Women forced to work as prostitutes to survive, those who lost their job because of attitudes to mental illness, or are struggling to make ends meet on benefits, people for whom life is often a daily grind of poverty or a battle against bureaucrats.
These were the people who took centre stage at Leeds Civic Hall last week at the launch of a year-long project called the Poverty Truth Challenge.
The mix of monologues, poetry, performance and song was a world away from Channel 4’s Benefits Street, where what we see of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets is determined by TV executives.
It was clear that the ‘testifiers’ had put a lot of work into preparing their stories, which they told to a packed room that included many of the city’s civic and business leaders.
How often do politicians and others in powerful positions get to meet ‘real people’ who are able to speak so candidly about how their lives?
Many so-called public events are highly stage managed, and while focus groups fuel the policy making process, encounters with the public are generally viewed as potential PR disasters to be avoided.
From Tony Blair who was confronted by Sharron Storer at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital during the 2001 election, to Gordon Brown’s encounter nine years later with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale and more recently, the Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith who faced furious residents during his recent visit to Somerset, it’s perhaps easy to see why politicians prefer to ‘drop in’ to a cafe where the customers are carefully vetted.
That’s one thing that made the Poverty Truth Challenge in Leeds last week such a charged affair.
There were uncomfortable stories, many of which were at odds with current narratives about #hardworking Britain and the deserving poor.
Darren, a young man who spoke about the impact of benefit sanctions that left him so hungry and weak that his chances of getting a job seemed bleak: “If you put a hungry and malnourished man like him next to a healthy man in a job interview, who do you think will get it?”.
There was Amina, whose young son is a talented gymnast and possible future star, for whom providing the training and kit meant making tough decisions and real sacrifice when it came to food and other necessities – the reality was driven home by the fact that Leeds city council’s decision to reduce bus fares meant an extra £5 a week for her to work with.
While the ‘Olympic Legacy’ remains a buzzword, families desperate to help their children reach their potential receive little support, she said.
Anna, who described herself as a “survivor of street prostitution” acknowledged that some might blame her for the criminal lifestyle of her son who teachers acknowledged was gifted, but without the support he received at primary school got caught in a cycle of punishments and eventual exclusion once he reached secondary school.
“We have to work together and think about the ripple effect,” she said. “Lack of finance is one thing, but lack of understanding and looking at the bigger picture is another thing altogether.”
Hawa, who fled a forced and subsequently violent marriage found her life entirely snared in the complexities of the asylum system.
“I hoped that I had come to a place of sanctuary, but I was met with a wall of suspicion and contempt,” she said. “I felt I had come out of the frying pan into the fire. I spent years living in virtual destitution. I was bleeding inside.”
The council chamber is one place where people can express their views to local representatives, but too often this is a formality, as councillors have already been told by their Whip which way to vote.
Councillor Peter Gruen, deputy leader of the council acknowledged the responsibility of the leaders who were taking part in the Poverty Truth Challenge.
“The people who are here to talk about their lives are putting their faith in all of us, that we will listen to their issues and that we will make better decisions,” he said.
The premise of the Challenge – inspired by Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission that launched in Glasgow two years ago – is that poverty will never be truly addressed until those who experience it firsthand are at the heart of the process.
Challenging media stereotypes of people living in poverty is another aspect of the project, which has borrowed a slogan used by South African disability activists in the 1990s: ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us.’
During the course of the event, civic leaders and the testifiers adjourned to a separate room to discuss their reactions to what they had heard.
Anna then sat with Chief Superintendent Paul Money who fed back on the responses – although not something she would have imagined doing six months ago, Anna believes that such conversations are significant in themselves: “We are building an understanding of each other and from our point of view, beginning to realise that people in officialdom are not so different to us,” she said. “It’s important that we are beginning to break down those barriers and understand that we are all just people.”
The project has largely been organised by local organisation Together for Peace and is supported by individuals from Leeds City Council, the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, Lloyds TSB and Leeds Older People’s Forum.
The 15 testifiers will now work with a panel of 15 civic and business leaders that includes Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, Susan Kennedy, governor of HM Prison Leeds and representatives of the National Health Service.
Asked what she wanted to see as a result of the Challenge, Anna made it clear that it wasn’t about money: “We understand that there are financial constraints but it’s not about money, it’s also about opportunities and dignity, respect and support.”