Janine, the magic of MST, and the myth of easy-to-get food bank vouchers

The new lie in circulation is that people are heading to food banks in vastly increasing numbers simply because they’re now aware that food banks exist. Was it Chancellor George Osborne who got this myth up and running earlier in 2013, when he suggested food bank use had gone up, ‘because people have been made aware of the food bank service through jobcentres’? The insulting implication being that a bunch of layabout chancers are flooding through the doors of food banks in search of freebies that ‘hard-working people’ would never dream of taking.

It’s been emphasised already, and it was good to see this addressed in the first episode of Famous, Rich and Hungry, but the message hasn’t quite got through yet: Getting a food bank voucher is anything but easy. If you want to use a Trussell Trust food bank, you need to be referred by the jobcentre, by a frontline professional such as a doctor, a health visitor, a social worker or the police. They are deemed to be best placed to identify if you’re going through a real crisis and that your need is genuine. It’s only then that a voucher will be issued.

Are thousands of people in the UK – escalating numbers every month – really jumping through those hoops to collect a three-day supply of long-life food, without being in real need of help? In six months of interviewing clients at a number of food banks in this fairly typical London borough, I’ve met very few indeed whom I thought were anything other than desperate. Most of them have problems with delayed, sanctioned or stopped benefits, or are trying to move from jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) to employment and support allowance (ESA) due to (often extreme) ill health. Most have disabilities and multiple health problems, including severe depression in many cases.

Some, like Janine (not her real name) who came in just before the weekend, are former victims of domestic abuse and experience periods of crisis when the food budget becomes impossible to manage. Janine, a mum of a 12 year-old boy and a 15 year-old girl, is starting to get her life back on track after splitting with her partner. He’s a drug addict and an alcoholic, and her children had to watch him being violent towards Janine. She says her 42-year-old ex-partner is now very ill indeed as a result of his addictions. Janine, 39, was happy for me to use her real name and be photographed, but I’ve given her a pseudonymn instead to protect her identity and that of her still-vulnerable family.

Her life hit its lowest point in October last year, after she lost the job she loved in the charity sector. By that time she’d become extremely depressed because of her partner’s problems with addiction and violent behaviour, and the effect on the children. She has no support from any extended family. Why did she need to access a food bank? Had she simply heard that food banks offered free food, and decided to head on down? No. She was referred by her council social worker, who gave her a voucher. She needed it because she is struggling to survive on £71 a week of ESA and the £56 (child tax credit and child benefit) she gets for her daughter. She’s currently paying heating of £20 a week and water rates of £7, plus £3 for her council flat rent (reduced from £38 since she lost her job). Her son of 12 moved back in with her a week ago after he was removed from his father’s residence. Janine says that while with his father he was fending for himself – running out on the streets until late at night and missing school.

So although she’s relieved to have her son back, she has another mouth to feed, but as yet no benefits in place for him. That’s what plunged her into crisis this week.

Luckily, her plight was spotted by a key person who’s been working extremely closely with her and her children. Our local council has got involved with an intensive family and community based treatment programme that originates in the US called MST (Multisystemic Therapy). It’s an approach that’s fairly new to England, and ‘blends the best clinical treatments including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and family therapy to put parents and caregivers in control and to improve family relationships and functioning’. It aims to treat troubled young people ‘in the full context of their lives’. MST is also offering to support Janine as she tries to get back into the workforce. The MST key worker told Janine to ask her social worker for a food voucher, and Janine says the only reason she got it is ‘because my boy came back to live with me’. She had only ever used the food bank once before, with a voucher.

She’s evangelical about the positive impact the programme is having – given that it’s a small team based out of a local health centre: ‘I suffer from really bad depression, and they’ve been brilliant to me. They’re helping me sort out my finances, and that help is ongoing. My 15-year-old daughter suffers from anxiety, and is seeing a paediatrician(within the MST programme). They’re really good. They’re helping me with my CV and with ‘getting back into work.’

Before MST got involved, local council social services ‘didn’t provide the support, to be honest’, in Janine’s view. ‘My ex had alcohol and drugs problems, but the council still let my boy live with his father.’ She says he daughter has ‘a bit of an eating disorder, and is losing too much weight – myself and MST are keeping an eye.’ Her daughter did not go to school for six months last year, but she’s now in a good specialist school for children who have witnessed violence and suffer from conditions such as anxiety and depression. ‘There’s an open door at all times for her to go in and out and talk to people. She’s doing really well, and is ready for her exams. She’s caught up.’

It’s still too early to feel that things have permanently improved for the family, but so heartening to hear Janine say that MST is the best thing that’s ever happened to her: ‘It’s changed my whole life. My daughter is so much more relaxed. The people from MST turn up at school and ask her if she has any problems.’ Her account of why she was offered a food bank voucher should be read alongside the stories of greedy, dishonest, food bank clients that are starting to feature in some sections of the media.

14 thoughts on “Janine, the magic of MST, and the myth of easy-to-get food bank vouchers

    1. It was lord fraud (freud) who first said that about foodbanks, plus something about “supply and demand” of foodbanks. his great grandfather Sigmund Freud must be spinning in his grave!!

