London is no city for young women: Will Sarah return to escort work to pay for her debts?

Down at the food bank, the volunteers hope that clients can over time move on from their challenging situations to something better. Sarah, who has featured here before, is struggling to get the proper support she needs to build a better life. She came here with a voucher a few weeks ago, worried that she was about to get evicted from her hostel. Some calls to the housing association were made, and the threat of eviction was withdrawn after her case was looked at again.

So she had a roof over her head for a while longer. But Sarah (not her real name), a 28-year-old law graduate who has battled for many years with a serious mental illness – Borderline Personality Disorder – came in again today and what she told me made my heart sink. This very intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive young woman has had to deal not only with BPD – which she sees as a life sentence – but with a violent home environment, from which she’s recently fled. Her full story is here. She came to this borough as a homeless person, because she couldn’t stay where she was. While she’s not currently at risk of being homeless again, and is receiving employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, she has considerable debts, including a loan from Wonga at the usual rates (for those of you who don’t know by now, Wonga’s rate of interest is an eye-watering 365 per cent on £150 for 18 days). She is also trying to deal with a massive bill from Vodaphone, and some student credit card debt.

Sarah told me that she thinks she may have to return to escort work to pay her debts. Why is she considering this? She explained to me: ‘I feel as if I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s horrible and wrong, but if I balance all that against the risk of sinking further and further into debt…. The place I work for gives you drivers and a bodyguard. It’s a seedy underworld, but maybe that’s where I think I belong. It’s what I know.’ When she has done this work in the past, she says she ‘feels like she can blot it out with drink and cannabis…. I’ve done it before, so I think what does another time mean to me’. This work would pay her £60 an hour cash in hand.

How does she feel about her life? ‘I’m sick of being a burden and a leech. I’m heading towards 30 and what have I got to show for it? I’m not stable enough to work full time. I can’t jump from being on benefits to funding a deposit and rent for a flat. I haven’t worked full-time since 2010.’

Sarah began the first stage of some very gruelling treatment for her BPD, but to make progress she would need to undertake another two years of therapy over about three days a week. Having left her home and pulled out of treatment, she would need to start again and access services in this borough. But the GP she has registered with has not yet received the paperwork from her old GP. So although she has been prescribed her medication, she does not yet have a community psychiatric nurse. Our food bank manager made sure she left today with details of the local self-referral mental health services and details of excellent debt advice charity Christians Against Poverty. We hope she gets appointments with both very soon indeed.

Send her all the luck in the world. She’s got more inner strength that she realises and I’m left with a sense that she will now fight to get the support she needs. The most disgraceful thing is that social, housing and welfare policies are making life more difficult by the day for Sarah and the people like her, here in London and throughout the UK.

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More than a food bank: Ray Woolford’s Deptford model

More than a food bank: Ray Woolford’s Deptford model
The People Before Profit shop: A food bank supporting other community initiatives
The People Before Profit shop: A food bank supporting other community initiatives

Today more evidence emerged about  the sheer numbers of people depending  on UK  food banks. But the most shocking fact is that the new figures published by the Trussell Trust – the biggest food bank charity – radically understate the true situation. The reality is that the charity only acounts for less than  half of the food banks in operation. So the figure of  more than 900,000 people given emergency food in the past year is actually much, much higher  than that.

But the evidence collected by the Trussell Trust exposed a 163 per cent hike in demand compared to 2012-13, and this rise has prompted a coalition of anti-poverty campaigners including the Trussell Trust  to claim that the UK  is breaching international law by violating the human right to food.

The Trussell Trust’s model involves individuals and organisations donating food that’s then redistributed free of charge to clients who’ve been given a foodbank voucher to use at a Trussell Trust food bank. The vouchers are issued by a jobcentre or a frontline care professional and those who get one can exchange it for three days’ emergency supply of non-perishable food. People can get a maximum of three consecutive vouchers. After that, the Trussell Trust says it signposts clients to organisations able to resolve underlying problems. But what really happens to improve the conditions of those who’ve had their three parcels of food? The food bank manager and the volunteers at the Trussell Trust food banks I know most about are highly committed and compassionate, but it seems to be getting harder to help those clients who repeatedly return. Take the case of Mark, who’s struggling with a shoulder injury, depression and debt. He’s been waiting months for his application for employment and support allowance (ESA) to come through, and has had to use the food bank many times. His life doesn’t seem to be getting better. Any prospect of significant improvement seems to rest solely within the power of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Meanwhile, Mark continues to suffer.

