Ten days after her 16th birthday Amy-Beth Miah decided she’d had enough of a care system that seemed designed to do anything but care. She signed the lease on a flat, filled her then-boyfriend’s car with all her belongings and left it for good.
She first went into foster care when she was seven years old. When a subsequent foster arrangement broke down, she says it felt like she was passed round every children’s unit in her local authority area.
This is #JustSurviving. A collaboration between The Ferret and HuffPost looking at the impact of the government’s austerity policy in Scotland.
More than eight years after she left the care system, we’re sitting in the 24-year-old’s immaculate living room where she’s wrestling her 14-month-old son, Eden, into his snowsuit before catching the train from her hometown of Kilmarnock in east Ayrshire, to Glasgow.
He squirms and yells as she goes through the daily routine. “Two feet – that’s it,” she cajoles. “And where’s your arms? I know, I know, I know. Nearly done now, just one more button. There.”
She sighs in relief, straps him into his buggy and slings their bags over the handles, ready to go. “Normally it’s 7am when we do this and then we’re straight out the door to college,” she smiles. “It’s not easy.”
Today is different. It’s the morning of the Love Rally, a now annual event organised by charity Who Cares Scotland which sees care experienced people of all ages take to the streets of Glasgow, demanding love is put at the heart of the care system.
“Scotland is the only place in the world where we take to the streets like this,” explains Miah, with pride. And they are marching with good reason.
She reaches for the placard she’s made in the shape of a heart, covered with the initials of five young people she met through care, all of whom have taken their own lives. Two were just 15. Another two died in prison – one had overdosed five times since he was 13, both had a history of self-harm. She’s marching in their memory.
As a member of charity Who Cares Scotland’s Care Collective, Miah is campaigning for sweeping changes to the care system, but also for those leaving it. As things stand, young people leaving care are more likely to be living in poverty. All are legally entitled to aftercare support – which includes advice, guidance and assistance – yet 38 per cent do not receive any according to the Scottish Government’s most recent statistics.
Young people leaving care are likely to leave school earlier than their peers and to have fewer qualifications. Unemployment and homelessness are statistically higher and almost a third of the adult prison population are care experienced.
Money can’t buy you love, but when you have neither the challenges are boundless. Add in ten years of UK government austerity policies – from cuts to essential services to the boom in insecure work – and the scale of that is clear.
Young people aged 16-24 are four times more likely to be on zero-hours contracts. The minimum wage for under-18s is just £4.35 per hour, almost half the £8.21 minimum wage for over 25s. This age group are also amongst those hit hardest by welfare reform, according to Scottish Government analysis.
All this can make young care leavers desperately vulnerable. Charities claim many care experienced people will have been in care with those who are now dead. Figures are not recorded, though English research found care leavers were seven times more likely to die in early adulthood.
Today in Glasgow’s city centre the bagpipes and the Indian dhol drums build to a crescendo, and the Love Rally sets off, Miah holding her heart placard high. The mood is of celebration – onlookers hang out of shops and cafes to cheer on this buoyant crowd of several hundred care experienced people– but the event also takes her back to more difficult times.
“I feel, even now, that the system’s designed to oppress young people in care, or people that are trying to leave care and better their lives,” she says. “They’re trapped and they’re stuck and no matter how much they try and break that revolving door, there’s no one there to fight for them. They’ve got to fight for themselves. It’s very, very easy to give up.”
I was really tired of just surviving and not actually living my life. Amy-Beth Miah
She runs through just some of the things that tested her – navigating a temporary flat when the local community had made clear they didn’t want it used “for people like me”, struggling with having no-one to call when the windows got stuck, or the power fused, or wages from a never-ending barrage of minimum wage jobs didn’t stretch to food and bills.
When she became homeless she couldn’t go back to her foster family because they now had another foster child, even when local authority housing services denied her help.
“I always felt really isolated,” she says quietly. “It got to quite a dark place at one point. It was Christmas Eve, I’d tried to take my own life…but I decided that that’s not what I wanted anymore and I called for help.” An ambulance came and she was taken to hospital, resuscitated and put on suicide watch for 24 hours. On Boxing Day she was dropped back at her flat.
“And that was it,” she says. “There was no follow up care. At that time I was really tired of just surviving and not actually living my life. That’s when I decided that wasn’t for me anymore and I wanted to try and better myself.”
When she found she was pregnant her determination became unstoppable. “I was working 70 hours trying to make ends meet, trying to prepare for my child coming,” she remembers. Yet the financial pressures were also relentless.
“I actually had the sheriff officer chapping on my door, whilst I was in labour.” The only way out was to move on from minimum wage jobs. Education, she decided, was the key.
She got into an Higher National Certificate (HNC) course in social sciences with the aim of progressing to degree level, and applied for a care leavers’ bursary from the Scottish Government. The policy is intended to rebalance some of the inequality care experienced people face, and which it does not regard as income. But the UK government disagreed and Miah’s universal credit was stopped accordingly.
“I’m in a £300 deficit every single month just by choosing to go to college,” she says. “I’m making that choice because I want a better life for myself and for my son. I’m in a position now that I can’t afford to be at college. I can’t afford to progress and go to university.
“Austerity is a huge problem because what we have right now is two governments that are saying two completely different things. And people like myself, being stuck in the middle as a ping pong ball, and trying to navigate that.”
In Edinburgh, 25-year-old Chris Kilkenny knows that feeling. In his home city rents are rocketing. A recent study suggested just 1.8 per cent of properties fell within the UK government set Local Housing Allowance of £154.28 per week for a two-bed property.
He and his five-year-old son Cameron are in a temporary flat and have been told though a new permanent home has been earmarked, it will be another five months before they can move in.
