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.

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