In this blog post we tell the story of Eggcup member, Trustee and anti-poverty campaigner, Dusty. Dusty is not able to work due to long term health issues and lives on the poverty line, relying on disability payments (PIP). He’s a strong champion of the voices of those with lived experience of poverty, using his own experience and those of others to challenge the divisive stereotypes of ‘benefit cheats’ portrayed in much of the media, as well as the punitive systems that punish people in need of financial assistance.
Dusty had a difficult childhood. He was born in Bradford but moved frequently due to his father’s job as a methodist minister. He wasn’t able to settle well at the various local schools where his family were living and was eventually sent to boarding school. Dusty suffered badly from bullying there and recalls regularly begging his father to allow him to return home.
Dusty finished school with poor O-Level results and spent some time labouring before his father pushed him to return to college to get A-Levels. This didn’t go well and Dusty soon left to sign on with the Army, joining the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Dusty doesn’t talk about his experiences during his time in the military, but he saw active service and after serving for 9 years he left the army with an alcohol problem and severe mental health issues, later diagnosed as military PTSD, anxiety and depression. Dusty recalls how “back then, you didn’t talk about that kind of thing, you just had to get on with it”. As a way of coping, Dusty began “self-medicating” with alcohol, starting a 24 year long battle with alcoholism.
Dusty’s ability to cope varied. Much of the time he was able to manage reasonably well as what he terms a “functioning alcoholic”. But his addiction and poor mental health were a constant struggle. He was forced to live on the street in Bury after a business venture failed and he couldn’t afford the rent for his home. But he got back on his feet and went on to run another successful business in Cyprus where he lived in an expensive villa complete with swimming pool.
Dusty entered rehabilitation programmes 6 times. After a particularly bad period with his mental health in 2005 Dusty found himself in a hospital in Cyprus, the result of his second suicide attempt. His close friends and the local community of expats rallied, raising the funds for a flight home to the UK as well as extra cash to tide Dusty over for a while.
So Dusty returned to the UK to stay with his mother in Lancaster. She supported him to go cold turkey and he finally got sober. However, he was now suffering from numerous physical health issues as well as his poor mental health and was unable to work. Dusty was recognised as disabled in 2010 and has had to rely on disability income support since then.
A local day centre specialising in supporting people with mental health issues became a valued space for Dusty and soon he joined as a member of the board. When the centre was threatened with closure, Dusty launched a campaign to save it and although ultimately he was unsuccessful, he learned that he had a passion for community work.
And so began Dusty’s commitment to community work and anti-poverty campaigning. Along with a fellow ex-board member he set up a new day centre focussed on peer support. He was involved in the first round of the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, which provided him with contacts and opportunities to promote the voices of people with lived experience of poverty, including his own. Since then he has been deeply embedded within many local initiatives including establishing his own charities focusing on mental health and homelessness and becoming a Trustee of numerous other charities, including Eggcup.
This year Dusty turned 60. He continues to grapple with a welfare system that seems to be designed to punish people for having a disability. He often says that “if you didn’t have mental health issues before dealing with the system, you’re almost guaranteed to have them afterwards”. He’s worried about how he will keep warm this winter. Last winter he couldn’t afford to use the heating and relied on layering up with clothes. He recalls how his hands would turn blue. But he’s more worried about families, “If you’re a roughty toughty soldier like me you just make do, but what if you’re a single parent with kids? You can’t manage without using the heating over winter”.
Dusty’s passion for giving a voice to those in poverty is inspiring. “People living through poverty are the bravest people you’ll find. They go to bed worrying about how to manage and wake up the next morning worrying. And yet they still carry on, fighting to keep things afloat.” But passion can’t fix this broken system, only the government can do that.
It helps to have as many people as possible behind the demand for change. We want everyone to understand that your life can be knocked off track, no matter how hard you’re trying. Poverty is something we all fear and yet we don’t imagine it can happen to us. But it can. The Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission is collecting people’s stories to help build understanding so we can get more people behind the demand for change. If you can share your own experience, you can contact them here:
This is not a happy ever after story but its inspiring nonetheless. Our country which sends men to pointless war then leaves them to deal with the consequences, which punishes people for being poor and implies that the wealthy are morally superior, is utterly dysfunctional. We cannot fix it with glue and sellotape. We cannot simply appeal to this system, it must be challenged.
Fantastic piece of writing.