London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too
Ben Adou hasn’t received jobseeker’s allowance since early March. He came into the foodbank hungry.

I’m pondering the brutal absurdities of day-to-day life for a growing number of the people I come across at this London Trussell Trust foodbank. Sarah (not her real name), wants a job. She’s a gentle and intelligent 28-year-old law graduate with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A month ago she was nearly made homeless when the hostel told her they were going to evict her. The housing association running the hostel changed its mind at the last minute, but tragically she’s considering escort work as a possible way to clear debts, including a Wonga loan at extortionate rates. What does the future hold for her after she finally worked up the courage to escape a violent home situation? Will Mark, who’s trying to battle both depression and a debilitating shoulder injury, ever get his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) processed? It’s been more than 10 weeks now, and he’s still no clearer about when he’ll get his money. Meanwhile his health is deteriorating fast, with other worrying symptoms now developing, which have driven him to the local hospital’s accident and emergency unit.

While they struggle on, Ben Adou (pictured above) came into the foodbank to share his story. Last week I mentioned that he brought along a foodbank voucher – his third. He couldn’t have survived without them, as he hasn’t received any jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) since March 7. This has plunged Ben – a widower of 56 whose wife died of cancer in 2012 – into a financial crisis. He claims housing benefit, has no savings and has nothing to fall back on. There is no safety net here. He came into the foodbank at what he somewhat ironically called lunchtime – hungry because he hadn’t been able to eat that morning. At least he was able to get some tea and a spare sandwich, and leave with his emergency pack of long-life food and some bread that had been donated that day. ‘You have brought me happiness by giving me food’, he said.

The problems started when Ben, who mostly works as a labourer, was offered a job through the controversial Universal Jobmatch scheme at the beginning of March. It turned out to be just two days of work, which he said had ‘completely messed up my JSA claim’. It’s also impacted on his ability to pay a contribution towards his rent, pay his council tax and to meet other household and phone bills. It has made it almost impossible for him to get to interviews. Crucially, of course, he can’t buy food. Any sort of a social life is totally out of the question, of course. With his JSA on hold, he now has no idea exactly when his benefit payments will resume. He called into the jobcentre to try to get to the bottom of things: ‘They said I was overpaid JSA during spells when I was working, and I disagree. They’ve put in writing that they know they owe me £431.60, but they’re saying that I owe them about £286.00 – and that this was a possible overpayment to me.’

The Government’s Universal Jobmatch website  – managed independently by private recruiter Monster – has come under much criticism. MP Frank Field said in a Guardian article, that it is ‘bedevilled with fraud’ and ‘out of control’.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed in a letter to Field that more than 350,000 job adverts might breach the website’s terms and conditions , which specify that employers must advertise a real job, not use premium rate numbers, pay at least the minimum wage and not cost the applicant any money to start.

In the meantime, Universal Jobmatch keep on sending him texts calling him to jobs he can’t take up and job interviews he can’t attend – because he has absolutely no money to get there. A few weeks ago he passed two interviews for some work in central London, but couldn’t get the money together to travel up to the job. The day before he had been offered work starting yesterday in Morden, ‘but I had to say no because I couldn’t afford to travel there’. He has no money, so needs a job. He can’t get a properly paid job, because he has no money to get there. A week previously he had been called for a first interview for a commission-based job, then was offered an induction. It was only at that point that he found out he would have to use an Oyster card and put money on it himself to enable him to travel around London to sell products door-to-door. Needless to say, ‘this wasn’t explained at the team meeting’.

He explained to JobcentrePlus that he needed some money, but doesn’t seem to have been told that he could have been given money directly by them. There’s a fund for that sort of thing, you see. But no-one seems to be told about it. Every year in April, JobcentrePlus offices are given a budget to pay for Budgeting Loans.These are interest free loans for people on JSA and other benefits. Travelling expenses within the UK are included in the needs covered by such loans. This money comes out of the JobcentrePlus Social Fund budget.

Ben, like many of the people I meet, is dealing with this ghastly situation with tremendous resilience. But there’s only so long he can cope without long-term damage to his health and wellbeing. He is diabetic and he also has a heart problem. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe the ridiculous, complex hassles faced daily by a growing number of our most vulnerable citizens. This week we found out that committed campaigner and journalist Mike Sivier’s battle to get information on deceased former sickness benefits claimants released that is clearly in the public interest has been unsuccessful – so far. He wants an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, but a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that his Freedom of Information request was ‘vexatious’. But the judge criticised both the information Commissioner and the DWP for the other reasons they put forward to prevent the death figures from being made public. From what seems to be emerging here in London, do we also now need to look more closely at the equivalent figures for people on JSA?

