Saturday, July 21, 2007

Children of the Tower Block










Inside the poverty prison

Child poverty has been the scourge of Scotland for decades but recent figures show the government is failing to tackle the issue. In a special investigation, The Sunday Herald spent time with a family living below the breadline to see exactly what life is like for Scotland’s poor kids.

IT'S ALMOST midnight in the Ward family's rundown flat on the 13th floor of a graffiti-covered high-rise in Glasgow's Gorbals. The whole house is still awake. Six people - mum, dad and four children, aged 11, 10, five and six months - live, eat and sleep in this two-bedroom apartment. Tonight, though, nobody is sleeping yet. With just two rooms for the family, Marie Ward ends up sleeping each night on a mattress on the living-room floor while her baby sleeps in a pushchair beside her. The atmosphere is claustrophic. The family can't even let a little air in, as their oldest child, Paul, who suffers from behavioural problems, has threatened to throw himself out of the window. The Wards live more than 100ft up. The windows remain locked.

Paul has just unleashed a string of insults at his father, also Paul. He's stripped to the waist, throwing mock punches around. The 11-year-old is swearing and shouting one moment; then dancing and singing wildly the next; then throwing himself to his knees and rolling his eyes. His sister Nicole, 10, is sitting up late to watch one of her television shows; she likes Skins and Shameless, and horror films such as Halloween and Saw III. Little Chantelle, who's five, is flagging. She's spent most of the evening drawing pictures, but now wants to go to sleep. Down the hall, the baby is crying.

The flat is soaked in dampness. The tower block across the road is infested with rats.

But the Ward family have other problems. Paul, the father, is a recovering heroin addict; it's only been a few months since Marie had her fourth child, Shannon. Neither parent is working and the family survives on benefits.

It's Marie who's responsible for the bulk of the household chores, but with a disturbed son, a partner who's battling drugs, a flat that a family of three would find cramped and a constant battle with money to make ends meet, she finds it almost impossible to cope with day-to-day life.

Her home looks like a whirlwind has just swept through it. Clothes are piled up everywhere; a playpen is filled to the brim with random belongings; black bin bags are piled up in the children's room; the kitchen is a riot of unwashed cooking pots and food packets; broken toys are everywhere. The flat is as chaotic as the lives of the people who live in it.

There are many families like the Wards,families who have buckled under the pressure of one problem after another. The Wards are luckier than others in that they see a social worker, but these visits have done little to lessen the chaos of their lives. In the end, it is the children who are trapped in circumstances such as these who suffer most.

Marie is sitting on her couch nursing her baby,the weak sun streaming in through the windows. This isa family who clearly love each other but who are struggling to cope, particularly with the behavioural problems of oldest child, Paul. "He's grabbed me before," Marie says of him, "and dragged me down on the floor and he's stamped on me and jumped on me. Once, when I had my bed in here," she pauses, pointing at the floor of the living-room where she sleeps, "he put the quilt over my head and tried to suffocate me. It's very frightening sometimes."

Her partner, Paul the elder or Big Paul, comes into the living-room wearing his trademark Celtic top. He looks imposing and bears a large, nasty scar down the side of his face, but he's as kind and friendly as Marie. A combination of their tough circumstances and easy-going nature,however,means that they find it almost impossible to control their children.

Big Paul joins in the conversation, adding his own comments on his son's violence. "He kicked me in the privates the other day. I went down on the floor - he caught me a good one. Then he kicked me in the face and I just looked at him and said: I'm your da, you don't do that.' He just spat in my face and ran out of the house."

Paul has metal pins holding a shattered wrist together and finds it hard to restrain his son when he spirals out of control. Marie looks up from feeding Shannon on her knee and says: "He has a lot of anger. He's brought an element of chaos into the family.It can be frightening."

Paul the elder takes me on a tour of the flat. The best room in the house is where the girls sleep, but even that one has been graffitied over by Nicole. The family had a new carpet fitted in the room a few days ago, but they know it will be ruined in a matter of months because of the rising damp that causes water to run down the walls in rivulets on wet days,removing paper and destroying carpets.

He shows me the rail in the living-room used to keep some of the children's clothes on-there isn't enough space to store all their clothes in the two bedrooms. Clothes have to dry by being hung over the backs of doors. When all the family are together in the living-room, it causes a lot of stress and fractiousness.

In the bathroom a pipe has to be held tight when it's flushed, otherwise waste would spill over the floor.

"There's a lot of people in the same situation here," says Paul. "Once you are in the flats you're doomed, you can't get out of them. There's people who have been in these flats for years that still can't get out and want a house. We've only been here since 1999. There's people who have been here for 30 years. I can't imagine how they must feel."

He says his recovery from drug addiction is going well. "I used to be a chronic drug user," he explains."I smoked heroin. I never jagged it. I'd shoplift and was in and out of the jail. I was put on methadone for 18 months. I was doing good, but they took me off too early.

"I'd been clean for three-and-a-half years, but then at Christmas I went off the rails. I got my methadone dose put back up and now I'm back to normal. I think I fell off the straight and narrow as I was depressed, bored, cramped in the house with nothing to do." Later, Paul is talking about his hopes and dreams for his children. "Not to turn out like me," is how he sums up his wishes for their lives.

There are a few scant luxuries in this family home, perhaps surprisingly for those who view poverty in stark black-and-white terms. Computer games and DVDs are scattered around the home. Some sociologists have coined the phrase PlayStation Poor'' to describe families such as the Wards who, although they live on or below the poverty line, drift into debt in order to fund a good TV or a games console.

The last time Paul and Marie had a night out together was when they went to see Trainspotting in the cinema. That was 1996. They are just 31 years old. There's no extended family to help them out. Marie has suffered off and on with depression and panic attacks.

"We've been together now 14 years," says Paul."We've known each other since primary school. My ma died when I was 15, then Marie's ma died, then Marie's da and then my da too. From then on, it's been me and Marie all the way. The weans have no gran and granda that they can go and stay with at the weekend.

"I'd like a break at Butlin's or something - just a weekend for me and Marie, or even a night out. The only time we go out together is when we take the baby for a walk in the park or go into town to buy the weans something." He points at Shannon on her mother's knee. "But when that wee one grows up, we'll still kind of be young - we'll be in our 40s, and we'll make up for it."

Source: The Sunday Herald

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