Maeve: The food bank volunteer

Maeve: The food bank volunteer


Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank
Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank

While the focus of this blog has been on the personal stories of food bank clients, I thought I’d mention what goes on behind the scenes, and try to find out what makes the Trussell Trust food banks here in Greenwich run so smoothly. I’m also going to try to find out why people want to help out as volunteers.

Greenwich food bank currently runs seven food banks throughout the borough. Thanks to the continuing support of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – and its partner organisation Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Greenwich food bank opened two new public donation points earlier this year at the Arches Leisure Centre in Trafalgar Road, Greenwich and at Charlton House in Charlton. This meant that people living in the west of the borough could donate more easily. There are already donation points in Woolwich and Eltham  Centres, Greenwich Community College, Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s in Eltham.

The food bank’s network of churches across the borough also provides collection points, and many of the schools in the borough also donate, particularly around Harvest Festival time. The amount of food donated seems to be on the increase, as awareness grows about the need for food banks.

A small but committed army – the vast majority of them volunteers – keeps the show on the road. In Greenwich borough there is one central food bank warehouse, where food is sorted by volunteers according to type and its ‘best before’ date. They also check it is undamaged, then pack it into boxes and store it, ready for use. Food is then taken to foodbank centres by van, where it’s made up into food parcels ready for use.

The Greenwich food bank operation is thriving in no small part because of its volunteers of all ages and background. Many of them are drawn from local churches. Some are secondary-aged children helping out for an hour or two as some form of local community activity. A number of volunteers work ‘front of house’ – greeting clients who bring in food vouchers issued by frontline professionals such as social workers, GPs and Citizens Advice Bureau staff. If facilities are available – as is the case in Eltham – they’ll get a cup of tea and the chance of some emotional support as well as an emergency food supply. A lot of ‘signposting’ can get done at this point, if clients can spare the time and energy to talk. The volunteers I see are great at engaging with the people who come in,. They try their best to offer useful help, or whatever it is that someone needs most that day.

Some clients just want a person they can talk to who will actually take their minds off the harsh realities of the ghastly situation they’re in.  Sometimes they don’t want ‘solutions’. They might want help with a crossword rather than analysis of the likely outcome of their application for employment and support allowance.

The people I’ve seen are instinctively good at knowing what clients really need. Yes, they need food on the table, but more than that they want to be valued for who they are. Many of the clients end up wanting to volunteer at the food bank themselves.

Maeve Adams, a lovely lady with a grown-up daughter, is long-standing volunteer in the Eltham warehouse. She doesn’t meet clients, as her role is to sort out the donations as they’re received. She’s very committed indeed, and has been helping here for over a year. She dedicates a couple of hours each Wednesday and Friday. Why does she spend so much of her free time volunteering? ‘The first time I heard about food banks was on the news. I didn’t realise there was still a need for food banks. I’m not naive, but I didn’t realise they still existed. That was a shock. I really enjoy helping out here.’

She does have religious convictions – she’s a Catholic – and for her it’s about wanting to give something back to the community. ‘We’ve all got our own individual ways to feel wanted and needed, and for me I feel that I’ve got that balance. There are people worse off than me. The people here volunteer for different reasons. There are different age groups, but everyone here has the same intentions, so it’s easy to blend in. We want to do something good.’

Summer’s here: Thoughts turn to feeding the kids in the holidays.

London looks good when the sun’s out. But a holiday, or even a day or two at the seaside is an impossible dream for a growing number of young families. A study published today shows that Britain will have 3.5 million children living in poverty by 2020. Another report released today by charities Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust reveals that more than 20 million meals were provided to people in the UK last year – a breathtaking 54% rise on the previous year.

Holiday plans get pushed much further down the list when you’ve got a number of young mouths to feed and no money to do it with. Tonight, the terrible situation faced by growing numbers of youngsters whose parents are struggling to put together the money for their meals will be shown in a Channel 4 documentary called Breadline Kids. It’s on at 7.35pm. One mum on benefits mentioned in the programme has £3.60 a day to spend on herself and her two daughters. This figure seems to tie in with the one given to me by a number of single adults I’ve met at the London food bank. A number of them had been attempting to feed themselves on a budget of £2 a day – or sometimes less.

The accounts of the children are very touching, but hard to listen to. Since the recession began over 1,000 breakfast clubs have been started for primary school children. The problem of children arriving at school hungry has been growing significantly over the last two years. When schools are out for six weeks this summer, children will suffer even more, as the hardest-pressed family budgets melt down to nothing.

Ray Woolford runs the We Care advice centre in South-East London, which provides help and support to struggling individuals and families. The centre also sells fresh and long-life food at very low cost to those in need. He is very concerned about what will happen to families with school-aged children this summer. ‘More and more people are saying they are terrified about how they are going to feed their children.’

He’s currently trying to come up with a solution in time for the mass exodus when schools break locally: ‘We’re trying to find kitchens so that we can run breakfasts and lunch clubs. If not, then we will have food parcels for people to take, with milk and cereals. If we can’t get kitchens then we will create summer kitchen packs.’ He’s also considering liaising with local cafes.

In Blackpool, breakfasts are now being offered to all primary school children. Increasingly, local communities will start to become more aware of the scale of the summer destitution on their doorsteps. I’ve just heard of the case of parents with an 11-year-old daughter who’ve all just spent a week sleeping in a London park. These dreadful cases won’t and can’t remain hidden much longer.

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
Here in the UK, the daily experiences of  the increasing numbers of people who’ve had  benefits sanctioned or removed aren’t discussed much across the media. Often individuals seem to drop off the public services radar, and no-one appears to be looking out for them. Many become homeless.

