Two women: Two brothers

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.

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Feeding a baby on benefits

What would you do if you and your partner were young, jobless, struggling to buy enough food and had a baby with allergies? You could end up shouting at each other – a lot. That’s what happened to John and Marie (not their real names), a couple in their early 20s who came to the Trussell Trust centre last week for a supply of emergency food. They brought their subdued little girl of 15 months, who sat in her pram and was unsettled until given some baby rice.

Their baby is tiny – she  looks no more than nine or 10 months. She’s come to the attention of  local authority child protection staff, who are concerned that she’s already being emotionally damaged by her parents’ constant arguments.

Marie is from the Philippines and is trying to sort out her UK immigration papers. The fee for preparing her papers was £578. She doesn’t receive any public funds, so John is trying to pay the immigration fee, while attempting to spread the £113 Employment Support Allowance (ESA) he receives once a fortnight between the three of them.  John says he had to survive for 16 months without any benefits before he started getting ESA. Marie is still awaiting the immigration decision.

They’re used to making a little money go a long way when it comes to food: John says: ‘We were shopping at Morrison’s, and we can make a meal for under £5. We mostly buy things like tins of spaghetti and ravioli. But the real shock was finding out that she (the baby) had allergies. So we had to change our food. But social services is saying that a family of three could survive on £51 a week.’ Although their rent is paid by a neighbouring local authority, the benefit money has to stretch to cover council tax, electricity and travel, as well as food. John is bitter about the way they have to live. ‘They are making all these cuts, but does Mr Cameron see the other side of it? It’s very difficult for people who are applying for immigration.’

They want to know if they can access a centre closer to their flat next time, as affording travel is a big problem. Alan, who manages the foodbanks in the borough, says: ‘We’ve had people come here who’ve had to walk huge distances to collect the food, and walk huge distances back.’

He gently explains to the couple that the supply of food they’re being given is meant to be an emergency response to an immediate crisis rather than an ongoing solution. You can tell he hates having to say this to people who are clearly going to find it almost impossible to improve their circumstances in the near future. But he remains as positive as he can, saying: ‘We are a charity run by churches in the borough. A lot of people are being put in difficult positions, and our job is to do what we can to help.’

Note: The first post published on 22 September says Tim the ex-scaffolder cycles about 16 miles to the hospital and back for blood and eyesight tests. The round trip is 10/11 miles.

The scaffolder’s tale

The ‘tide of cheap money’ that one commentator says may keep the London housing boom ticking over for another 18 months  to two years does not seem to be sweeping in or even trickling anywhere near one Trussell Trust foodbank in the capital yesterday.

Foodbank charity the Trussell Trust offers three days of nutritionally balanced emergency food to people in need who are referred by frontline public sector staff, including social workers, Jobcentre Plus, GPs, and children’s centre managers. The food sees people through an immediate food crisis. On Friday one of the people it helped was Tim.

He is 35, but is gaunt, pale and looks much older. He clutches a cup of tea. His hands are scratched, with fingernails bitten back. His clothes are falling apart and not as clean as he would like. A scaffolder until he got sick last year, he got a letter  from his GP this week allowing him to access the foodbank. Tim asked him for it when it became obvious he was unable to afford to eat properly and regularly.

He was self-employed and working right up until he fell into a coma and ended up in A&E. In hospital he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The humiliations and privations piled up fast when he came out of hospital. Now he and his family – he has a wife and an eight-year-old daughter –  know what it’s like to be hungry and not be able to pay for food. ‘We’ve been literally starving,’ he says.

He has no money for bus fares. So Tim – the newly-diagnosed diabetic – has to get on his bike and cycle the 16 mile or so round trip to his ‘local’ diabetes clinic in a far-flung outpost of our geographically incoherent and financially cash-strapped NHS trust. He says he feels ‘low and lethargic’, while he’s cycling there. At the clinic he has his blood tests done and his eyes checked. His teeth are falling out because of the effects of the diabetes. He only has five teeth left now. His confidence is shattered, he says. When he came out of hospital, he expressed suicidal thoughts to his wife, who worries about him and their situation. ‘I phoned my wife and said I wished I had gone or I wish I’d put a toaster in the bath. She’s the sort of person who if I died on the sofa, she’d sell it or move out. She wouldn’t want to be reminded of what had happened.’

Tim is intelligent, articulate and has a dignity about him. He wants to work. He hates not being able to go back to his previous job as a self-employed construction worker. He was driven to ask his doctor for food vouchers because he doesn’t have enough money to feed his family adequately. Neither can he eat the balanced diet that will allow him to take the correct level of insulin to manage his diabetes. ‘I’m supposed to take four injections of insulin a day, but at the moment I’m only averaging two or three…. I don’t feel I’ve got my diabetes under control.’ The doctor didn’t have vouchers for the food bank at the practice, but gave him the vital letter that allowed him to go to the donation centre and pick up a bag or two of food.

He puts the needs of his wife and child first. ‘I’ve got a family. I can’t take food out of my daughter’s mouth. It’s not that I’m prioritising my daughter and wife – I’m just trying not to be selfish. I always make sure my daughter gets breakfast, even if it’s just a slice of toast.’

He says that when he came out of the coma and left hospital he received no benefits from April until December 2012. He was seen by a medical examiner in December 2012, who declared him fit to go back to work. He was then placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). When he realised he wasn’t able to go back to scaffolding work, he did a horticultural course. Continuing with the course would have involved paying out more than £1,000 to gain a horticultural qualification, so he couldn’t continue.

His wife gets paid £104 a week for working 15 hours as a cleaner. Tim says money is being deducted from his JSA because the state is claiming he was paid Employment Support Allowance (ESA) in error in 2010/11. Tim says he did not receive any ESA that year.

Tim says these deductions – which he is trying to argue against –  leave him with only £10 a week in JSA. Since becoming ill he says his family has had to spend all their savings. They now have debts of between £7,000-£10,000  – owed to payday loan companies Provident and Greenwood –  and to repay a bank loan. His housing costs and council tax are paid by the state, but each week he and his wife have to find £10 for electricity, £6 for gas and £40 to service the debts to Provident and Greenwood. He’s considering consolidating his debts via a debt management company.

Alan, who manages the foodbanks in this part of the world, says it does not take much to push people over the edge these days. ‘There are more people who have not got the resilience to crisis that they did before.’ He’d like to help more people, as the demand is so obviously there in our borough – but that’s not currently possible: ‘We’ve got more voucher holders than the food we’ve got coming in can sustain. So people have to find us. We would rather get our food stocks up to a much more secure position before we recruit any more people.’

Each week brings a queue of the traumatised and damaged  – but uplifting things do happen, says Alan: ‘A woman came in who was inconsolable. She told us she never expected to be in this position. We gave her some food. A few weeks later she came back and said the issue had been sorted and brought back two bags of food.’ The political rhetoric today is about separating those who deserve help from the hapless authors of their own misfortunes. Here they see the truth – that human beings are proud and will try to put something back when they can.