Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system

Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty

The manager of  the Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been particularly busy recently. Not only is food bank use up by a very worrying 500% in Lewisham and Greenwich, but last week he was called to  a Westminster evidence session of  the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. This APPG  is proactively investigating the underlying causes of hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain. The group was established by MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and he is co-chair, alongside the Bishop of Truro Frank Thornton.

The inquiry was launched in April this year at Lambeth Palace, with the aim of posing a series of key questions to each of the political parties in the lead up to the next general election about how they will respond to the rising demand for food aid in this country. Mr Field brought evidence to that first formal session about how some of the conventional trends in households’ ability to cover the cost of living had been “shattered over the past decade – with the proportion of household incomes needed to cover the combined costs of housing, fuel and food increasing since 2003”.

The terms of reference include understanding the extent and geographical spread of hunger and food poverty in this country, its causes, and investigating the source of emergency food assistance providers’  supplies. Some of the other terms of reference include the effectiveness of emergency food assistance in meeting immediate and long-term needs , and the possibility of these schemes becoming permanent features of the welfare state. The full terms of reference  list is here. The inquiry will also make recommendations, and a report is expected in the autumn. You can follow the work of  the inquiry by visiting www.foodpovertyinquiry.org

Alan was one of the people called to a closed hearing evidence session in Parliament last week. The inquiry has already held regional evidence sessions in Birkenhead, Salisbury, Cornwall and South Shields. Alan reported back to me on what he said at the session. He had written to the inquiry, telling Mr Field about the Trussell Trust food bank in Greenwich. He described the vast growth in numbers which he attributes to the welfare changes which began in April 2013, including the welfare cap and the bedroom tax .

He said: “The inquiry already had a good understanding of  some of the issues, and they asked me to clarify some of the issues I’d written about. There are problems at the job centre (one of the places that can refer people to the food bank for help). No-one understands how the system works – not even the people who work there. Then they don’t apply the system consistently. The job centre is a daunting place to visit. The government makes the rules and then doesn’t tell everyone what they are. The job centre loses documentation – but then that loss becomes your problem as a client. It’s the attitude of ‘none of these problems are our problems, even if we’ve caused it’  that comes with it. Lost documentation is a key example.”

The inquiry heard of the cafe-style approach at the Greenwich food bank, where people can be helped in a compassionate, caring way. This led to a discussion with the inquiry panel about whether state institutions can be compassionate. “It’s not a quality you would nowadays attach to state institutions – to be compassionate and show empathy. To do that you have to listen. People tell us ‘it’s no good telling them anything – they don’t listen’.”

Alan told the inquiry that a number of clients “don’t have the capacity to advocate their own position”. A representative of  the East London based Tower Hamlets food bank was also giving evidence at the session, and “what came out in both of our evidence is there’s a section of clients who need someone to provide advocacy”. Alan told how he hears people’s stories, “and contacts the agency or department concerned and often gets results – if Greenwich food bank is calling up the job centre then that has a greater impact”. The panel then went on to discuss whose role it is in society to provide that service.

Someone needs to be doing this vital advocacy work, says Alan. “If you took away the need for me to provide food, then I would be quite happy to do it.”

Advocacy seems to be the missing link in many lives. Vulnerable individuals who get the right timely support may be able to avoid hitting crisis and needing an emergency supply of food – in the same way that someone with a chronic illness may avoid a costly hospital intervention with the right specialist support in the community. A professional advocate  – a housing support worker, a community psychiatric nurse, a social worker or a Trussell Trust manager freed up from the need to source and provide emergency food could very often help to get someone’s benefits sorted at tribunal or get a sanction lifted. But how many professionals are left with the time to do this work?

There’s a growing group of vulnerable people in the UK who are losing their way in a fast-changing and complex welfare system that seems designed to confuse. Fewer and fewer people are being paid and trained to help them. The result? In Greenwich, visitors to Trussell Trust food banks increased from 776 to 5,025 in the past year, while the figure rose from 623 to 3,895 in Lewisham borough.

Having reported from the Greenwich food banks for nearly a year now, I’ll be submitting some evidence this week to the inquiry team – based on some of  the individual interviews I’ve carried out with clients. The deadline for submitting evidence has officially passed, , but you can still email submissions to Andrew Forsey, joint secretary to the inquiry team on andrew.forsey@parliament.uk

If you are able to structure your evidence according to the terms of reference, this will help the inquiry team to analyse the large amount of evidence it hopes to receive.

Alan has written to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith on Twitter, inviting him to visit the food bank. He hasn’t received a reply yet. London Assembly member Len Duvall has also called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to pay the Greenwich food banks a visit.

 

 

 

 

Kevin sanctioned on Work Programme and now begging for food

Kevin sanctioned on Work Programme and now begging for food
Kevin Jobbins, who's living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction
Kevin Jobbins, who’s living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction

How does it feel to be “living” on a budget for food of £3.50 a week? Kevin Jobbins is doing exactly that, but the more you think about it, the less appropriate the concept of  existence or survival seems in this context. To survive  conjures up images of Everest expeditions  – involving a set of risks voluntarily  endured  by explorers who’ve personally opted to challenge their own physical and emotional limitations.

Kevin, on the other hand, came into the Greenwich Foodbank   because  he’s  not  surviving. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has failed to reinstate his benefits following a sanction in April. Kevin is 39, and is  receiving employment and support allowance (ESA). He’s waiting to go into detox treatment for drug and alcohol issues and is also on the waiting list for surgery on his feet for problems  linked to his time as a homeless person. Despite his multiple health issues, he was registered with a Seetec job club.

