Rebecca’s story: Young Londoners’ lives are being ruined and relationships corrupted

Rebecca’s story: Young Londoners’ lives are being ruined and relationships corrupted
Rebecca is 22, and has a budget of less than £20 a month for food.
Rebecca is 22, and has a budget of less than £20 a month for food.

Rebecca (not her real name) has narrowly escaped eviction from a hostel. She tries to eat on less than £20 a month. That doesn’t work so well, so she called into this London food bank a few days ago for some support. This 22-year-old travels two to three hours each way by bus across London to work weekend shifts for a retailer, but only earns £56 a week. There’s no more work on offer there, so she has to stick with what she’s got. Her jobseeker’s allowance amounts to £2.57 a week. She’s glad she doesn’t have children, ‘because I’m struggling to feed myself, let alone kids’. Welcome to the wonderful neo-Dickensian world without prospects that we’ve created for a growing number of young adults in London.

Despite the frustration and drudgery she faces each day, this young woman is generous, thoughtful and enterprising. The resilience and dignity she displays in the face of scandalous adversity is impressive. Her first words when she was given her emergency supply of food, were: ‘When I get a proper job I’m going to donate food to the food bank. I know how it helps – even just to get a can of soup. For me, that lasts for two meals. The staff here are friendly and that makes me feel a lot better, especially after that uncomfortable feeling I get at the job centre.’

Rebecca lives in the same hostel as Sarah, a woman of 28. Sarah was given an eviction notice by the Changing Lives housing association, telling her to move out last Friday at the end of her two month probation period. The council and the housing association responded to Sarah’s account here. Rebecca says she was also given an eviction notice, telling her to leave on the same day – but that the housing association has now changed its mind. Rebecca says the evictions didn’t go ahead and that both of them have been told they can stay. At least both women have a roof over their heads now.

She had to move away from the part of London she was living and working in and move to this borough. Here, she was given a place in the hostel. The council is paying for her housing while she’s there, but Rebecca has to find the hostel’s separate £60 a month service charge. She also spends £40 on her travel to work each month, has a £45 bill for her mobile phone, and repays debts of £40 a month. She’s been told by a party plan company that she must pay for left-over kit it supplied to her. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has also been deducting payments from her JSA for money it says she owed . ‘The DWP said I owed them £200 from when I was claiming JSA four years ago – it was only for a two month period. I don’t know if I’ve paid it off now.’

The little that’s left over goes on everything elase, including food. What she does to survive is to spend £5 a week on vegetables to turn into soup that last days. She misses being able to buy meat, because it’s so expensive. Now and again she can buy chicken.

What does she think about her situation? ‘I can’t afford clothes or any luxuries. I’ve been applying for jobs constantly, but I’ve never been able to get a full-time job. I love working where I am – both the customers coming into the store and my colleagues, so I’ve decided that until I get a (full-time) job, I will keep this going. I went on benefits when I was 16 and started a part-time job at 19. But as soon as I got a full-time job they cut my hours down and said they couldn’t afford to keep me. It’s not work’s fault they don’t have enough hours. I really enjoy my work.’

All she wants to do is work, but she feels self esteem issues may also now be holding her back. ‘I hate people thinking I’m not trying hard enough. When you’re having confidence issues it’s harder to get jobs. Recently I was told I was suitable for a job, but because I’m not confident enough I wasn’t getting it.’

She says that as soon as she finds a job she’s going to get somewhere else to live straight away. The worse thing, she says, is ‘feeling like I have to rely on other people – at the age of 22 I don’t want to do that’. The way society treats the young also pollutes their closest relationships with parents and partners. She says that her boyfriend, ‘thinks I rely on him for everything, and I don’t.’ She adds: ‘He says he doesn’t want to live with me, because he doesn’t think I can finance myself. I haven’t told him I go to the food bank. He doesn’t even understand why I go to the job centre.’ Her situation is obviously taking its toll on their relationship.

Rebecca says she had more money to live on before, when she was 16. ‘Back then I went to college, got income support, and had housing benefit.’

Guardian writer Hannah Fearn wrote recently about the campaign led by Citizen’s Income Trust and Basic Income UK to replace the ‘costly, complex benefits system’, with a citizen’s income – an ‘unconditional payment granted to every individual as a right of citizenship’. The proposal is to set it below the minumum wage, but would give a basic income of £7,000 (more for pensioner and those with severe disabilities). The idea is gaining support with key figures, including Labour MP John McDonnell. The article says that when a pilot project funded by Unicef in eight villages in India introduced a basic income, the outcome was that work increased. The article adds: ‘The cash in pockets led to small scale investments, such as the creation of new businesses, and women gained more than men.’

