Paying npower eats up most of my benefits, says sick Christine

If it weren’t for the food bank she’d be starving,  she tells me. A while back  she went without food for 11 days. Christine (not her real name) says she eventually collapsed in the home she lives in on her own. “I came to, got up, and made a cup of coffee.”

Her neighbour’s daughter told her about the food bank, and she went down to the Jobcentre to get a voucher. This time – only the second time she’s come to a food bank – she had to borrow the money for the fares and take two buses to get here. She’s 51, but life has not been kind to her in recent years and she looks much, much older. She says that four years ago she was “almost killed by an abusive partner”.

Like many food bank  clients who live on their own, her first thought is not for herself, but for her pets. She has quite a few cats. Luckily we’re able to find some cat food too. This relieves some of her anxiety.

Christine is a qualified silver service waitress. She says the doctor signed her off work about 10 years ago because of continuing problems with sciatica and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She says that six months ago she was told to attend a medical screening in Croydon (most probably carried out by occupational health service providers Atos), and that following this she had been assessed as fit for work and her income support and disability living allowance were stopped. Why does she think she was assessed as fit for work? According to Christine, the person who carried out the screening had said she hadn’t asked to go to the toilet, and had also answered her mobile phone.

She appealed the decision to stop her benefits, but like many food bank clients she didn’t have enough cash to attend the appeal hearing and it went ahead without her.

After approaching the local council, Christine got help with filling out the forms for employment and support allowance (ESA), and she has now started receiving this.  She says the council did not give her help applying for Disability Living Allowance.  She gets £143.40 a fortnight in ESA.  But because she had such a long gap without benefits, she is on anything but an even keel. She says she currently has debts of £4,500.

She’s paying off the cost of buying a washing machine from BrightHouse – obviously paying a lot more than if she had paid cash. But her major challenge is her electricity bill. Her electricity is provided by npower, and she says they’re telling her she owes them more than £2,000.  She’s currently paying npower £12 a fortnight to cover arrears/debts,  “but the majority of my money is going on this emergency meter, and if I don’t have enough money for it I just sit in the dark”.

With her focus on feeding the meter, sometimes Christine isn’t  even eating. “I’ll put my cats first”. She can’t use the freezer, because of the expense of keeping it running and the risk of losing food if her electricity is cut off. She’s been told she can’t switch electricity companies until she’s paid off £500 of debt.

Why are we letting private companies manage the most vulnerable? As Jeremy Seabrook illustrates in his new book  Pauperland: A Short History of Poverty in Britain, “the richest societies in the world are still ready to impose punitive sanctions upon the least defended”. Anthropologists no longer need to head to the Amazon or Polynesia to examine a “savage society” when they could just get an airline ticket to Britain, he points out.

Young food bank mum sells furniture to buy food

Amanda (not her real name) sold her wardrobe recently to buy food for her partner and child. She’s 19 and a full-time student. By this stage in the week, most of her classmates will be looking forward to a night out. Friday nights mean a chance to catch up with their friends and perhaps even go clubbing if they have a bit of spare cash. Things are different for Amanda, whose hair is starting to fall out due to the stress of life with an ill partner and a four-year-old son.

She came to this Trussell Trust food bank in London today because her  young family has been without child tax credit for 14 weeks. The Jobcentre gave her a voucher. Her 23-year-old partner had been signed on with an agency, offering him irregular and very part-time work with the local council. But Amanda believes the worry of trying to earn enough money to pay bills and buy food in the absence of the child tax credit brought on the terrible migraines that have forced him to give up work.

Amanda says: “We were living off child benefit and whatever we could sell of our furniture. My partner was put on employment and support allowance (ESA) because the doctor said he wasn’t fit for work. The ESA didn’t start arriving until a week ago, but we only got one week’s money instead of the three weeks he’s owed. Before he got ill he worked through the agency as a park keeper and he also did removals for a while. He  had a low and unpredictable income.”

I ask her how not having enough money has affected them. “We’ve both lost weight, and I’m really depressed. It’s very hard to get out of bed in the morning. My hair has started to fall out.” She lives in a council house where water has started coming through the kitchen ceiling, and she’s unable to use the light in the room until it dries out.

She’s trying her best to stay focused on her course – a BTEC in medical science. She’s in her second year, and if she passes she can go on to university. There’s a great determination to do that, but in reality, some days she doesn’t have enough money to get to college. She is entitled to a bursary, but it only comes every three months. Amanda needs the money now. Amanda feels like her college is not giving her enough support. “They say you can go and talk to the finance office, but that’s a room with 20 people in it and there’s no private space where I can talk.”

