Kestna’s #WCA and other reasons not to be cheerful


Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a  DWP decision to stop his benefit.
Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a DWP decision to stop his benefit.

Kestna Marsh was 62 this week. At the moment he probably feels he has little cause for celebration.

This former construction worker struggles to walk  as he has arthritis in his right knee,  left leg and left shoulder.  He can’t lift anything with his left arm. On the day he came into this London food bank with his voucher, his mobility was obviously restricted and he struggled with his walking stick  to move from room to room. Because of his mobility issues I felt hesitant about asking him to move even a few steps into a quieter room. Kestna walked that distance because he wanted to share his experience of Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

He was left without the money to buy adequate food after a tribunal hearing at the beginning of  last month (September) upheld the outcome  of his 2013 face-to-face ATOS WCA. He attended the tribunal on his own, without the support of a legal or welfare expert, and there were two people on the panel – a doctor and a solicitor.  The WCA awarded him zero points for his health issues, and Kestna immediately challenged this. But following the outcome of the appeal his employment and support allowance (ESA) claim was closed on September 13th. He thinks that as a result he ceased getting housing benefit on the same date. He now has to reapply for housing benefit. He’s been told by Jobcentre Plus to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), but he says he has been told by Jobcentre Plus that any claim for JSA wouldn’t be processed until October 17th.

He explains here how his health problems affect his life and how he feels about losing his tribunal appeal (apologies for the unconventional presentation of the video – camera operator in training!).

His Disability Living Allowance (DLA) of about £215 is paid monthly, but the payment in mid-September of about £50 a week has gone mainly on bills. What about food?  “I’ve been eating salad, beans, cheese and the odd sandwich here and there. I can’t do a proper food shop. If you gave me stuff to cook my gas is more or less onto nil. I haven’t got a penny to my name.”

Kestna added: “They expect me to go back to work. They’ve told me that if another illness emerges then I can apply for ESA again. Since my original assessment (in 2013) my problems have got worse. I can’t use a computer and I can’t sit too much or walk too far for too long. What sort of job do they expect me to do? I previously worked in construction and I know that for me to sit in an office would require retraining.”

The serious difficulties he faces because of his obvious ill-health and the stopping of his ESA are compounded by his council housing situation and the difficulties in building up a relationship with a GP at his new surgery who can get to know him properly.

He lives on his own, and has recently moved from one part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich  to another. He wanted to move to a ground floor flat, so he was offered one. But this new flat hasn’t been adapted to meet his mobility needs, so he is not entitled to the rent rebate that would accompany such an adaptation. He says that because the council moved him into a two bedroom flat instead of the one bedroom flat he wanted, the council has classed the flat as under-occupied. So because he’s been deemed as having an extra room, he’s having to pay an extra £12 a week towards the bedroom tax – for a flat that hasn’t even been adapted to meet his physical needs.

Kestna also says that there is apparently some discrepancy arising from his move from another flat in the borough, meaning that the council may have been paying him housing benefit for both flats. He also has council tax arrears of £112.

He left the food bank with contact details for welfare and housing rights experts.

He also left promising that he would make an appointment with his GP. “I’ve just moved into the area, so I don’t have a relationship with the GP yet. I must have had at least four or five appointments with different doctors.”

How did the tribunal decision leave him feeling? “I was really angry. I’ve never been through the food bank stuff. I always stuck to relying on my doctor. I got the certificate and sent it in on time. To find that they closed my claim without even informing me they were doing it, in my circumstances –  I feel quite disgusted really.”

Many thanks to Kestna for speaking up.




An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned

An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned
Kevin Jobbins, who's living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction
Kevin, who’s living on £7 a fortnight for food, is offered help from charity the Biscuit Fund

Something marvellous has happened! Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that the accounts people share of their lives – at the Greenwich food bank (part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks) and elsewhere – are often very grim. So I don’t get to use the word marvellous very often. There you go, I sneaked the word in again.

This week was different. There was some brilliant news for one of the food bank’s clients. A small charity called the Biscuit Fund was alerted via Twitter to my recent interview with Kevin .  It has now come forward  to offer Kevin some very well targeted and timely help.

He was left trying to exist on a food budget of £3.50 a week after he was sanctioned back in April while on employment and support allowance (ESA). He was told this was because he failed to arrive for an appointment with the Seetec job club. The reason  he didn’t make the appointment was because he had to look after his two-year-old son. The Biscuit Fund read the interview, and has been in touch with him. The charity has now agreed to send him a weekly food shop of fresh food for the next six weeks, and it will also pay his rent and council tax directly for the same amount of time.

