Could her family help her during this difficult time, I asked. The well-spoken and elegant young woman who came to our London foodbank for help on Friday looked distraught and burst into tears. All the visitors who used the foodbank that day seemed to illustrate how the quality of family bonds can affect their experience of adversity.
Aisha (not her real name) looked to be in her mid-20s. She had to leave the art degree she adored in May – towards the end of her second year – when she was overwhelmed by health issues. These include mental health problems (anxiety/depression), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (I didn’t ask more about that, for fear of upsetting her further), and chronic back pain. She’s been waiting for benefits since May, because her Employment Support Allowance was taken away. She’s challenging this decision, and is waiting for a tribunal, which she said ‘they don’t want to reopen’.
She added: ‘I got too ill to continue studying, and the pain I have in my back makes me feel more miserable. The money I get for rent (on a housing association flat) goes into my bank account and I’m using some of that money to live on.’ She moved to London at that point, but has to make the expensive 150 mile journey to her old uni town to see her doctor, as she needs his input for the tribunal she’s determined to secure. She’s also now faced with paying back her study bursary of £750.
Getting back on her course is a priority for her once she’s well enough to do so. She’s very intelligent and extremely determined – still holding onto her dignity in the face of these enormous challenges. She said she has a ‘real natural aptitude’ as an artist, and would love to get a job. ‘I don’t want to be sitting around. I don’t want to be in the stands – I want to be in the game. That’s why I went to uni – so that I could do a job I want to do.’ She said she has been quite careful not to get into debt, but has had to run up a £1,500 overdraft so far on her interest free student bank account.
Yes, she has asked her family for help. She said it’s not forthcoming, despite her brother being ‘a self-made millionaire’. From her description, he’s a well connected very senior professional. Her problems with her family seemed to start a long time ago. She said she’s always felt like an outsider among them – something of a scapegoat. Her mother is Asian and she wonders if the way she feels she has been treated by them has something to do with perceptions of daughters in some Asian families.
But at this point, she believes that she would ‘rather go without than have a hook’. She added that she had fled abuse at one point, and had ended up at a women’s refuge: ‘I am a hard-up person, but I’m free. I have men in my life who have offered help, but I don’t want the things that might go with the money they would give me. Maybe I’m cautious – or perhaps a bit paranoid. One friend offered help – but he was just waiting for a moment when I was vulnerable. I don’t invite many people into my home now.’
I hesitate to use the word ‘lucky’ to describe another young woman who came in that day. But she must at least be very glad she has a caring brother in her life.
Jenny (not her real name), looked to be in her late 20s. She hadn’t eaten for three days when she came into the foodbank – part of the Trussell Trust UK foodbank network – needing an emergency supply of food. She has a five-year-old son, who has just started school. Feeding her son is her priority, She’s separated from the unemployed father of the boy. Jenny, like most of the people who have come in since I started volunteering here, has a host of chronic health issues. These include stress, anxiety, depression, and thyroid problems. She had been on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), but when she started explaining her health issues to Jobcentre Plus, she was told to switch to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) , which is set at a higher level than JSA. But because there’s a gap in payments while she goes through the assessment process, she’s currently without money. Jenny has lost her child tax credit, because her son hit a new threshold when he turned five. New forms have to be filled out.
Her family of origin broke up when she was young and she and her brother grew up apart, hundreds of miles away from each other. He grew up in care. But he was there sitting beside her on Friday, and had come up from Devon to try to lend what support he could. She also came in with a kindly older woman – a mother figure who has known both of them since they were young.
Jenny contacted the borough’s Welfare Rights service for advice while she was in with us – and was informed by them that they’re going to tell social services that her son doesn’t have enough to eat. She left the foodbank clutching her emergency bags of food, along with information about the local council’s emergency support scheme. This scheme offers emergency help with living expenses. People can only apply for this when the help requested is the only way of avoiding serious risk to the health and safety of the applicant or a member of their family.
She left clutching her supply of emergency food, accompanied by her thoughtful brother – who has his own problems to deal with – and that kindly older woman. Friday reminded me about the influence of one of life’s true big lotteries – the family into which we’re born.