could to help people. If I’m honest that’s not something that I expected, but I guess it is just that they have very strict guidelines that they have to slot people into to decide whether or not they are entitled to help.
The last section of the day, I was allowed to attend a couple of fraud investigation visits. I certainly can’t write anything about these, but all that I will say is that I would definitely not be able to do a job like that as I would want to help everyone! That said, I do realise that unfortunately there are people that abuse the system...otherwise the fraud department wouldn't exist!
I didn’t realise just how many staff it takes to provide us with housing benefit – and that’s just one borough! There are so many aspects to this department of the council, there are even dedicated social media teams to make sure there are as many ways as possible for people to be able to contact the council when they need to
Thanks to Gravesend Council for having me along for the day, it was certainly an interesting day – just a shame I can’t really share the insights that I gained