Amanda, her partner and their child are battling to create sort of  future  in their sparsely furnished flat. Meanwhile we wait for the long-delayed report on food aid in the UK to emerge. Commissioned by Defra, it should help explain why there’s been such a growth in the number of food banks. According to a Guardian article, the suspicion is that the report has been held up because it illustrates a clear link between welfare reform and the growth of food banks. Welfare reforms are certainly not helping people like Amanda and her loved ones.

Two friends tackle the future together at the London food bank

Two  impressive women came to the London food bank for help on Friday. It’s inspiring to see how their supportive  friendship is helping them deal with the most adverse circumstances.

Julie and Bev (not their real names) crossed paths at an addiction treatment programme at a London clinic just over a month ago.  Julie is 36 and I think Bev is in her early 40s. Not a long- established friendship, but they’ve both been through so much in a short time. Sharing deeply about their lives while on the (continuing) programme has brought them close and cemented their relationship. The events that led them to meet were traumatic.

A victim of domestic violence, Julie had to leave her home quickly at the beginning of this year. She says: “I moved from pillar to post, sofa surfing and staying with friends. I then had a crisis about five weeks ago, when I hit rock bottom. I started binge drinking to black it all out….to  the point of being at a station trying to go under a fast train. I was staying with my cousin and she’d been worried about me because of the way I’d been talking before I left. She went to the train station, got me from the platform and took me to accident and emergency.”

Julie had been staying  on the coast at the time, and she says the hospital there looked after her brilliantly. They kept her for 24 hours, then transferred her to the specialist addiction treatment unit. That’s where she met Bev, who was there because of her problems with alcohol and binge drinking. Bev separated from her husband a year ago, and she began losing control of her life at that point.

Both women were able to receive treatment every day – a year’s worth of detox therapy condensed into three weeks. Both have high praise for the care they’re receiving. They left the in-patient element of the treatment last week, but both have a full programme of aftercare, including AA meetings twice a week. They’re undergoing the whole 12 step AA programme – along with three other people they met in the specialist unit. All of them are supporting each other,  says Bev. The five of them – men and women – have formed a tight friendship network to help each other through the challenging weeks and months ahead.

Now comes more of  the serendipity that seems to be mitigating some of the steep challenges they’re facing. It so happens that Julie has been given a temporary room in shared accommodation (shared bathroom and kitchen) by the  homelessness unit in our neighboring borough. Those facilities  in our borough may not include heating or hot water – but by chance she’s ended up  just round the corner from Bev’s father’s house. Bev couldn’t go back to the family home, as her three children are young and still wary.  She’s moved in with her dad, who won’t give her money, but will put petrol in her car. He’s supportive, but cautious. When she hit her lowest with the drinking he locked her in a bedroom for three days to get her away from the booze.

Julie has been supporting Bev too. Bev is trying to make sense of the new reality of life without her husband and, for the time being without being able to share her home with her kids.  Once she separated, she didn’t know she was able to claim benefits. She’s just been to the Jobcentre with her friend to sort that out.  They’re helping each other so much – just by sharing and working together to solve problems large and smaller.  Julie has now applied for employment and support allowance (ESA), While she waits for her application to be dealt with,  she had to spend a couple of days with only a tiny bit of food. A GP gave her a prescription for a few replacement meals, while Bev brought along some cake and biscuits to share with her at an AA meeting.  Julie says: “Yesterday I did feel ready to go back into hospital, as I’d had nothing to eat or drink for 24 hours.”

This is a woman struggling to feed herself in 21st century London. Luckily, the Jobcentre gave her a voucher allowing her to access crisis help at this Trussell Trust food bank. We shouldn’t require  food banks in this well-off Western European country. But the inequalities here are growing. The Trussell Trust and others know that basic needs have to be met somehow, while we wait endlessly for the politicians to acknowledge the scale of  need and to address it.

Eventually, if Julie gets stronger and moves from ESA to a job,  she’ll be trying to get some sort of  more permanent home.  How will she fare with that in this bit of the capital just a few miles  from Canary Wharf? Over there, property experts say homes in the planned new 74-storey, 714-apartment Hertsmere Tower could start at £1m. The project will target overseas buyers, who a Guardian article says are currently picking up four out of every five prime London properties. Green party member of the London assembly Darren Johnson said in the article that this was the last thing Tower Hamlets – an area with 23,000 people on housing waiting lists –  needed.

Social solidarity  – the binding together of people from all classes – is becoming less and less  a feature of life in London. It was  interesting to note that an estate agency firm (Savills) was quoted in the Guardian article warning that developers in London are focusing on high-ticket properties at the expense of the biggest need – for affordable homes.  When estate agents rather than Coalition politicians are making it clear that London has to change, it’s time to get worried.

People have an instinctive awareness that positive changes are more quickly achieved when people collaborate and care about those around them. Julie and Bev show us that we’re all in it together.