Kevin, whose benefit payment went from £202 a fortnight to £47 because of the sanction, says he ended up begging and stealing for food because of the sanction. He has issues with drug and alcohol addiction. The 39-year-old is waiting to go into detox treatment and is awaiting surgery for a painful foot condition linked to his time as a homeless person. As far as I’m aware, the sanction is still in place this week, though I’m trying to check this with Kevin. His full benefit certainly hadn’t been reinstated at the start of this week.

While he was of course very pleased to get some help from the food bank last week, the supply on offer via the Trussell Trust network  is three days’ nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food. The fresh food will be a very welcome addition, and takes the pressure off a little as he tries to build up his health and confidence.

The manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson said: “This is such good news, and it shows some hope amidst the despair of other stories.”

The Biscuit Fund operates almost solely online, looking out on help forums and pages for people in dire need of help. It got off the ground in early 2013, and has managed to raise and donate around £6,000 to people in poverty. It says on its website: “A large number of our clients are actually working families, who are simply finding that the money they earn just doesn’t cover the food and heating bills. We have also aided disabled people who have been declared ‘fit for work’, who have been left with no income and no job propects, as well as folk who have been victims of crime in the form of muggings or theft.”

To avoid the risk of being defrauded, and because it has such limited funds, the charity offers only  one-off donations and the identities of its advocates are kept anonymous. It does not accept direct applications for help. The Biscuit Fund offers small cash donations or sometimes online food orders that give people “just a little helping hand when they need it most, without making them feel humiliated or making them wait in line”.

Sometimes, the charity says, all that’s needed is £20 to top up an electricity meter, or sometimes a larger bill has to be handled to avoid the client being visited by bailiffs. if you’ve read this and are inspired, the Biscuit Fund has a donate button on its website.

Last words from the charity: “This is what we do. We love it. We believe in it. We believe in giving people just a tiny bit of  hope.”





Opening the doors: Debt, domestic violence, power relations and an eviction notice

Opening the doors: Debt, domestic violence, power relations and an eviction notice

Sarah, a single woman of 28 and a law graduate, came in on Friday and kindly shared her account of why she needed help.  Before I pass on her story I’d like to remind readers that I don’t speak for those who run this London food bank, although they’ve allowed me to interview their clients. Any opinions expressed on this site from time to time are my own. I don’t represent the food banks in the borough of Greenwich. Neither do I represent the views of the Trussell Trust, which partners with churches in this area to run the food banks.

Sarah (not her real name) must have thought her life was on a more even keel when she finally worked up the courage to escape the violence in her family home. She had moved back in again in 2008 when she struggled to find a job after leaving university. It wasn’t a good time to be graduating. The economy had just tanked. She was also battling a serious mental health issue – borderline personality disorder (BPD). Once home, she says she found herself  ‘scapegoated’ for not having a job and once again the target of  a relative’s abuse and violence.

Now she faces the reality of being evicted (see letter below) from the shared house run by a housing trust in Greenwich – the borough she came to for help.

eviction - no meta

Making the decision to flee her home at the end of January was a difficult one, as she had to leave two younger siblings behind. While she did bring in the police to have her relative arrested, after careful deliberation she decided against bringing charges, because she believed there would be ‘some fall-out’. It would now seem as if this intelligent, articulate and vulnerable young woman is being treated with a distressing lack of respect by those who are ‘dealing’ with her.

Initially she went to her own borough some distance away for help with rehousing,  but she says they ‘put me in a half way house for the weekend, with no money and no food, sharing with a guy who had just come out of prison for armed robbery – despite me having just come away from a situation of domestic violence’. For safety, she fled to our borough, with the help of some of  her wider family network (whom she can’t stay with as it would bring her back within the orbit of the relative she’s fled). After five days of  pleading with this council for help, she was registered as homeless and says she was placed by the council in a shared hostel run by a housing trust that also owns a number of properties in the area.

Sarah says she complained to the housing trust, which I’m not naming to preserve her anonymity, about regular absences of heating and hot water. She also complained about the intrusive room inspections at odd times that she says were carried out. ‘Every time they want to annoy us, they just say it’s time for a room inspection. I feel that I’m being ambushed all the time.’ She says those running the hostel charge each resident – Sarah shares the house with three other people – a £15 a week service charge on top of the money they receive from the council. Sarah says the council are paying for her housing benefit, council tax and heating. She says that there’s a meter for heating and hot water, but that the staff ‘don’t put enough money on the card’, leaving them short at least one day a week. ‘Even when we do run out of heat, there are still signs around saying that if we have an electric heater it will be taken away.’

