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.