He was sanctioned for missing an appointment with Seetec. He says he had no option,  as he had to look after his two year old son that day. Since April his benefit rate has plunged from £202 a fortnight to £47.  He says that Seetec have told him the sanction has been lifted, but that the job centre in Woolwich says it hasn’t. His housing benefit was stopped as a result, but has now been restarted. But out of the £47 he has to pay £9 for council tax, £10 as a contribution to rent, £10 for electricity and £10 for gas. So that leaves about £3.50 for food.

The result? “I’m begging for food or nicking stuff. I got caught in Tesco. I’m also paying £10 a fortnight in court fines. This is the first time I’ve had to use a food bank. I’m angry. I don’t think I should have to beg for food.  I should have my money reinstated.  I am literally living hand to mouth.” Kevin, who’s on pain medication, adds: ‘”If I can’t nick a sandwich from Greggs I try to beg a couple of pot noodles.”

Should Kevin have been referred to the Work Programme given the extent of his health and addiction problems, and what help has it been to him? The sanction this ill man had imposed on him for not turning up to an appointment has done nothing other than to push his life further into chaos and undoubtedly towards worse health.

For whose benefit? Mike Sivier at Vox Political has flagged up how much money has been paid to Work Programme providers from when the scheme began until March 31 this year. His post links to  alittleecon, who highlights that since the programme began, 39% of  the money paid to providers – who are mainly private sector organisations – has come from the “attachment fee”. The DWP document publishing the Work Programme costs is here.  For the first year of the programme, the attachment fee was £400, the second year it was £300 and for last year £200. From July, the fee will no longer be paid.

To quote from the alittleecon post: “To date then, on this ‘paid by results programme’, the Government has paid providers £538m (out of a total of £1.372bn) just for taking people on their books and before they have helped a single person into work.” With this payment for doing nothing now ended, will we see Work Programme providers start to walk away?” Alittleecon estimates that around 1.72 million people have been attached to the Work Programme since it began, and the DWP is saying that over the same period there have been 296,000 job outcomes,  “so that means only about 17% (1 in 7) have found work lasting at least six months – not a great return for a spend of £1.4bn, particularly when you think that a lot of these people would have found work anyway”.

This system has let Kevin down badly. Kevin has been told to inform that food bank manager here if the job centre fails to confirm early this week that his benefit has been reinstated. I’ll update on this. Are more and more individuals ending up like him – vulnerable sick people sanctioned while on the Work Programme and effectively left to starve and steal to stay alive – begging on the streets for pot noodles?

Thanks to Kevin and the many people who use the food bank who’ve decided to speak to me.

 

 

The homeless addict given emergency housing – above a pub: Paul’s story

The homeless addict given emergency housing – above a pub: Paul’s story
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Paul Foster: Given emergency housing above a pub

I headed back to the impressive Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London last night. This church-based organisation offers very practical support to vulnerable adults – most of whom come to the project initially as rough sleepers. I got the chance to talk to Paul Foster, who very kindly shared his experiences recently. As he spoke to me, I realised that I’m starting to hear the same narrative, repeated by a number of vulnerable ex-offenders.

Paul, aged 34, is bipolar and describes himself as a recovering crack and heroin addict. He’s an intelligent man, who takes a keen interest in politics. What he can’t comprehend is why people are living on the streets at all. ‘Why are so many people starving and homeless? The money is there, but it’s just not directed at the right people.’

He was released from prison five months ago, at the end of a 10 month sentence for the £80 theft of washing machine liquid. This was just the latest in a long line of about 20 drug-related thefts. ‘Yes, I’m a repeat offender. The system doesn’t help drug addicts any more. Every time I go in front of a judge I get a custodial sentence.’ While in prison, he said he ‘built some bridges’ with his father. On leaving prison, he moved in with him – his mother having died a few years ago. But Paul became homeless when his father asked him to leave a month ago.

Paul then slept on the train from Victoria to Penge East for four days, before approaching a housing association for help in the London Borough of Bromley where he grew up. Instead of finding him somewhere to live in his borough, they placed him in an emergency hostel on the Old Kent Road – miles away and  in an entirely different borough. This has left him stranded in one-roomed hostel accommodation above a pub. Paul’s comment on the suitability of the location for a person with an addictive personality sums it up succinctly enough for me: ‘If you’re a recovering crack and heroin addict you’re  f***** .’ He’s also far from all the people who were helping him, including his mental health team, who knew him well. The only ‘support’ on hand, according to Paul, is a person who gets people their cereal in the mornings.

This 26-room unit is, says Paul, being used as accommodation for a number of African families – one family to a room. ‘Kids, mum and all – in the same room with one bed.’

His account echoes the picture given to me a few weeks ago here at the Jerico Road project by David Goddard, a 24-year-old with drug issues who was homeless and stole for food and drugs. He was arrested 10 times as he moved round the country – mostly for shoplifting food. He was released from prison earlier this year with no support in place. He ended up in a different hostel to Paul in South-East London, but was asked to leave that unit and has ended up squatting. The conditions he described at that hostel – men. women and young people sleeping in one communal room – sounded risky to say the least and I’m checking out the issues raised.

Paul has been in his emergency hostel for just under a week. He says the next step will be to see what the Bromley-based housing association will offer him next. Will it enable him to access support from his GP and  the mental health team in his home borough  – the people best placed to offer him proper help? I wish I could be more optimistic about his prospects, and I hope to post an update on this. Many thanks to Paul for speaking out.