She says she’s also heard that each resident is supposed to be getting £3 per head for breakfast, but hasn’t received any of that. This week she says it was the combination of the service charge and a broken fridge that took a couple of days to replace that led her to the food bank (she got the voucher from the job centre). Although she gets on well with one of the men (aged 57) she shares with, it doesn’t seem at all appropriate that she should be in mixed sex accommodation at this stage given the issues that led to her being declared homeless. Where’s the safeguarding?

Now the people who run the housing trust have given her a 28-day notice to quit. In the letter they say: ‘We have reviewed your situation, and it has been decided that the services and facilities that we provide are no longer suitable for your needs’. She has been told in writing to move out by 11 April. The letter does not give any reasons why the hostel is thought to be unsuitable for Sarah – or why she’s deemed unsuitable for the hostel.

She says she’s been told verbally it’s because she’s ‘complaining too much’. According to Sarah, they have other houses in the area, ‘where drug taking and drinking are going on, and they turn a blind eye’.

Sarah has a female case worker at the council, whom she says tells her that she’s ‘lucky not to be out on the streets’. At this stage Sarah doesn’t know where to go or who to talk to, and feels that she’s being treated in a contemptuous and degrading way. ‘I know that when you are on benefits people talk to you like crap, but I feel really belittled when she talks to me like that. She knows I have mental health issues, and I know it’s not just me she talks to like that.’

The housing trust says on the eviction letter that it is a not for profit company, limited by guarantee, The letter also displays a registered charity number. Sarah says her understanding is that because she has ‘a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement, they don’t need a court order to evict me’.

At noon yesterday I asked both the council and the housing trust to address the concerns raised by Sarah, asking them to respond by this morning. I’ve also asked the housing trust to tell me why she’s being evicted. As yet, I’ve heard nothing at all from the housing trust. The council have told me that they would update me today about ‘what we may be able to come back on, and when’. I’m still waiting, and will of course pass on anything I receive.

What Sarah really wants is to get well enough to get a job. She did some volunteering in the autumn, for which she received some expenses. But sadly that messed up her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)payments. Two weeks before Christmas her benefits were suspended, and she was told she couldn’t contact any of the ‘decision makers’. Wait, and we will get in touch with you when we’re ready, was the message.

She recognises that ‘certain things that happened are messing me up long term’. She says she would like to take programmes in mindfulness and dialectical behavioural therapy, which has been recommended as an excellent approach for BPD. This may be available on the NHS, but there is of course a waiting list. The good news is that her old mental health trust has a recovery team, who have said they will try to help.

The last thing she needed was the stressful and destabilising experience she has described since running away from a terrible home situation. All she wants – and surely deserves – is some stability and a measure of contentment after many years of hell.

Debt also played a corrosive, polluting role in Sarah’s story. I was among 600 people who attended a landmark free conference at the weekend organised by the Jubilee Debt Campaign Life Before Debt’s extraordinary range of speakers forensically examined debt from all angles, including the morality of debt repayment in the currentl neoliberal economy. It asked: ‘Is it a moral absolute: more important than feeding families, teaching children and providing healthcare and basic social protections?’ This conference made me feel as if I was waking up from a long sleep. It looked at how, six years on from the crash, ‘debt is at the centre of a broken economic system that is hurting people everywhere’.

Sarah says her family was ‘bound together’ by debt – and debt contributed to the family’s implosion. From the outside all would have looked good to the neighbours. Large house, nice cars in the drive. There had been wealth, and there is still work for some in the family. But the money has been ‘squandered completely’, says Sarah. The house is falling apart and the family had to cut back on food and heating. The house went on the market for a while, and Sarah says she felt humiliated when would-be buyers saw how they were living.

The conference talked about the power imbalances between debtors and creditors, and the toxic shame felt by those in debt, who hide the reality of their situation. Campaigns Officer of the Children’s Society Katie Curtis says that debt issues are being felt around the household, causing ‘a mental health time bomb, ready to go off’.

Alinah Azadeh, an interdisciplinary artist, told the conference about creative debt resistance project Burning the Books – a chance for people to add their own stories about debt to the Book of Debts. There is ‘no debt without a story, from private loans, unpaid corporate taxes, unrequited love and lost lives, to political repression, family feuds and missed opportunities….’.

Debt is many things, says Alinah: ‘Debt as freedom, obscenity, excess, a form of violence, a dead end…Debt as crime, fear, lament, a sign of poverty and wealth. Burn the records, redistribute the land, take control.’ The Book of Debts will be burned in a symbolic act of debt relief in Brighton on 22 May.