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The food bank helps depressed Femi as he recovers from a suicide bid

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As soon as I met Femi (not his real name) at this London food bank, I felt I knew him already. It turned out that as soon as he started talking I realised that I’d met his wife some months ago. Her story is here. Elizabeth (not her real name) came into the food bank for support after her husband had tried to hang himself and had become an inpatient at the local mental health trust.

As soon as he began to tell me that he was from Nigeria, had three young children (aged 8, 6 and 11 months) and started studying accountancy in London before he ran into difficulties, I’d a strong feeling I’d been talking to his wife. The lovely Elizabeth had made a deep impression on me as she described how her family’s life had got so hard. She said she’d just about managed to stop her husband as he had tried to hang himself at home in September, and of how her young daughter (of 8) had to run and get a knife to help cut her husband down in time.

What drove Femi, 34, who came here in 2008 to study, to the brink of suicide? He told me he had been working in banking back in Nigeria and came to England in search of a better life for himself and his family. Initially he arrived on his own to start studying for his ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) exams. “The UK was like a dreamland to me. My dad came here in 1975 and he told me many things about it. I lost my mum (in Nigeria) 30 years ago, so I had to grow up very quickly. I left home when I was 12.” When he was growing up in Nigeria he had to spend a lot of time fending for himself. He put much of his own savings into paying for his studies in London, with some support from his father in Nigeria. I also remembered that Elizabeth said her husband had worked when he could while he was studying.

But by 2010, things were getting tough. His wife joined him, but noticed that he was struggling with things like brushing his teeth and keeping clean. “I went to the GP and was diagnosed with depression. I was so ashamed.” He says that there’s a massive stigma in Nigeria about having depression, so he didn’t think he could share his feelings with what remains of his family back in Africa. Despite all, he still managed to pass the exams before he had to leave his course without completing it. “I keep my results on a piece of paper in my pocket, just to remind me of what I’ve done.”

The biggest blow of all came on September 17 last year, when the outcome of his immigration appeal came through. He had spent all his money – and received some financial help from friends – to fund an appeal on health grounds against the decision by the Home Office to refuse his immigration application. The process cost £3,000, to include the costs of the tribunal, £1,400 to the Home Office and £1,340 to the solicitor who took on his case. The news was the trigger for the already depressed Femi to carry out his suicide attempt. “I tried to commit suicide in the middle of the night. My daughter saw me.”

Femi sees the judge’s appeal decision as deeply unfair: “The judge said I should not be treated here. I said that I did not come here with depression. I worked in banking before I came to England. I took the UK as my home.” He even managed to donate £15 to charity every month for a while when he was working. He now has no money to fall back on, and he and his family are facing eviction from his privately-rented house.

He has nothing but praise for the social worker involved with the family, and he’s also receiving intensive treatment three days a week from the local mental health trust. The family has had some emergency payments from the council (which I’ve noticed tries so much harder than the other council on our doorstep to help the vulnerable when it can), but the money has to cover everything and there’s not often enough to buy adequate food. There have been times when the children didn’t have anything to eat. So the social worker has given the family the occasional voucher for the food bank. The family really needs this extra support, but the food bank can’t ever be more than a stop gap to cover an immediate crisis.

The couple only realised recently that Elizabeth is pregnant again – she had been taking contraceptives so this came as a great shock – with the new baby due in May. Femi is once again appealing the decision to refuse his immigration application on health grounds, and the hearing is due at the end of this month. The council is looking at how the family might be rehoused, but of course there are no guarantees of anything. He’s still crying every day, he tells me…

He went home last night with some food for his children, and that, at least is a small comfort.

Wish him well.

Abdul, his wife and family

The sheer tension of trying to survive from day to day leads to arguments at home for many of the clients who come to this London food bank. Abdul and his wife Rahma have been rowing, and the police got involved. They in turn referred him to a social worker, who gave him a food bank voucher.

The only money this family of four has coming in at the moment is child benefit for the two children.  Abdul’s wife has depression, and is not able to work.  This has been confirmed by her GP,  so she applied for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). She is appealing the decision by the Department of Work and Pensions to refuse her ESA.

His wife is Spanish, and the couple have been in the UK for six years. They live in a privately-rented home. Before she got ill she had been working on and off as an assistant chef in an Italian restaurant. Abdul, who also worked in a restaurant, has also been a self-employed market trader. But with his wife unwell and unable to cope with the children, he has been at home looking after the youngsters of two and three.

He tells me: “Going back 10 weeks, she had been receiving  Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for about seven months. They said she’s not a UK national or Irish, but she had been working and she’s paid taxes. The JSA was £114 for a couple per week, but we’ve now had 10 weeks without any money at all.”

Abdul, who is 37, has now had to borrow £200 from his wife’s cousin, but doesn’t  know when he can repay him. He applied for child tax credit five weeks ago, but still hasn’t heard back about it.  He has now applied to the council for a crisis loan. I’ll follow up Abdul’s progress in a few weeks…..