The Trussell Trust is getting more involved in offering clients a degree of advocacy and support, but a few miles down the road in Deptford, South-East London, there’s a project that approaches soaring levels of food poverty in London in a different way – and actually offers advocacy for situations such as court hearings and aid to people in the form of loans.

The Lewisham and Greenwich People Before Profit shop charges £1 per individual or family for food. People must register, and there are 1,000 on their list. Client can choose 10 perishable and non-perishable items, including chicken or fish and vegetables (a number of potatoes would be one item). The shop also offers a second-hand clothes exchange, as well as selling some clothes and accessories and furniture. The staff there are paid a wage, and offer advocacy and support to the people who come here. For example, some of the people who visit get help when they have to attend industrial tribunals. On other occasions, staff have gone along to court hearings, and to meetings with social workers. This has included support for those who face having their children taken away because they can’t afford to feed them. Due to the withdrawal of legal aid, lawyers come in and give advice , as do benefits advice workers and a magistrate.

Lewisham and Greenwich People Before Profit campaigner Ray Woolford
Lewisham and Greenwich People Before Profit campaigner Ray Woolford

Lewisham and Greenwich People Before Profit campaigner Ray Woolford says:  ‘These people give their advice for free, because they have a social conscience. It all helps to build a network of support. The food for the shop is sourced ‘all over the place, including from Fareshare, and from Waitrose in Greenwich, which allows us to have surplus food four nights a week. There’s not that much wastage these days though – the middle classes are being careful and the supermarkets are cutting back on their orders. The proceeds from the shop are used to buy the food staples. To those who say that poor people are fat, it’s important to remember that a loaf of bread full of additives is 47p, while a swede costs £3. Cheap food makes us fat.’

Ray Woolford thinks his is the only model ‘with the shop aspects and the food bank in one location’, and he believes it could be copied elsewhere. In addition, ‘we actually pay a decent amount of money to our staff and we produce money to help us run our project’. He says the main problems that bring people to the shop are ‘benefit sanctions, low incomes and high rents’. As well as going towards wages, the funds raised also get used in the form of loans to help clients get back into work. It’s not given as money, but would for example go on an Oyster card to cover someone’s first few weeks of travel costs to get to a new job. The project recently paid for one food bank user to obtain a fitness instruction licence and get back into work. Often the shop will pay for a £5 top-up to an emergency power meter for an elderly or otherwise vulnerable person. ‘No interest is ever charged, and people do generally give it back. We don’t give money directly to people, but this approach reflects that some people have exceptionally adverse circumstances.’

The funds raised through the shop have also been used to pay for the initial £900 registration of a not-for-profit green energy co-op, that fits in with the People Before Profit agendas for both green energy and improving the local economy.

People Before Profit is building a profile for itself in this area, and plans to put forward candidates in the elections to Lewisham Council on 22 May. It will also field a Mayoral candidate, though its manifesto says that if elected, he would only accept the average wage for Lewisham of £30,000 and stand down after four years. The manifesto flags up that Lewisham is the 16th most deprived in England out of 326 (2010 figures), with a youth unemployment figure of 36%. The main manifesto policies include keeping money in the area, helping locally based businesses, paying a living wage to all council employees, ending all contracting-out of council services to the private sector and abolishing the position of Lewisham’s ‘all-powerful’ executive mayor.

The approach here seems to be one of empowering people in food poverty to tackle some of the underlying issues that have led them to the food bank. The atmosphere is anything but dismal. ‘It’s not a miserable place. It’s full of life and vitality. It’s inspirational in many ways. Most of the staff stay here all the time. They don’t want to go home!’ Ray Woolford adds: ‘It’s not just about feeding people. It’s about getting people out of poverty and empowering them in some way. We’re trying to end dependency, not create it.’ Could Ray’s place inspire new ways to put citizens in charge of their own futures?

Rebecca’s story: Young Londoners’ lives are being ruined and relationships corrupted

Rebecca’s story: Young Londoners’ lives are being ruined and relationships corrupted
Rebecca is 22, and has a budget of less than £20 a month for food.
Rebecca is 22, and has a budget of less than £20 a month for food.

