Penny (not her real name), the mother of five who was so appreciative on Friday when she received help from our London food bank, tells us that she had escaped from an abusive relationship. As a result she has had to move house 11 times, with her older children attending three different secondary schools so far. She has mental health issues – made worse by the stress of trying to feed her girls, who range in age from 14 to four months. Penny was referred to us by her community psychiatric nurse.
She receives £120 every two weeks in Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and £240 in child tax credit a week. But by the time she pays her private landlord £200 a week (which also includes rent arrears) by standing order, she only had £40 left this week to cover gas, electricity and food.
Penny, whose says her ex-husband “hasn’t given me anything”, believes single parents with larger families are being particularly affected by policies towards claimants: “I’ve been trying to get the council to help for the last six months. I know another mum with five children who can’t afford to feed them.”
Despite all the setbacks, Penny is obviously a loving mother, who does her best for the children. She’s someone who puts her youngsters’ welfare first. “I’m doing a brilliant job. My children are being brought up well. They say please and thank you. All they (the government) want to do is to bring us down. There’s no help when you have babies.” The facts back up her view. Back in 2011, the £500 per child Sure Start maternity grant was restricted to the first child in a family, and crisis loans are no longer available to those on Jobseeker’s Allowance or other low income benefits.
The food bank – set up by local churches in this borough in partnership with the Trussell Trust – may have been able to ensure that this is a better week for Penny and her children. But her new baby and her older sisters will not thrive unless the family’s future prospects improve quickly.
Volunteering in the food bank exposes you to the dark side of life in London. The circumstances of our clients’ lives are usually very grim. Sometimes what they’re contending with is so ghastly that you wonder how some of our clients can get out of bed in the morning. Usually it’s because they have to function for their children’s sake – in the hope of creating some sort of future for them. Not that many of them are in a situation where they can plan much beyond the next few meals.
When they can’t even do that, they end up here if they’re “lucky”. I’ll be posting some very difficult material over the next few days, but am starting today with something amazing. It shows how much one client who came along to this London food bank really values what happened here today.
Penny (not her real name) is a single mum of 38 with mental health issues. She’s been in an abusive relationship and has had to move house several times. She has five children ranging in age from 14 to four months. She came into us with her eldest girl and her youngest – the baby in the pram. She was given her emergency food voucher by her community psychiatric nurse. I’ll talk more about Penny and her circumstances in the next few days. But she looked so happy when we gave her the emergency groceries for the six of them that I thought I’d linger a bit longer on the upside of what goes on here. Penny said when we gave her the bags, which included nappies and formula milk: “What a brilliant job you do here. If it wasn’t for people like you, people like me would lose their children and they would go into care. If you can’t feed your kids then that’s the next stage.”
Her baby woke up at that moment and smiled. Bringing a ray of sunshine into the room. As she left, with her 15 year old daughter (who wants to be a lawyer – I hope she makes it) helping to carry the bags, it was clear she was touched to experience practical support and a listening ear. Her massive difficulties were eased just a little, for a short while.
Richard (not his real name) comes into our London food bank, and gives his account of why he needs emergency food so quickly that he’s hard to follow at times. He doesn’t draw breath.
He’s a former chef, who says that he’s out of work because his combination of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Bipolar Disorder means he can’t take the pressure’. The 45-year-old, who is divorced with three children (aged 20, 17 and 15), separated from his wife many years ago. He was living on the streets and drinking very heavily (a litre and a half of vodka a day to ‘block out reality and the cold’), until his life settled down a bit when he was offered a council flat.
But things have deteriorated again in recent months. He says he’s been left without money for food since drug addicts and pushers on his estate began targeting him for cash, valuables, food and clothes. According to Richard, nearly £800 in cash has been taken off him recently by these people, with ‘£560 stolen in the past 72 hours’.
He says that when he ‘crashes’ – either forgets to take his medications or has them ‘stolen’ off him by his visitors – he is more vulnerable to those who are targeting him. ‘When I crash people use me as a doormat – they will take advantage of the situation and take what they want. If you say no to them they think no means yes.’
When he initially opened the door to them, he thought they were being friendly: ‘Then one says I’m going to get a couple of beers, and they end up sitting in the flat. I’m not even supposed to drink on the tablets. They started coming in, all pally pally. I didn’t think anything of it on the Saturday. By Monday I’m going downhill, as I’m not taking my anti-depressant and anti-hyperactivity tablets. They then frogmarched me down to the Post Office. Then they get the pin numbers for your cards, and get into your account. You lose things from your flat, and when they know you’re getting money again they go through the same process.’
Richard says his money is completely gone and the Job Centre has given him the food bank voucher to get his emergency food supply.
He’s reported what’s happening to the police and got a crime number. The local estates officer based at the council ‘ is fully aware of the situation and is trying to get me to move’, he adds. His next money is due to hit his Post Office account on Tuesday. Will he stop opening the door to these people?