On December 29th 2012, I lost my job. This was due to redundancies, which were no fault of my own. I have strived to find work and applied for over 300 jobs through the year, with no joy.
Being unemployed for the first time since I was 16 was a culture shock. I didn’t know what to do, who to turn to, or what to say. To say I felt vulnerable was an understatement.
When I weighed up my options over the Christmas holidays, I was upbeat, as I thought there was work out there. How wrong I was.
I signed onto benefits at the start of 2013 in the hustle and bustle of the City of Culture. Talk about a juxtaposition!
It wasn’t long until my Job Seekers Benefits, of £10 per day, was drying up. I wasn’t entitled to numerous other benefits because of my situation - we didn’t receive any redundancy, but I had a little savings. And when I say a little, I mean a little!
At this stage I was hearing of all the positives of the City of Culture and how Derry would be a mecca for investment, both short term and long term. So I was hopeful of getting off the dole, even if it was a temporary role. Once again, how wrong was I.
The events that came to the city were huge! It gave the city a ‘feel good’ factor and gave everyone a lift at the beginning, but when the constant grinning of certain public figures began to grate on people, questions then began to be asked, ‘What’s this all about?’.
I must admit, I was nothing but positive for the City of Culture, but there is only so much song and dance you can take when you’re struggling daily.
The first time I found myself struggling was in mid February. I couldn’t afford my rent. I had fallen behind. My savings were getting eaten up by previous bills - Sky and internet, for example. I soon cancelled these, as they are luxury items, something I took for granted in the past, but no more. I then began falling behind on rent. To make up for this shortfall I turned to money lending companies,.Then the trouble really began.
The bills landed in. They went in the drawer. The phone calls came, I hung up. This spiralled, totally out of control - all done to pay for electric, food and heat.
In February Jimmy Carr and Tommy Tiernan were playing in the Millennium Forum, outstanding comics! At the time, I would have loved to go, but that was a luxury. The night of the Carr concert I passed the Millennium Forum and saw the crowds pouring in. Then it hit me. I had nothing as sections of the city travelled along with the City of Culture. I didn’t feel any jealousy, I just felt that I was frozen out of a happy time for the city. It was a cold, lonely feeling.
By the beginning of March I had hit rock bottom. I could no longer afford the rent and the money lenders were upping their correspondence with threatening letters and abrupt phone calls.
On St Patrick’s Day I did something I never thought I would ever do. I stole. I stole meat from a local supermarket because I couldn’t afford to buy it. I could afford the basics, but nothing else, not even a newspaper. I could have cried doing it.
I began my days in the Central Library, then walked around the shopping centres for a heat and for company. Sometimes I met friends and they would say ‘fancy a coffee?’ and I had to refuse as I couldn’t afford it. This began to become embarrassing, right to the point where I found myself avoiding the city centre and staying home, all to avoid that situation, or the dreaded question: “Are you working?”.
In March, two events happened in the City of Culture diary - A Divided City’ and Friel’s ‘Translations’. I didn’t attend any of these events, but then it hit me how much this city is divided by the City of Culture. It was dividing people, both by the amount of money spent, or wasted, on events, depending on your outlook, or by the lack of investment on the ground that we were promised by those on high for years.
By the end of March the electric company were on the verge of cutting me off, so I got another loan and got the electric meter ‘fixed’ so I wouldn’t have to pay the bill. Did I feel guilty? Yes. Did I do it out of necessity? Yes.
April was when I started drinking heavily, to fill a void, in all honesty. I started in friends’ homes, and then went to another friend’s home, then the pub, then back to someone’s house. The circle was never ending. April was becoming a blur. I felt the city moving beneath my feet. I saw programmes that were accessible only for the ‘arty types’. We heard rumours of an overspend and wasted money: some true, some not so true.
I could see and hear the false positives while only half a mile away there was abject poverty.
It was as if the town was ready to accept a veneer so the hoteliers and pub owners could make money. What did the everyday Derry person get?
In March, I wrote in my diary: “A feel good factor doesn’t put food in the fridge or shoes on your feet.” And that was becoming the general consensus in the dole queues in the mornings.
In April I wrote: “Baronet St sums up the city at the minute. The derelict houses have got fake ‘scene windows’ to cover years of neglect, and the pigeons don’t know where to go..this is a joke!”
The summer in the city is when it really hit home to me how much my city was moving away from me. I had now lost my home and was living with friends. I was living on a sofa here, a bed there. An awful time for me. It felt as though I was transported back to the 1980s in the dole queues.
How can anyone buy into the happy, clappy City of Culture when you don’t know when your next meal is coming from? I thought myself lucky that I didn’t have kids, God only knows how some parents do it day and daily. A credit to themselves.
By September/October I felt the city had now became a canvas, a canvas to cover up cracks. If you didn’t own a guitar or business, you didn’t matter, or weren’t buying in to the ‘positivity’.
It became a chore avoiding the subject because the people who couldn’t access the events were made feel as ‘pariahs in their own city’, as one older gentleman commented to me in the Central Library.
Let me be clear. I in no way hold any animosity to the people who got stuck in to the City of Culture, but there is going to be one huge hangover after this party.
Let’s hope the City of Culture has a legacy that opens doors to the younger people of our city, and that they never are homeless and resort to the things I did to survive.
When your city moves, it’s important that there is an outreach so that all citizens move with her.