Rebecca (not her real name) has narrowly escaped eviction from a hostel. She tries to eat on less than £20 a month. That doesn’t work so well, so she called into this London food bank a few days ago for some support. This 22-year-old travels two to three hours each way by bus across London to work weekend shifts for a retailer, but only earns £56 a week. There’s no more work on offer there, so she has to stick with what she’s got. Her jobseeker’s allowance amounts to £2.57 a week. She’s glad she doesn’t have children, ‘because I’m struggling to feed myself, let alone kids’. Welcome to the wonderful neo-Dickensian world without prospects that we’ve created for a growing number of young adults in London.

Despite the frustration and drudgery she faces each day, this young woman is generous, thoughtful and enterprising. The resilience and dignity she displays in the face of scandalous adversity is impressive. Her first words when she was given her emergency supply of food, were: ‘When I get a proper job I’m going to donate food to the food bank. I know how it helps – even just to get a can of soup. For me, that lasts for two meals. The staff here are friendly and that makes me feel a lot better, especially after that uncomfortable feeling I get at the job centre.’

Rebecca lives in the same hostel as Sarah, a woman of 28. Sarah was given an eviction notice by the Changing Lives housing association, telling her to move out last Friday at the end of her two month probation period. The council and the housing association responded to Sarah’s account here. Rebecca says she was also given an eviction notice, telling her to leave on the same day – but that the housing association has now changed its mind. Rebecca says the evictions didn’t go ahead and that both of them have been told they can stay. At least both women have a roof over their heads now.

She had to move away from the part of London she was living and working in and move to this borough. Here, she was given a place in the hostel. The council is paying for her housing while she’s there, but Rebecca has to find the hostel’s separate £60 a month service charge. She also spends £40 on her travel to work each month, has a £45 bill for her mobile phone, and repays debts of £40 a month. She’s been told by a party plan company that she must pay for left-over kit it supplied to her. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has also been deducting payments from her JSA for money it says she owed . ‘The DWP said I owed them £200 from when I was claiming JSA four years ago – it was only for a two month period. I don’t know if I’ve paid it off now.’

The little that’s left over goes on everything elase, including food. What she does to survive is to spend £5 a week on vegetables to turn into soup that last days. She misses being able to buy meat, because it’s so expensive. Now and again she can buy chicken.

What does she think about her situation? ‘I can’t afford clothes or any luxuries. I’ve been applying for jobs constantly, but I’ve never been able to get a full-time job. I love working where I am – both the customers coming into the store and my colleagues, so I’ve decided that until I get a (full-time) job, I will keep this going. I went on benefits when I was 16 and started a part-time job at 19. But as soon as I got a full-time job they cut my hours down and said they couldn’t afford to keep me. It’s not work’s fault they don’t have enough hours. I really enjoy my work.’

All she wants to do is work, but she feels self esteem issues may also now be holding her back. ‘I hate people thinking I’m not trying hard enough. When you’re having confidence issues it’s harder to get jobs. Recently I was told I was suitable for a job, but because I’m not confident enough I wasn’t getting it.’

She says that as soon as she finds a job she’s going to get somewhere else to live straight away. The worse thing, she says, is ‘feeling like I have to rely on other people – at the age of 22 I don’t want to do that’. The way society treats the young also pollutes their closest relationships with parents and partners. She says that her boyfriend, ‘thinks I rely on him for everything, and I don’t.’ She adds: ‘He says he doesn’t want to live with me, because he doesn’t think I can finance myself. I haven’t told him I go to the food bank. He doesn’t even understand why I go to the job centre.’ Her situation is obviously taking its toll on their relationship.

Rebecca says she had more money to live on before, when she was 16. ‘Back then I went to college, got income support, and had housing benefit.’

Guardian writer Hannah Fearn wrote recently about the campaign led by Citizen’s Income Trust and Basic Income UK to replace the ‘costly, complex benefits system’, with a citizen’s income – an ‘unconditional payment granted to every individual as a right of citizenship’. The proposal is to set it below the minumum wage, but would give a basic income of £7,000 (more for pensioner and those with severe disabilities). The idea is gaining support with key figures, including Labour MP John McDonnell. The article says that when a pilot project funded by Unicef in eight villages in India introduced a basic income, the outcome was that work increased. The article adds: ‘The cash in pockets led to small scale investments, such as the creation of new businesses, and women gained more than men.’

Hannah Fearn points out that the principle of means testing – ‘that we should only get something from the state if we prove we definitely need it – stands intact and unscrutinised with politicians simply tinkering with the goalposts’. Could the principle of a citizen’s income be a way to transform the currently dismal outcomes for Rebecca and her struggling generation, and bring some real equity, and a degree of vital autonomy?