‘We’re living in barbaric times.’ Charles’ story

Charles at the Jerico Road project in Catford
Charles at the Jerico Road project in Catford

Charles is a pensioner of 72 who must at times feel that he’s fallen off the edge of a world that he no longer recognises. He’s well spoken, very intelligent and has an air of dignity, despite the enormous challenges he faces in trying to exist from day to day. The world is chipping away at his soul and is bent on eroding his humanity, which despite all remains intact. I met him at the Jerico Road project, which feeds between 100 and 150 people in Catford, South London each Wednesday evening.

The project provides a safe space for the growing number of vulnerable people in this area within its thriving church (though you don’t have to be religious or Christian to benefit from what’s on offer). It gives advice on everything from homelessness, benefits, and getting back to work, as well as a nutritious three course meal. It’s about social solidarity, practical support and creating community. It’s a place where people are cherished.

Quite a few of those who come along are rough sleepers. Charles at least has a roof of sorts over his head. He has a small cottage, which I surmise he’s inherited. But he says he’s on a basic state pension, and the house is ‘falling to pieces – it’s a liability and it takes all my money to keep it going’. I wonder whether he’s receiving pension credit, which would boost his weekly benefit (about one in three people don’t realise they’re entitled to claim this), but he’s unclear on this (I’ll follow this up with staff at the project tomorrow). He may be struggling desperately, without the resources to lead a decent life , but he’s kind and generous enough to want to help some other men who are down on their luck. ‘Three men were sleeping on my floor. They were desperate people.’ What happened in his life? He volunteers that he was refused medication for what he describes as ’emotional illness’, and was then ‘dismissed’.

He is furious about the divisions and inequalities that he believes characterise life in London now. ‘I’m so angry I can’t even sleep. I’m angry about the vindictiveness the rich show towards the poor. We’re living in barbaric times.’

Some of the 100-150 people who come to the Jerico project for a free meal each week
Some of the 100-150 people who come to the Jerico project for a free meal each week

When asked if he’s eating properly, he says he tries. He says he’s been ‘struggling for justice since the age of four and I’ve had periods of utter persecution and disadvantage’. He adds: ‘I’m a Christian Socialist, but if you look at the nature of society, there are no safeguards, ethos, or morals. The mass media is our enemy and we can’t get a look in.’

What did last week’s budget have to offer Charles and the many other people trying to eke out an existence in this expensive city on a basic state pension? Well, pensioners will have the chance to blow their private pension pot on anything they want, including a Lamborghini if they so choose. A £15,000 flexible ISA savings vehicle is being set up. None of this is going to be any comfort to Charles.

What will happen to Charles as he gets further into old age? I don’t have the stomach to speculate too much tonight. What I do know is that his assessment of the government as a ‘mafiosi, lethal to democracy, imposing class warfare on the old, the vulnerable, the poor, and people with mental and physical illnesses’, is on the mark.

Mark heads to food bank after his wallet with £130 of JSA is snatched

Mark, before his sling was taken off. He's still in pain
Mark, before his sling was taken off. He’s still in pain

Mark Bothwell came back to the London food bank today. He’s putting a brave face on things, because that’s just what he does. Despite having depression, when he’s here he tries his best to be upbeat. He’s a great guy and endlessly grateful for any small postive developments. It was wonderful to see his face when he got some new (to him) shoes. But he’s had a terrible week.

His health issues also include a damaged shoulder, that’s not healing quickly. He’s only had his sling removed in the last few days, but is still in a lot of pain, and on tramadol for that (but is due to come off it in the next few days, as it’s not supposed to be a long-term solution). He says the tramadol gives him ‘weird thoughts’, and leaves him slightly spaced out. This may have contributed to his state of mind as he walked down a local high street on Tuesday. In his wallet was £130 – two week’s worth of jobseeker’s allowance. He felt someone near him, checked for his wallet, and realised it was being taken. ‘They grabbed it, and as I turned around in shock, I realised I’d fallen. I fell on my bad shoulder and instantly screamed.’

