Elizabeth (not her real name) is looking better. She’s come back to this London food bank and it’s wonderful to see her smiling face. She has her head up and is keen to talk. When I first wrote about her here, she was so traumatised she couldn’t look at me and could hardly speak. Her husband had been hospitalised following a suicide bid. He tried to hang himself, with their eight-year-old daughter a witness to all. The youngster had to run to get a knife, then hand it to her mother. Elizabeth cut the rope and called the ambulance.
She brings me up to date. Her young daughter has now begun therapy, and she and her brother have just started getting free school meals. People are now rallying to support this lovely mum and her three children – the youngest a baby boy of seven months. Elizabeth says: “The primary school was very helpful. They asked what they could do. The social worker has been visiting the children every week, and the kids have been eating better for the last few weeks.” Thankfully, some of the boroughs in this area are disturbed about the disgraceful fact that increasing numbers of families in this wealthy city are unable to feed their children.
Her husband is still in hospital being treated for severe depression, although he’s been shouting that he wants to go home. He and Elizabeth are Nigerian and have been in the UK for a few years. They’re applying for British Citizenship. Her husband had been working part-time to help support his family while studying here to become an accountant. But he had to stop working because of a change in the student visa rules.
He got depressed, and has had to leave his course. You know what happened next. He has been deemed a high risk patient, and will not be leaving his in-patient unit in the near future. Elizabeth says he is a good dad, who loves to see her and kids when they go to visit him in hospital. The family is now surviving on Elizabeth’s maternity pay of £278 a fortnight, from her job as a carer for the elderly. In addition, social services have got her to start claiming £47.10 a week (probably child benefit) – the total for all three children.
Elizabeth rents privately, paying £700 a month for a one-bedroom flat. All five of them share the same bedroom. Her landlord has now served a notice on her to quit the flat. Amazingly – and this shows the incredible resilience demonstrated by many of our food bank clients – Elizabeth says “I feel more positive, though my landlord is still on my neck. He gave me two month’s notice to quit.”
He gave her a repossession order, which she passed to social services. Elizabeth says she became one month in arrears with the rent, and the landlord used her deposit to cover that. Social services have told her they can’t help until she’s evicted.
Neither will the Coalition’s “flagship” Help to Buy scheme be able to offer any hope to Elizabeth. David Cameron says the scheme is helping first time buyers outside the south-east on an average house price of £163,000. London prices are much higher. Elizabeth has lost the battle to pay the rent on the small flat that is totally unsuited to her family’s needs.
This London food bank – one of almost 400 in the UK run by the wonderful Trussell Trust in partnership with local churches and communities – has been able to give Elizabeth help of the most practical kind. But she’s now received her third supply of emergency food. At this point Alan, the food bank manager, has to gently tell clients that it is now up to other agencies to solve the longer-term problems causing their inability to buy food. What will happen to Elizabeth next?