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.

Inequality, one London church and the impact of universal credit

kings church exterior
In case you’ve forgotten, London is one of the wealthiest cities on earth, the capital of one of the world’s richest countries. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister David Cameron told us: “We are a wealthy country.” Let’s take a walk down one street in south-east London, call into a church, and see how effectively all this wealth is trickling down.

It’s not dropping into the laps of the large crowd of people packed into King’s church in Catford on a Wednesday night. There’s a hundred or so sitting around tables (and on some Wednesdays there are 150 people). They’re there for companionship, support with their problems, and a free three course meal. There’s a warm, welcoming buzz, and it’s definitely not just food that’s on offer at this truly wonderful project. They get access to a wide range of help – anything from debt advice to counselling and support with mental health and addiction issues. They can also volunteer to help out with the meal. Many are here tonight preparing food, cooking, serving, clearing up and chatting to diners. People also get support with looking for paid work.

Fundamentally, it’s about providing a community for adults of all ages who feel marginalised by politicians and by society and showing them that they belong – that they are valued for who they are and not what they do or don’t earn. It offers them a firm place in the world. This project wants to empower people to have functioning lives.

The church prioritises helping rough sleepers. There were 16 of them here last week, and this winter the church has had more rough sleepers than ever before. The rough sleepers were heading to a car park in Catford that night. The upward trend in the number of rough sleepers locally reflects the national picture. An estimated 2,414 people were sleeping rough in England on any one night in 2013, an increase of 37 per cent on 2010.

The project also provides 24 (soon to go up to 31)spaces in low support housing at a reasonable rent, and draws up care plans to help individuals find work. It also helps people address health issues and supports those fighting appeals against decisions to withdraw benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA).

Low support housing (c) King’s Church London

Marvellous work is going on here, and despite the horrendous pressures on the local Labour-led authority’s (Lewisham’s ) budgets, it is working hard to forge connections with the King’s Church project. On Thursday morning one of the project’s key co-ordinators Simon Allen was due to meet with the council to discuss the rough sleeping issue and how to get the large group of people sleeping rough in Catford off the streets.

Simon, who talked to me at length last week, couldn’t be more gentle towards, and supportive of, the people who come along here. But he’s angry about the way current Coalition polices including the reinvention of the benefits system are impacting on the least well off. Benefit stoppages are “horrendous”, he says – telling me about one man at tonight’s meal whose benefits have been completely stopped.”He’s been without benefits for about six months. These are the most vulnerable people in society and since the stoppage he has spent a month in a mental health unit and a month in prison.”

He can’t believe that people with mental health issues who are challenging decisions to withdraw ESA are being assessed by people with no knowledge of mental health. The project team helps such clients with the appeal process and wins most cases.

The project has a problem if people are dependent on the Wednesday night meal alone. “I don’t want people to be dependent. Our key philosophy is that everyone who comes here can contribute. People can come here and help out.” He recommends a book outlining his church’s approach to social action. “The book’s called Toxic Charity, and it’s an essential read. You can keep people in their poverty or you can treat them as powerful. It’s about building community, friendship, relationship and connection. It includes a sense of hope.”

Simon is “a little cautious” about the food bank model of providing help, which he sees as meeting people’s immediate needs but not able to lift them out of poverty. “It’s all very well going to a food bank and getting a parcel for a few weeks (clients are only meant to use a Trussell Trust food bank a maximum of three times), but we have some people here who have been without benefit for six months.” He believes the holistic model based around community and friendship, and the project’s “fantastic” working connections with the local authority makes it ultimately a more sustainable long-term approach.

Let’s be clear: the Trussell Trust itself says that food banks aren’t a sustainable response to food poverty. Back at the London food bank, the manager Alan reminds me that “most of the people who come to us are referred by people who should be providing mainstream help. If we start providing mainstream help it gives them no urgency to solve the problem. There’s also the issue of individual’s motivation. Where’s the motivation to drive a solution from their point of view?”

Alan also believes that something of a myth is circulating about people becoming “dependent” on food banks. “We see nine out of 10 people on three or fewer occasions.” The few he sees more than that are mostly experiencing very exceptional circumstances.

Undoubtedly, this debate about the longer-term role and strategic direction of food banks is going to intensify here in London and elsewhere as more and more people are forced to use them. A London Assembly Labour report by member Fiona Twycross quoted food bank use in London as having increased by 393 per cent in the past two years. It said that in 2011 there were 12,839 visits to food banks in London, increasing to 63,367 in the first nine months of the current financial year – including 24,500 children. The expanding chasm between rich and poor in London is starting to echo that world painted so vividly by Charles Dickens. Who would have thought it?

Simon is particularly furious about the planned move towards Universal Credit (UC), which he predicts will have a terrible impact on those with the most complex problems. UC is the new single payment for people looking for work or on a low income. It will replace housing benefit, income based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), income related ESA, income support, child tax credits and working tax credits.

The new payment, which will be paid monthly direct to the claimant and will include support for housing costs, will be an unmitigated disaster for many, particularly those with alcohol and gambling addictions, says Simon: “Some people will be given figures such as £1,500 a month in their pockets. We’ve got one man here who is a gambler who is almost crying and saying he doesn’t want this. Why are they obsessed with paying people monthly?.”

He’s approached the DWP about this issue, and they’ve tried to reassure him by telling him about something called “jamjar accounts”, which are starting to emerge as a way of allowing people to ring-fence money to pay specific bills such as gas and electricity. “The DWP also says they will have advisers who will come out and help people. Are there really going to be hundreds of thousands of advisers giving advice to people they don’t know?”

This experienced person sees the evolving system as a disaster starting to unfold. I’ll be returning to the project over the next few weeks to find out more about the individuals involved and how their lives are being affected by the apparent dismantling of the welfare state in London.