House prices aren’t the only thing taking off in London. There’s been a big spike recently in the numbers using this Trussell Trust food bank. Last week 13 clients came in with their vouchers during the three-hour weekly slot that we’re open. That’s a significant increase on before Christmas. I’ll be trying to collate numbers this week to see if that January increase is reflected at the other food banks in the borough.
One of the clients who came in just before the weekend was Mark, an endearing man of 29, who had used another food bank at the start of the week. That supply would have seen him through for a minimum of three days. This time he didn’t have a voucher (the worker from the job centre who usually allocates them wasn’t available), but he decided to call in with us anyway. He brought us a box of biscuits he’d received from the food bank to say thanks for the earlier help. We weren’t able to give him a nutritionally balanced package of food without a voucher, but we gave him some bits and pieces that were still in date, and a loaf of bread that had been brought in that morning.
Mark has been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for some time. His last job was agency work as a barman and waiter. The company got bought out, and Mark ended up being paid two weeks after he did a shift. He told me: “I could be called up on the day, and I had to pay out £40 a week for my travel card, as the work took me all over London. I just couldn’t afford it.”
He tells me that he normally sets aside a small amount (£18-40) a fortnight for food. He carefully juggled all this and it was tricky. But recently things got harder, as he started paying off a hire purchase agreement to BrightHouse for a PC. He uses the PC (which he describes as his lifeline) to prepare and send off job applications. Being poor is expensive. A typical BrightHouse HP agreement involves an APR of 70 per cent. He’s also paying off another loan from The Money Shop, where short-term loans of up £1,000 typically have an APR of 2961.4 per cent. He says his problems were also made worse (probably before Christmas) by bills coming out of his account earlier than he expected.
To make matters worse he got ill in October, when he hurt his right shoulder and arm, and the right side of his neck. This really affected his original food budget (which assumed one to two meals a day), as the painkillers he’s taking require him to eat more regularly. It got to the point where he has needed to pay out £4.40 a week more than is paid in – and that’s before buying food. The injury is in danger of turning into a chronic health problem. Mark is also paying a Sky subscription. Some will point a finger here and say he shouldn’t be doing this if he can’t afford food. But try standing his shoes (size nines – needing superglue as the soles have come off) for a while…
Mark has a kind heart. On the day he was in he put his name down to become a volunteer at the food bank. He also helps his neighbour (in her 80s) to carry her heavy shopping. That won’t be doing his arm much good. What does he think will happen next, and what would he like from life in the future? I tell him I see him as very good with people and extremely thoughtful. “In the short term I’m going to keep struggling to feed myself. A nice steady job would help and somewhere of my own to live (he has slept on a friend’s sofa for more than six years).” I suggest he goes back to see his GP and asks for better medication, some physiotherapy and help with applying for employment and support allowance (ESA). The higher rate of ESA would make a difference until his health improves.
He looks gaunt, and says that he’s lost substantial amounts of weight over the last few years – about three stones, he thinks. Being on JSA is not good for your health. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg has recently said that welfare payments in the UK , including JSA (£67 a week) are manifestly inadequate. Our Government doesn’t agree.