Mark went to the police station and immediately reported what had happened. I saw his crime number and card issued by the Met. Next he went to the council to see if they would give him some help in the form of a crisis payment from the emergency support scheme. They said no. The emergency support scheme for those in a crisis does focus mainly on items such as white goods, beds and mattresses. But there’s a provision for money too. According to the website, applicants can be considered if they are under ‘exceptional pressure’ or for example if the person suffers from a disability or chronic illness. Mark is currently on the waiting list for treatment for his depression, so surely he falls into this category? The website also says those who have been the victim of a crime ‘need to provide evidence to confirm what’s happened’. He has that evidence.

So I don’t understand why he wasn’t helped and will follow this up with the council on Monday. Alan the food bank manager says that the budget for the emergency support scheme has had to be set at 2007 levels, so it’s a pot of money under massive pressure currently.

Next, Mark went to the jobcentre to explain what happened and ask if he could have a food bank voucher. The staff there checked on the system, found out that he’s had three vouchers already, and said they weren’t prepared to give him another one. Yes, the Trussell Trust policy is that people should only be allowed to use three vouchers. The rationale is that by this stage clients should be receiving support from professionals such as housing officers, social workers and health professionals – to help them get back on track in the longer term. Food bank help is designed to cover a short-term crisis only. Food banks are surely not seen as an arm of the welfare state in a first world economy?

In the end, Alan did give Mark a voucher for some food today. He was breaking the Trussell Trust’s own rules, but it means he’ll eat this weekend. He told Mark: ‘I’ll give you one (a voucher) today, but all we’re doing is giving you a sticking plaster. It would be better if you got some help in the long term.’

Because his recent health issues are interfering with his ability to work, he’s applying to go onto employment and support allowance (ESA). Transferring over is not a smooth process. If his application is rejected he has a month to appeal and the appeal process will take some time. Increasingly, the state seems both unable or unwilling to offer a future to vulnerable people like Mark.

Top award for this London borough’s food banks

Something worth celebrating happened here recently. Nominated by members of the public, the foodbank network in the borough got a special award for its contribution to the community. The ceremony was held at the town hall, and the lovely and very dedicated food bank manager Alan was there to receive it.

As I’ve said before, this cash-strapped local council isn’t perfect, but it does try harder than most to help the growing number of vulnerable people in the area. It also values social cohension and is striving against considerable odds to address issues of inequality and poverty.

The council is being starved of funding, like all local authorities. The Local Government Association (LGA) has pointed out that overall funding for local government has been cut by more than 40 per cent in the course of this Parliament. The LGA has already called on the government to think again about getting rid of the £347m emergency welfare fund for vulnerable people facing short-term crisis. This council knows that these are the very group most in need of food banks. So it does what it can. It provides space at a peppercorn rent for the spacious warehouse and its welcome centre, and ensures food donation baskets are provided in a number of council buildings that are open to the public. The support it can provide is limited, but of a practical, hands-on nature.

Since April 2013, this borough’s Trussell Trust food banks have given out enough food to provide 35,000 meals. It has fulfilled over 1800 vouchers, which translates to about 2300 adults and 1500 children. Alan’s team has collected nearly 40 tonnes of food and distributed just over 30 tonnes through the eight welcome centres across the borough. The organisation is now fully established, with strong teams in the warehouse and the welcome centres.

Alan adds: ‘All these numbers far exceed our expectation at the beginning of the year. It is not my wish to enter the political debate but I will share with you that the vast majority of people we meet are sincere and their need is genuine. We continue to be grateful to the many churches and schools who have been the chief contributors of food.’ This, he says, has been supported by the permanent collection points facilitated by the local council and by collection points in local Tesco and Sainsbury supermarkets. The challenge continues to gather in sufficient of the less popular food items so that the volunteers can make up complete packs. The local food bank network now has a clever App that provides details of food abundances and shortages, and will help enormously (assuming donors have smartphones etc).

Some people are falling through the safety net, though. They’re very vulnerable indeed, and for a significant number food bank packs are not going to solve their problems. What they need is long-term support and intervention – from a state that’s capable of engaging with them. They deserve welfare policies that offer proper help to individuals struggling with a host of adverse circumstances, including chronic ill health. Not just sanctioning their benefits when they ‘fail’ to apply for enough ‘jobs’, or being left without benefits while they wait in limbo for decisions on employment and support allowance (ESA) to be reconsidered.