“By that time it’ll be three years I’ve been in temporary accommodation,” he says. Before that there was a bed and breakfast for eight weeks and a one bed flat in an area he told authorities it wasn’t safe for them to live in. The legal limit for bed and breakfast is seven days for families, legislation breached hundred of times a year by Edinburgh City Council.
“It took almost a year and a half before we even got this property. But again, it’s still not home. My little boy’s autistic, transitions are hard for him.”
He admits he’s protective, partly because he wants him to have a different childhood. “Cameron will never be starving like I was, when I was a kid,” he says. But it’s more than that.
He went into care at 13 years old when his mother, who had a heroin addiction, was no longer able to cope. He was separated from his younger sister and two brothers, who he had looked after for years, and by the time he was 16 years old he was placed in a council flat on the ninth floor by himself, where he struggled to cope.
“I was being paid as a 16 year old but I still had to pay the same bills as a 25 year old,” he remembers. “I started to let rent arrears build up because I just… It was a choice whether I was paying my rent or I was buying food.
“Or whether I was socialising with other people and not being isolated in my house. And that might sound silly to some people. But when you’re lonely and you’re suffering from probably pretty severe mental health, the first thing that you want to do is sort of surround yourself with other people so that you’re not scared.”
Kilkenny’s talents – including a creative streak and ability to connect with young people – were noticed by his employers at the council – his apprenticeship working on the roads turned into one working in youth arts. He started speaking at conferences and campaigning and now works freelance, combining work with college and fatherhood. Last year was invited to be a member of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission, a panel coordinated by the council that aims to design changes needed in the city.
“I jumped at the opportunity because I feel like sometimes the voices of many are never heard,” he says. One of the key impacts of austerity, he claims, is that uncertainty means communities are living in a constant state of fear. What really frightens him is the future impacts stored up by these polices have yet to fully unfold.
“I’m scared for the generations to come,” he says. “I don’t feel like people that are in power are listening to people in the community about what really matters to them when it comes to austerity. And what really matters is the very basic needs, the stuff that makes us human – to live in a community, to be able to go outside and know that your kids are safe, to be able to feed your family, to know that there’s work out there for you, to know that you’re not going to be looked down upon by your welfare state.
“These issues, they don’t just exist in Edinburgh, they exist everywhere you go. You’re never a stone throw away – in Scotland or England or Wales – from poverty.”
I'm scared for the generations to come. I don't feel like those in power are listening to people in the community about what really matters to them when it comes to austerity Chris Kilkenny
But that’s all the more true for care experienced people, argues Jamie Kinloch, public affairs manager of Who Cares Scotland, making it crucial that we address the inequalities in that system. While the average age someone in the UK expects to leave their family home is now 28 according to one survey, young people leave care more than a decade before that at an average age of 17.
“There’s no parity there,” he says. “This is an issue for people who have grown up in care and that isn’t anything to do with them. They aren’t in any way, shape or form deficient. They don’t lack anything. They’re brilliant, they’re smart, they’re talented, they’re able, but things get whipped away from them. A process starts moving along and before we know it, all of their potential is just sucked up in trying to survive.”
Wheels are turning. The Scottish Government announced a nation-wide Independent Care Review in 2016, which is due to report in 2020. Ministers say they are committed to finding ways to better support care experienced young people.
The SNP manifesto, launched yesterday, acknowledges the issue of “care leaver poverty” specifically. Plans to address it include emphasis on the real living wage, and better housing support.
Scotland’s children’s minister, Maree Todd, says: “It is clearly unacceptable that some of our most vulnerable children and young people living in, or leaving, the care system face barriers and we are committed to driving improvements for those who experience care, now and in years to come.”
As part of that commitment the Scottish Government has raised the age people can remain in care, she says, and changed the law so that young care leavers don’t pay council tax. Earlier this month it published recommendations on how to lower the risk of care experienced people becoming homeless and has paid out £10m in discretionary housing payments to mitigate the impact of UK government housing reform.
No student should be disadvantaged as a result of the care experienced bursary, Todd adds. “Colleges should ensure that care-experienced students receive the optimum funding award, taking into account their wider circumstances.”
The UK government confirmed that it considered the maintenance element of a student grant or further education bursary award as unearned income, but said £110 is disregarded each month, as well as amounts paid for extra costs like books and tuition.
A Deparment of Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson claimed that since 2011 it had provided more than £1bn in discretionary housing payments to support the most vulnerable people and increased more than 360 local housing allowance rates, targeting extra funding at low-income households.
Back in Glasgow Amy-Beth Miah’s son is asleep in his buggy and she is drawing breath after a long day. “There’s a revolution of care that’s happening,” she says. “We’re starting to be promised things that are going to change. I just want to make sure that I’m at the forefront of those changes and ensure they are delivered.
“I don’t want what’s happened to me in the past 24 years, or to the people that we’ve lost throughout that journey, to happen again. I want a better future for the generations to come.”
The Austerity Era
Almost ten years ago the Conservative government introduced a policy of austerity – a sustained reduction in public spending, welfare reform and tax rises – in response to the 2008 economic crash. Between 2010 and 2019 cuts of more than £30 billion have been made to welfare, housing and social services, according to the United Nations. Cuts have been made to budgets from policing to health.
Poverty has risen dramatically over the decade. Almost one in five people in Scotland now live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty. The use of food banks doubles when Universal Credit is rolled out, homelessness increased, crime rates are up, as well as hospital waiting lists.
The UK government says austerity is now over. It expects to lift the freeze on working age benefits in April 2020 in line with inflation and says public spending increased this year by 4.1 per cent.
A spokesperson said: “The UK government spends over £95 billion a year on welfare, and we have simplified the benefits system through universal credit – making it easier for people to access support, including care leavers. Under personal independence payments, a higher proportion of disabled claimants are receiving the top rate of support.”