It’s not right that people in our society don’t have enough to live on, as Dunston tells Paul Brook in the second of three stories from members of JRF’s UK Poverty Grassroots Action Group.
For this year's UK Poverty report, a group of people from around the UK have given us expert insight and guidance based on their experiences of poverty and the impact it has on them and their communities.
Dunston, a member of the group, lives in London. He has struggled to get back into work since he began experiencing mental health problems. He also has a visual impairment and is passionate about making the benefits application process more accessible.
His career has been interrupted by mental health problems that built up after the death of his mother.
“I had a lot of difficult moments, losing confidence after my mum passing,” says Dunston. “I didn’t think it was affecting me that much, but things clogged up inside. I really couldn’t function any more. My nerves were on edge all the time. I’d either burst into tears or would suddenly feel angry. I had no energy to do anything; I stayed at home... it was awful.”
Already on a low income, Dunston was receiving Tax Credits to top up his income from work, but it wasn’t enough. He spoke to Citizens Advice, who found he had been missing out on £20 a week.
“I came off Tax Credits and signed on for Universal Credit and PIP (Personal Independence Payment),” he says. “That’s a problem in itself because you have to go through so much to find out if you qualify or not.”
The impact of the pandemic
“Lockdown was a difficult time because I lost my brother in April,” says Dunston. “I was going into the hospital every day to see him up until the lockdown.”
His brother’s illness was never diagnosed, but while he was in hospital he caught COVID. “Even though he had twice tested negative, on the third test, he was said to have tested positive. By that time the lockdown was in place. He died of COVID, they said. I feel like I’m in limbo – there's lots of things that haven’t been addressed, like having a proper funeral, a proper service, a wake for all his friends to pay their respects. The book has been left open, the page unturned.”
Dunston has a visual impairment – he has cataracts in both eyes – but he wasn’t able to go for the surgery he needs in 2020. He is learning to manage his mental health problems. He’s a trained actor and hopes to return to work: “I get very bad bouts of anxiety, low confidence and low mood. I still have my days but I know how to deal with it and I do try to be positive, as hard as it may be sometimes. During the past year, I have tried to get back into work but it’s felt too soon and you find yourself overloading your senses because the stress is too much. I feel myself getting stronger as time goes on.
“I keep my hand in by doing plays on a lower scale, especially if it’s issue-based work, like dealing with mental health or the benefits system. My acting work has mostly been on the stage – contemporary, classic, Shakespearean – and I’ve luckily managed to hold on to my agent. My hopes, long goal, would be to get back to being able to function properly and return to acting, but broader and writing with like-minded people, not just professionally but some kind of community drama project. Charity work is close to my heart. I enjoy doing that. It always feels right, and I think it’s the least we can do - to be there for each other and recognise when help is needed.
Helping people who are in distress is always a good thing, and giving hope to others, as we all need a bit of hope.
“I’ve been volunteering with the Samaritans for about 12 years. Helping people who are in distress is always a good thing, and giving hope to others, as we all need a bit of hope.”
Dunston has noticed that there’s been one positive effect of the pandemic in the community.
“It’s brought people together and they want to help each other – it's not about ‘me, me, me’ any more, it’s about us, and people working together,” he says. “It’s a shame it’s had to get to this for that to happen. Even though everybody’s trying to scratch out a living, apart from those who are really well off, people can still afford to be there for each other.”
What Dunston would like to see in the future is people having enough to live on so that nobody has to go to foodbanks. At times, though, it’s been a necessity for him.
“It makes you feel degraded when you go there sometimes,” he says. “I’ve come back with canned food that’s gone out of date. When you’re so desperate you don’t care about that – you know it won’t kill you – but you feel less of a person.
“One charity in East London was really good – we got a meal while we were there, and it’s nice when you are able to go to a place that has fresh produce. I have a bad back and I remember thinking ‘I have to get out because I have to eat’, and you always meet new people. You’re all in the same boat. There’s no airs or graces, no need to pretend, and there’s no judgement going on.”
Injustices in our society
Dunston is passionate about helping people who are affected by injustice and excluded from society. He has been using the facilities at Southwark Wellbeing Hub, getting support himself and supporting others in a similar position. He’s also been involved in London Unemployment Strategies, giving unemployed people a voice, challenging stereotypes and policies that negatively affect them.
“There are people who have no identification documents for many reasons, and without those papers they can’t get food,” he says. “They just exist – and I mean exist – from day to day. How hard must that be? This is how things play out all the time. There are people sleeping in the forest or parks. There’s groups like that we tend to forget about – they're human, and we really should still be able to treat them humanely.
It’s hard for people to access benefits, or even to know where to start.
“The most important thing is for people to be able to have somewhere to sleep and something to eat. That gives you the energy you need to do all these other things you need to do, like going to register and filling in the necessary forms. You still need the basics. It’s hard for people to access benefits, or even to know where to start. The forms need to be easier; the assessment needs to be easier; the whole process needs to be easier.
“I feel on the side of anyone who’s going through any kind of injustice or is being repressed, no matter what colour they are. But it’s the poorest people in society, people who are not able to have a status, and the people of colour, that it happens to more. When you have lived it, it makes it more real. There are so many little things that make up big things and we need to address those little things first. Black Lives Matter has highlighted a lot of issues. It hasn’t ever been a level playing field.
There’s a lot of injustice out there.
“I remember in the 80s the amount of times I was stopped by the police and searched, and charged wrongly when I hadn’t done anything. You can say 'Yeah, it’s changed a little' but it’s still there. There’s a lot of injustice out there.”
Dunston's choice of picture
Dunston chose this image to illustrate his story: "I love the Thames now but some time back it could have been a different story with this river. So now I spend time sitting by it and it washes away the negativity and fills me with wonderful thoughts to allow myself to be like water: soft and gentle but strong at the same time and not rigid. The dark days will pass away for new pastures - to always have hope because there’s always a ray of sunshine within us trying to shine out, even when it’s been obstructed by an object or ourselves."