A disabled woman has described claiming benefits as like “being in an abusive relationship”.
Jen Fidai, 23, spoke bravely about her harrowing experiences as a teenager when she was sanctioned by the DWP- leaving her sleeping on the floor of her college library.
Giving evidence to MPs today, Jen said she was forced to take the drastic move after her benefits were cut for missing a Job Centre appointment.
“I feel like they’ve made my life that much harder. I feel like they’ve made me quite stuck in where I am,” she told the Mirror afterwards.
“It reminds me of an abusive relationship where you rely on them and they punish you for relying on them.”
As an 18-year-old doing her A levels Jen said she struggled to get by after the government department refused to pay her for a year.
Jen, who lives in North London, has severe mental health problems including anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and an eating disorder.
In the summer of 2012 when she should have been studying for her exams Jen was worrying about where she was going to spend the night.
Jen, who runs LGBT and mental health youth charity Rainbow Head UK, gave evidence to MPs at the work and pensions select committee about the effect of getting sanctioned.
In a powerful testimony she said: “If you phone up and tell them you can’t come because you’ve been hospitalised or you have a job interview or you have exams…they say ‘ok it’s fine we’ll put that on your record’ and then they sanction you anyway and that happened to me during my exams.”
She was sanctioned despite going physically into the job centre to tell them she couldn’t attend, Jen claimed, as well as telephoning them.
Jen told MPs: “And that sanction affects your other benefits. I was living in a shelter but as soon as my housing benefits got affected by my JSA being sanctioned that the shelter asked me to leave which during your A levels is really difficult, at any time it’s difficult.”
“No one would listen to me.”
Fortunately Jen had an advocate who helped and it turned out she was on the wrong benefit anyway.
But she spent almost a year without certain benefits and was forced to rely on friends.
“I sofa surfed all through the rest of my exams and through my second year. I was really lucky in that my college were really helpful and gave me food when I was there during the day and I had some really lovely friends who put me up.
“But that also meant sleeping in the library at school.”
“During that period during my A levels I was just so anxious and so depressed and just so unstable. Just my mental health and all that uncertainty. It was the stress of it all and trying to do A levels at a really academic college. It was too much. It broke me.”
“I ended up in hospital on a mental health ward for a very long time.”
She told the Daily Mirror: “Honestly it still affects me now. At the moment I’m still sofa surfing. I left home at 16 or 17 and I just never really settled and then I had my accident.”
Jen did eventually get the money back but because she was paid a lump sum her benefits were docked because she was classed as having savings.
And it was not the last time it would happen.
Jen was already claiming benefits when she was in a horse riding accident and then a car accident in 2012.
Talking about the consequences of the two accidents she suffered, she said: “Since then I’ve just had loads of problems. They’ve investigated but they don’t know what it might be. I’m in a lot of pain and my joints give way a lot. The two accidents were literally in the space of two months.”
And it was then that the DWP stopped her payments.
“I was really ill and I wasn’t really with it, it was just after my accident and I was staying with my friend’s family who took me in. I hadn’t really realised that my benefits had suddenly stopped and to this idea I have no idea what happened. No one seems to know they lost the record of it alongwith a lot of my other records.”
“The accident happened in January and then in July I attempted suicide and ended up in hospital and then while I was in the hospital I got in to a recovery ward and it was there that I realised something had gone really wrong and they helped me try to figure it out. It must have been a good year, if not more, of just nothing.”
“I was on ESA and I didn’t really understand there was an assessment period. So they put you on a really low rate while they do an assessment and then they put you on the Working Group or the Support Group and I just got left on the assessment stage for ages, for about two years. I hadn’t even realised. I can’t remember how long it was but it felt like forever.”
Again they paid back the money but Jen said: “The problem with the back payments for such a long period of time, they’re limited on how long they can back pay it for.
“To get a massive lump sum like that you then get penalised by the DWP. They say you have this large amount of savings you no longer need this proportion.”
Jen, who still relies on benefits, said of the Job Centre: “You just feel so unsafe and so scared to speak up. If you ask them for help, they’ll just say no and punish you instead.”