Two friends tackle the future together at the London food bank

Two  impressive women came to the London food bank for help on Friday. It’s inspiring to see how their supportive  friendship is helping them deal with the most adverse circumstances.

Julie and Bev (not their real names) crossed paths at an addiction treatment programme at a London clinic just over a month ago.  Julie is 36 and I think Bev is in her early 40s. Not a long- established friendship, but they’ve both been through so much in a short time. Sharing deeply about their lives while on the (continuing) programme has brought them close and cemented their relationship. The events that led them to meet were traumatic.

A victim of domestic violence, Julie had to leave her home quickly at the beginning of this year. She says: “I moved from pillar to post, sofa surfing and staying with friends. I then had a crisis about five weeks ago, when I hit rock bottom. I started binge drinking to black it all out….to  the point of being at a station trying to go under a fast train. I was staying with my cousin and she’d been worried about me because of the way I’d been talking before I left. She went to the train station, got me from the platform and took me to accident and emergency.”

Julie had been staying  on the coast at the time, and she says the hospital there looked after her brilliantly. They kept her for 24 hours, then transferred her to the specialist addiction treatment unit. That’s where she met Bev, who was there because of her problems with alcohol and binge drinking. Bev separated from her husband a year ago, and she began losing control of her life at that point.

Both women were able to receive treatment every day – a year’s worth of detox therapy condensed into three weeks. Both have high praise for the care they’re receiving. They left the in-patient element of the treatment last week, but both have a full programme of aftercare, including AA meetings twice a week. They’re undergoing the whole 12 step AA programme – along with three other people they met in the specialist unit. All of them are supporting each other,  says Bev. The five of them – men and women – have formed a tight friendship network to help each other through the challenging weeks and months ahead.

Now comes more of  the serendipity that seems to be mitigating some of the steep challenges they’re facing. It so happens that Julie has been given a temporary room in shared accommodation (shared bathroom and kitchen) by the  homelessness unit in our neighboring borough. Those facilities  in our borough may not include heating or hot water – but by chance she’s ended up  just round the corner from Bev’s father’s house. Bev couldn’t go back to the family home, as her three children are young and still wary.  She’s moved in with her dad, who won’t give her money, but will put petrol in her car. He’s supportive, but cautious. When she hit her lowest with the drinking he locked her in a bedroom for three days to get her away from the booze.

Julie has been supporting Bev too. Bev is trying to make sense of the new reality of life without her husband and, for the time being without being able to share her home with her kids.  Once she separated, she didn’t know she was able to claim benefits. She’s just been to the Jobcentre with her friend to sort that out.  They’re helping each other so much – just by sharing and working together to solve problems large and smaller.  Julie has now applied for employment and support allowance (ESA), While she waits for her application to be dealt with,  she had to spend a couple of days with only a tiny bit of food. A GP gave her a prescription for a few replacement meals, while Bev brought along some cake and biscuits to share with her at an AA meeting.  Julie says: “Yesterday I did feel ready to go back into hospital, as I’d had nothing to eat or drink for 24 hours.”

This is a woman struggling to feed herself in 21st century London. Luckily, the Jobcentre gave her a voucher allowing her to access crisis help at this Trussell Trust food bank. We shouldn’t require  food banks in this well-off Western European country. But the inequalities here are growing. The Trussell Trust and others know that basic needs have to be met somehow, while we wait endlessly for the politicians to acknowledge the scale of  need and to address it.

Eventually, if Julie gets stronger and moves from ESA to a job,  she’ll be trying to get some sort of  more permanent home.  How will she fare with that in this bit of the capital just a few miles  from Canary Wharf? Over there, property experts say homes in the planned new 74-storey, 714-apartment Hertsmere Tower could start at £1m. The project will target overseas buyers, who a Guardian article says are currently picking up four out of every five prime London properties. Green party member of the London assembly Darren Johnson said in the article that this was the last thing Tower Hamlets – an area with 23,000 people on housing waiting lists –  needed.

Social solidarity  – the binding together of people from all classes – is becoming less and less  a feature of life in London. It was  interesting to note that an estate agency firm (Savills) was quoted in the Guardian article warning that developers in London are focusing on high-ticket properties at the expense of the biggest need – for affordable homes.  When estate agents rather than Coalition politicians are making it clear that London has to change, it’s time to get worried.

