High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?

 

The state owes citizens money they are entitled to – then they fall into debt

Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been aware for some time that the clients who come here for help need more than the food they’re given to see them through an immediate crisis. They also require longer-term support to tackle the underlying problems, which often include inadequate incomes and unmanageable debts. The local authority – The Royal Borough of Greenwich – is also mindful of this. The two organisations have submitted a bid for funding that would enable the food bank to “triage” clients with money problems.

If the joint bid is successful, the funding would come from the Money Advice Trust – which has today launched a new report saying that households are becoming susceptible to serious debt problems because they can’t afford basic household bills.

Alan said: “The Money Advice Trust is offering funding for initiatives that are innovative, but help meet people’s basic needs…approaches that would help them get relief from debt and educate people so they don’t get into debt. Greenwich Council had been bouncing this problem around internally, so they called me up and said could we work together and get a bid in.” The initial “triage” would take place at the borough’s food banks, which are part of the UK-wide network of Trussell Trust food banks. Clients with the most severe problems would be immediately referred to specialist debt advisors in the borough – either Christians Against Poverty (CAP), Meridian Money Advice, or Citizens Advice.

A second group assessed as heading for serious debt problems would get advice from trained volunteers, and Alan says the food bank may also employ a debt and advice specialist. A third group of people with the least severe problems would get help and encouragement on a range of issues, including advice on cookery classes, “smart” shopping and smoking cessation. The gateway to the advice would be food banks, but Alan says it’s possible that the scheme could be extended to other venues including children’s centres. The proposed scheme mirrors a recent announcement by the Trussell Trust that it is to launch a pilot scheme to give financial advice. The move comes after the food bank charity received a six-figure donation from money saving expert Martin Lewis. Lewis is quoted in the Guardian saying: “Those who go to food banks are already open to asking for help….If we can intervene at that point…it will hopefully cut down on the number of return visits.”

While what Lewis says is undoubtedly true, it’s crucial to remember what the Trussell Trust itself underlined in its June report Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise in Food Poverty, published jointly with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty. The report says that “cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK” and that “these cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58 per cent of sanction decisions are successfully challenged, suggesting that many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own”.

The report says the abolition of the Social Fund has stopped thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, “estimates that 49 per cent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

The move by the Trussell Trust to launch the pilot money advice scheme and the bid to run something similar here in Greenwich are to be welcomed. But expert social security advice and help with challenging sanctions and speeding up back payments appear to be what clients need most. In essence, the state owes them money that they are entitled to. They’re not getting it, hence they are in debt and that leads to them not being able to pay their water bill or council tax. The most effective cure would of course be a humane social security regime, and an approach to sanctions that is fair and proportionate. A move away from zero hours contracts by employers would also be a significant move to transform lives. The problems faced by most of the people who visit the food bank are not fundamentally caused by lifestyle issues or bad choices. The vast majority of the food bank clients are innocent victims of an increasingly unfair and cruel welfare system.