There seem to be fewer sources of help available now for the destitute.  The number of support workers, social workers, GPs  or probation officers with the time and resources to help a client with complex issues appears to be dwindling. The  ‘multi-agency approach’ seems like a sick joke now – unless you know differently?

Last night, at the Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London, I spoke to David Goddard, a 27-year-old who comes from South-West England, but has moved around constantly in the last year. He’d come along to this church-based support project for the regular Wednesday night hot meal –  alongside others  who’ve ended up at the sharp end of the austerity experiment in London. Quite a few of the 90 or so people attending this week are homeless. David is one of them.

He very honestly laid out what’s happened to him since February 2013, since he lost his job in catering in Gloucester. Before that he had run raves within the alternative scene and had a record label. He has also worked part-time in a nightclub and as a part-time carer. After losing his catering job he spent six weeks with no money while waiting for his Jobseeker’s Allowance  (JSA) claim to be processed. During this time he had to borrow money from family to survive. By the end of March/early April 2013 he’d been suspended from JSA for a week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for apparently missing an interview. He then says he got a letter through saying his JSA had been cancelled. He said: ‘I then spent the next month or two seeing if the DWP would give me an interview, filling in applications for a fresh claim online, but not getting any texts or acknowledgements.’

At this stage things took a substantial turn for the worse: ‘I was back taking heroin, and I got made homeless, because I’d moved into a family member’s home, but had to move out because that person said they couldn’t let me continue to live there unless I got benefits. But Gloucester Council wouldn’t pay me housing benefits, because I was living in a family member’s house. Then I started shoplifting. I’m not proud of it, but if  you went 24 hours without food you will shoplift. By the end of the summer I was taking enough to survive.’ At this stage, he was also paying for the heroin that way.

He got in touch with the local food bank, but he says they told him they couldn’t help unless he was on employment and support allowance (ESA). He couldn’t find anyone who would give him a voucher to access the food bank. He says he tried the jobcentre and Citizen’s Advice, to no avail.

Between July and Christmas 2013 David was arrested 10 times as he moved around the country, mostly for shoplifting food. Once, when shoplifting for a meal, he was arrested  for possession of some quiche and a cheese knife to eat it with. On that occasion he was charged with possession of a blade. The shoplifting happened in various locations. He ended up in court six times, ‘but they did not actually prosecute me’, and the cases were postponed.

He moved to Southall in West London last November while on bail – at which point he says he was ‘off heroin – but shoplifting to survive’. Southall put him in a probation house. But on Boxing Day he was arrested for stealing a microwave dinner from Tesco. At that point, he says ‘they stacked up nine months of shoplifting charges, plus charges for common assault’ – he got in a fight with a security guard and a roadsweeper who tried to stop him stealing the meal – plus criminal damage and theft of a motor vehicle and put him inside for two and a half months from New Year’s Day 2014.

While he was initially in prison in Wormwood Scrubs, he says he then got shunted  at very short notice to a host of  prisons to attend nearby hearings on the other accumulated charges. During this series of ‘expeditions’, he was shifted to Wandsworth, Bristol, Leicester, and Hewell (near Redditch, Worcestershire) prisons in succession. David was released on March 28, with a travel warrant to get him to London, but without a probation officer. He had a JSA payment of £140 that had hit his account in December from a fresh claim made on November 6th. But this had to last him  ‘until my benefits came through, so I was homeless again’.

He headed back to his old shared probation house in Southall: ‘Everything I had was in that house. Eight suitcases of my property and my portfolio on arts, graphics and fashion work that I was planning to take with me to university interviews, and my computer.’  He says that he and a number of his friends were very interested in design, ‘and when I was in prison I spent my time drawing and sketching’. But he couldn’t get access to the house, and couldn’t contact the support workers, because ‘every number had changed’.

Next he submitted a further fresh JSA claim to the DWP in Catford, South-East London on April 14th, and was offered a place at a housing association hostel for the homeless in nearby Lewisham on April 16. He received one JSA payment after that, but says that because he had to attend an interview back at Gloucester Council, ‘I missed a jobcentre interview in Catford, so the DWP cancelled my claim’  He says he spent six weeks at the hostel sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag  ‘in one large room with seats and a television, sharing with 25 men and women’.

He believes some of those in the room were aged no more than 16 or 17. It’s very hard to see how treating a group who are vulnerable by nature of being homeless in this way could comply with any safeguarding or duty of care responsibilities. Are these people really safer here in this room than they are on the streets?

David says he was ‘kicked out’ of  the hostel when he ‘got into a verbal disagreement’ with another client that then turned into a physical fight. He left last Friday, May 30. He’s now squatting in a unit on an industrial estate that’s being used to store scrap metal. There’s no electricity there.

The dedicated volunteers at the Jerico Road project are going to do what they can to help David. They’ve fixed a meeting with him very soon to talk about his benefits and housing situation. One of the great aspects of this church is its focus on trying to tackle underlying problems such as debt, addiction and homelessness.

David wonders whether his past involvement in the alternative scene and in running raves is counting against him when it comes to looking for a job. He says the past five years have been tough ones for him and his friends from the former scene. ‘Lots of people have been shut down from doing music events, and a lot of my friends have been screwed over. Three of my friends have committed suicide in the last few years.’  He wonders if he’s ‘on a list’.

Maybe David would have ended up on the streets without that initial JSA suspension in Gloucester, but at the very least he was destabilised once that small amount of regular money was withdrawn. According to the latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) crime survey released in April, shoplifting is up 6 per cent year on year, while overall crime has fallen significantly. The government is still arguing that there is no link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks.  Is it equally convinced that benefits sanctions don’t lead directly to desperate people shoplifting to feed themselves?