People have an instinctive awareness that positive changes are more quickly achieved when people collaborate and care about those around them. Julie and Bev show us that we’re all in it together.

Rich London/poor London – and the world’s best social worker

In a powerful article in the Guardian recently, Aditya Chakrabortty describes the nature of the recovery Britain is enjoying. He points to analysis by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (Cresc) at Manchester University. This, he says,  shows that London and the South East “have come roaring out of the crash, and now account for a greater share of growth than they did even during the boom”. He describes how a restaurateur in Canary Wharf has had his opening delayed while he waits for a supply of marble to arrive from an Italian quarry.

The owner of this latest upmarket eatery targeted at the capital’s bankers and lawyers points out that he knows it’s been a dark period nationally, But he says customers at his other restaurants in central London have spent more year upon year – “apart from what he describes as a blip in 2010”. The restaurateur adds: “….On our figures, it’s as if London has never suffered a recession.”

A few miles down the road from Canary Wharf, we’re trying to identify signs of  this economic good cheer. All we’ve picked up on so far is a surge in demand at our borough’s food banks. Is this what Aditya Chakrabortty describes as a “recovery centred on the capital and driven by credit”  looks like in our part of London?

‘Margaret’ (not her real name) came into the food bank that’s located in a far corner of the borough recently (the food banks in this borough are all supported  by the Trussell Trust, which partners with churches and communities to open food banks nationwide). Out of breath, she told us that she lives very close to here, but by mistake had ended up at a different food bank, which was closed (Each food bank in the borough opens on a different day of the week). She eventually got here with her eight-year-old daughter . Margaret was exhausted and in need of a cigarette. We took two chairs outside so that she could speak freely without her daughter listening (and because smoking is banned in the food bank).

This former store manager for a major retail chain has had the most difficult of lives since she was widowed in 2001. At that point she had a breakdown, and lost her children when they were taken into care for a year. “I got the children back, but neither I nor the kids were offered any support.”  A social worker – “the world’s best” according to Margaret – took over her case recently. She says the social worker was shocked when she worked through the family’s paperwork and is now offering the family ongoing support.

As well as her eight-year-old, Margaret  has sons of  21, 16, 15, and 13. She also shares her home with her 21 year-old stepdaughter.  Margaret’s 21 year-old son is severely autistic, her son of 13 has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and she also spends as much time as she can helping to care for her father – who has had a stroke and memory loss – and her mother, who is wheelchair-bound.

The family became homeless in February, and was eventually rehoused by a different borough in September.  Her family’s troubled situation seemed to only trigger intervention when their homelessness was picked up by staff at her daughter’s school. Someone from the school referred the family to child protection.

Once on the scene, the social worker quickly realised that this was not a child protection situation, said Margaret.  With the social worker involved, things are improving.  Margaret is a terrific person, who wants to care for everyone, but has missed on on vital support for years. But this dynamic social worker has clearly decided that the family will have a future . She’s told Margaret that “all you need to do is get a foot in the door”. Margaret is a wonderful, intelligent woman and a great communicator.  Many employers would see her as an asset.

Margaret tell me that her social worker is not scared of  telling her what’s what. “I put a telly into Cash Converters – but she said you can’t do that. She went into the shop and she got it back.” At this point her daughter comes outside and chips in: “We’ve got the best social worker ever!”

Her daughter’s eyes light up when she sees the supply of emergency food. She shouts out: “I love people!” She then tells us she can do break-dancing and Irish dancing – and we’re treated to an enthusiastic demonstration of each.

This is a  family that has much to build on. Margaret’s son of 16 is a talented rugby player, whose club is supporting his attendance at an academy. He’s also getting extra help to deal with his dyslexia. Margaret loves watching him play at the weekends. The social worker is arranging for them to have a holiday – the sort of thing they have missed out on for years. There’s a lot of love to go round in this family, and maybe that has helped them through some ghastly times.

London’s “boom” is not making a deal of difference to the food bank clients in this blighted corner of the world, but this social worker just might be able to help effect some progress for Margaret, her kids and her parents.