Ben Adou hasn’t received jobseeker’s allowance since early March. He came into the foodbank hungry.

I’m pondering the brutal absurdities of day-to-day life for a growing number of the people I come across at this London Trussell Trust foodbank. Sarah (not her real name), wants a job. She’s a gentle and intelligent 28-year-old law graduate with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A month ago she was nearly made homeless when the hostel told her they were going to evict her. The housing association running the hostel changed its mind at the last minute, but tragically she’s considering escort work as a possible way to clear debts, including a Wonga loan at extortionate rates. What does the future hold for her after she finally worked up the courage to escape a violent home situation? Will Mark, who’s trying to battle both depression and a debilitating shoulder injury, ever get his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) processed? It’s been more than 10 weeks now, and he’s still no clearer about when he’ll get his money. Meanwhile his health is deteriorating fast, with other worrying symptoms now developing, which have driven him to the local hospital’s accident and emergency unit.

While they struggle on, Ben Adou (pictured above) came into the foodbank to share his story. Last week I mentioned that he brought along a foodbank voucher – his third. He couldn’t have survived without them, as he hasn’t received any jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) since March 7. This has plunged Ben – a widower of 56 whose wife died of cancer in 2012 – into a financial crisis. He claims housing benefit, has no savings and has nothing to fall back on. There is no safety net here. He came into the foodbank at what he somewhat ironically called lunchtime – hungry because he hadn’t been able to eat that morning. At least he was able to get some tea and a spare sandwich, and leave with his emergency pack of long-life food and some bread that had been donated that day. ‘You have brought me happiness by giving me food’, he said.

The problems started when Ben, who mostly works as a labourer, was offered a job through the controversial Universal Jobmatch scheme at the beginning of March. It turned out to be just two days of work, which he said had ‘completely messed up my JSA claim’. It’s also impacted on his ability to pay a contribution towards his rent, pay his council tax and to meet other household and phone bills. It has made it almost impossible for him to get to interviews. Crucially, of course, he can’t buy food. Any sort of a social life is totally out of the question, of course. With his JSA on hold, he now has no idea exactly when his benefit payments will resume. He called into the jobcentre to try to get to the bottom of things: ‘They said I was overpaid JSA during spells when I was working, and I disagree. They’ve put in writing that they know they owe me £431.60, but they’re saying that I owe them about £286.00 – and that this was a possible overpayment to me.’

The Government’s Universal Jobmatch website  – managed independently by private recruiter Monster – has come under much criticism. MP Frank Field said in a Guardian article, that it is ‘bedevilled with fraud’ and ‘out of control’.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed in a letter to Field that more than 350,000 job adverts might breach the website’s terms and conditions , which specify that employers must advertise a real job, not use premium rate numbers, pay at least the minimum wage and not cost the applicant any money to start.

In the meantime, Universal Jobmatch keep on sending him texts calling him to jobs he can’t take up and job interviews he can’t attend – because he has absolutely no money to get there. A few weeks ago he passed two interviews for some work in central London, but couldn’t get the money together to travel up to the job. The day before he had been offered work starting yesterday in Morden, ‘but I had to say no because I couldn’t afford to travel there’. He has no money, so needs a job. He can’t get a properly paid job, because he has no money to get there. A week previously he had been called for a first interview for a commission-based job, then was offered an induction. It was only at that point that he found out he would have to use an Oyster card and put money on it himself to enable him to travel around London to sell products door-to-door. Needless to say, ‘this wasn’t explained at the team meeting’.

He explained to JobcentrePlus that he needed some money, but doesn’t seem to have been told that he could have been given money directly by them. There’s a fund for that sort of thing, you see. But no-one seems to be told about it. Every year in April, JobcentrePlus offices are given a budget to pay for Budgeting Loans.These are interest free loans for people on JSA and other benefits. Travelling expenses within the UK are included in the needs covered by such loans. This money comes out of the JobcentrePlus Social Fund budget.

Ben, like many of the people I meet, is dealing with this ghastly situation with tremendous resilience. But there’s only so long he can cope without long-term damage to his health and wellbeing. He is diabetic and he also has a heart problem. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe the ridiculous, complex hassles faced daily by a growing number of our most vulnerable citizens. This week we found out that committed campaigner and journalist Mike Sivier’s battle to get information on deceased former sickness benefits claimants released that is clearly in the public interest has been unsuccessful – so far. He wants an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, but a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that his Freedom of Information request was ‘vexatious’. But the judge criticised both the information Commissioner and the DWP for the other reasons they put forward to prevent the death figures from being made public. From what seems to be emerging here in London, do we also now need to look more closely at the equivalent figures for people on JSA?

11 thoughts on “London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too

  1. It currently takes three weeks from sending off the application form to getting a budgeting loan, also if you have just got a job i.e signed off then you cannot get a budgeting loan at all.

  2. Why? Just why! How is it we are all running around trying to find our way in a system which, with the smallest amount of intelligence, can be seen to be a vile and deliberate trap. It is not even as difficult to analyse as a good pyramid scheme. WHY? Why are people ‘complaining’, ‘appealing’, going to this commission or that, talking about the difficulties, trying to hold people or organisations to account? It has to be clear to the simplest mind this is unworkable and unacceptable. This is a decline into destitution and death for a significant proportion of the population. How come the poor are held to account and penalised whilst overt contradictions in the system are simply ignored? Please someone tell me. I won’t go on now but the government policies are most obviously unsustainable and will inevitably result in revolution or war. They know this and the evidence is in the water cannons and more that they are preparing with. It has already destroyed my life. I wish I was dead and, as such, I assume hundred or thousands of others will be feeling the same way. I have changed in 10 years from a perfectly honest, responsible, citizen to someone who wishes these politicians like Iain Duncan Smith were hanged from the gallows and I actually look forward to any revolution be it violent or not. How did they do this and get away with it?

    1. Thank you for your comments. The combined effect of current policies seems to be leaving the most vulnerable with no safety net – just pushing them into destitution. Those without family back up are worst off, and I believe single people are particularly exposed and unsupported. I am really sorry you feel so bad. It sounds as if you need immediate help and counselling. Is it possible for you to ring the Samaritans and your GP, to get the help that you deserve and need? Take care. Ann

  3. Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    More examples of the unfortunates who are forced to use food banks through illness, unemployment and the weird, Catch-22 legal technicalities of the Benefits system. Ann here gives the example of Ben, a labourer, whose claim for Jobseekers’ Allowance has been put on hold and messed up because he took a job, which lasted only two days, on Universal Jobmatch. This is the fraud and error-ridden website set up by Monster on behalf of the DWP. It is, no doubt, claimed as a success by Iain Duncan Smith, though other terms would be more appropriate. Like ‘fraud’, ‘exploitative’, ‘a farce’ and ‘completely shambles’. Unfortunately, Ben Adou is by no means the only person caught in this trap. I have several friends, who’ve also had trouble with their claims for JSA for similarly doing short term work according to Zero Hours Contracts. The system is cumbersome, unworkable, and further forces into poverty those forced to take the low-paid, casual work the system actively seems to promote. Ann suggests that as well as getting the information about the number of people, who have died since being found fit for work by Atos, we also need to find out similar figures for those, who have died under JSA. I think she’s right.

  4. Reblogged this on imatigerrr and commented:
    Shocking in modern day Britain as female graduate forced to consider escort work just to afford to stay alive with food on the table a roof above her head, with all it entails, risk, danger, even counter to what religious groups may encourage. UK government instead of discouraging such things, it is encouraging them for self preservation as it washes hands of the poor masses it has caused by its austerity policies targeting the poor and vulnerable.

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