  1. And we are supposed to be a civilized country, a rich country and in the year 2014. We are fast becoming a third world country but the thing that doesn’t help are the people – they won’t do anything about it and have let this unelected coalition do whatever they want and then they wonder why there is so much suffering!

  2. Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    Another excellent piece setting the record straight about the reality of food banks and the people who use them. The Panorama documentary the other week about food banks also did its best to skewer this myth, that the increase in their use is due to wider knowledge. It’s just another piece of deliberate falsehood by the Tories to try and persuade the public that really, wealth and prosperity is within reach of all, there are no people starving in Britain today, and if there is, it’s all due to personal failure. A convenient lie by the complacent middle and upper classes to smoothly stifle any feeble stirrings of their consciences. It is heartening, however, that ‘Janine’ has been helped by the MST programme, and this may offer hope to other single parents in a similar situation.

    1. Thanks for the reblog Beastrabban and for the thoughtful comment. I don’t believe that social security is set at a level that enable people to survive, eat decently and make ends meet – often it’s something like a social security sanction or a winter heating bill that pushes them over the edge. They are nearly always struggling with multiple health problems too. The food bank model is far from perfect of course, as the danger is that it lets government off the hook. Ridiculously low social security levels also push people towards loan sharks, and make it harder for them to claw their way back to some sort of stable life. Why are we letting this happen?

  3. I’m amazed at how many people are buying into the “bad lifestyle/poor life choices” crap – as if your aim in life is to let your children starve for long enough to let someone give you a foodbank voucher! I am APPALLED at what’s going on.APPALLED

    1. I have had to sell my grand daughters bedroom furniture as she used to stay at the week ends, but since the government has stopped my long term sickness benefits and since then my Esa so that I no longer have any money coming in I had to resort to this so that myself and my partner could at least have something to eat even though we are still freezing and use candles to see by at night increasing the risk of fire, even this is only temporary because before too long we’ll have nowhere to live as the rent is not being paid nor the council tax and we will lose everything that has took us so long to get together the hard way, not by having loans etc, but by saving any cash that we might have had left over after paying out for bills rtc it wouldn’t be so bad but I am 59 and my partner is 50, where are we supposed to find work at our age that would provide enough money to pay all the bills and taxes before we even start to think about food and travel expenses to get to work.
      I could have claimed disability from the age of 14 after I had a hip replacement but I have never bothered, my partner was getting disability for chronic anemia but she “not them” decided to not receive it anymore even though she still has overnight stays in hospital for a full blood transfusion, i think out of spite that we should both put in a dla claim and also claims for each others carers allowance.

      1. Keith, I’m so sorry to hear of your experiences. This is appalling and unacceptable. Thank you for sharing this. You do need to apply for the payments you’ve mentioned, and ask for them to be backdated. Not out of spite but because you’re entitled to them, I’m sure. You need them to survive on. Can you find someone in the Citizens Advice Bureau who can help you? What about the local council? Have you asked for help from the council’s emergency support scheme? Let me know how you get on.

      2. Foodbankhelper, I know nothing of the council emergency support scheme, like everything else this isn’t made public so its left to people like you to tell others about this, thank you.
        The problem with foodbanks here in stoke on trent is that even though they are told that I am diabetic they fill bags with tins of beans and pasta etc none of which are good for my health as they are full of sugar, don’t get me wrong I am really gratefull to them for the service they are providing but you can only use the food bank three times and then theres nothing,i just hope I can get things sorted at the council Monday morning before I am thrown out of my home as the rent and council tax is now longer being paid.
        I have heard that the council can also help with gas and electricity, how much truth is there in this?.

      3. Thank you for sharing your experience. At this food bank we try to provide food that meets the needs of anyone on a special diet. Often clients just need to remind the volunteers about their needs, so that the package can be adapted. I’m sorry that you’re having such a hard time getting help.

        Jobcentre Plus should provide some hardship payments in certain circumstances. I’ll research and get back to you. Local authorities are required to provide a local welfare assistance scheme to support residents in their area. In February it emerged that the government will not be renewing this fund in 2015, but it is still there now. The Local Government Association is furious about the removal of this safety net. Don’t get fobbed off by anyone though. Your local council does have a fund. It’s available for people like yourself who are facing personal crisis in their lives. But you may have to fight for it, even though you shouldn’t have to. Best of luck and do let me know how you get on. These people Christians Against Poverty (stoke on trent), may be able to give you advice – or at least help you negotiate with the council.

      4. Thank you again or your help, I went to the council office and they told me I must be getting some type of benefit to be elegible for help, this is a loan not a grant as the local rag reported last year, well that’s the information they tried to fob me off with, so the next timei go to the council I will be taking a copy of the press report as proof, I wonder how they will wriggle out of it then.
        At least they gave me a weeks worth of gas and electricity tokens voucher at least that was some help, and I have now sorted it out at the food bank and they are now giving me more of what is suitable for my health, although this was my third visit they told me not to worry about that as seeing as I have no money at all coming in they would never turn me away, these people are the salt of the earth I don’t know what I would have done without them.

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