Hannah Fearn points out that the principle of means testing – ‘that we should only get something from the state if we prove we definitely need it – stands intact and unscrutinised with politicians simply tinkering with the goalposts’. Could the principle of a citizen’s income be a way to transform the currently dismal outcomes for Rebecca and her struggling generation, and bring some real equity, and a degree of vital autonomy?

 

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Sweeter tales from the food bank

Sweeter tales from the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank

Often the accounts of the people who use this food bank in the London suburbs are harrowing. No-one comes here unless they’ve exhausted other options. There’s been a crisis – often it’s because benefits have been delayed. One young woman who came in last week – Sarah – had her employment and support allowance (ESA) held up before Christmas because she’d received some expenses for volunteering work done in the autumn. Often, food bank users are struggling with the repayments on doorstep loans and can’t afford to buy food. Often they’re on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) but are endlessly waiting for decisions on their claim for ESA. This is the case for Mark, whom I’ve written about recently.

So when good and life-enhancing things happened today, I felt the need to share. Femi, who was so distressed when I last saw him. came in with a food bank voucher, and told us the news that his family has been rehoused. Femi (not his real name), who tried to take his own life last September when he heard that his immigration appeal had been rejected, has been found a home by the Royal Borough of Greenwich. He’s moved in, along with his wife and three young children. A new baby is due next month. Femi, from Nigeria, had been studying for an accountancy degree here – he has only got two modules left to finish – but had got increasingly depressed towards the time he received the immigration decision last autumn. Their private landlord was also threatening them with eviction. Now they’ve been housed, things have eased. ‘It’s a big help for us, and it has helped me to concentrate on my recovery. The only thing left to sort out now is the immigration issue.’

When I last saw him back in February, he told me that he was still crying every day. Today, helped by months of intensive therapy, he was smiling and held his head high. He says that now, whenever he wants to ‘be harsh to himself’, he takes a step back and says ‘be kind’. He’s also speaking positively about the future. He has a solicitor, who is helping him apply for leave to remain in the UK. If that works out, he wants to get a job so that he can support his family. In the meantime, as a part-qualified accountant, he is very keen to volunteer and get work experience, particularly in the field of accountancy. He’s prepared to do an internship, so if your firm is interested in speaking to Femi, please get in touch.

Finally, another story from the food bank today: A local Brownie pack were given an Easter egg each by their leaders a few days ago and told they could either take them home or leave them to the borough’s food banks. The generous girls left 35 Easter eggs for the needy families who come for help. Surrounded as we often are by evidence of a less caring, more judgemental society, it’s heartening to see that some councils – despite their slashed budgets – are still doing what they can to protect the poor and vulnerable. It’s also good to see how many London children have that instinct to reach out to poorer families this Easter.

Sarah’s story: The housing trust and council response

This week I wrote about Sarah. She told me that she was forced to flee her home some distance away in another borough because of her relative’s violent behaviour. A housing trust which runs a hostel for the homeless in Greenwich took her in after she was registered homeless, but it has handed her an eviction letter, telling her that she must vacate by April 11.

It says that if she fails to hand in her keys by 11am that day, it will be ‘forced to carry out an eviction with the Metropolitan Police present’. It adds that following a review, ‘it has been decided that the services and facilities that the accommodation provides are no longer suitable for your needs’. It does not say why that is the case. Sarah says she’s been told it’s because she’s made a number of complaints to the hostel.

Sarah (not her real name), a law graduate aged 28, moved back home after her studies and struggled to find a job. She says that because she couldn’t find work she was ‘scapegoated’ by the relative. Eventually, she left home in January for her own safety. Sarah has also been dealing with a serious mental health issue – borderline personality disorder (BPD) for many years. After pleading with them to help her, she says The Royal Borough of Greenwich registered her homeless and placed her with the housing trust.

She says the council is paying the housing trust her housing benefit, council tax and for her heating. Her main complaints about the housing trust focus on ‘intrusive’ room inspections at odd times of the day, a card meter regularly not being topped up by the staff – leaving residents without heating and hot water about one day a week – and a service charge made by the staff of £15 a week per resident. She says she was forced to the food bank because of the service charge and because she lost food when a fridge broke down for a few days.

The housing trust (not named to preserve Sarah’s anonymity) has now responded. It says it that Sarah was one of the first clients to move into the new accommodation, and that when she arrived she was given a ‘small loan and a large bag of food’.

The statement says there ‘was an issue with the heating system where the whole system had to be shut down for repairs’. It says the ‘leak in the pipe work was fixed’ On another occasion ‘the gas meter was faulty and we had to report it and accordingly waited for an engineer from the gas company to exchange the meter’. It was ‘due to those problems that there was no hot water or heating for a period of time’. The fridge wasn’t working ‘because someone from the property switched off the fridge function’.

The statement adds: ‘The service charge is for the TV licence and broadband. Gas and electric are only covered partially.’

I asked the housing trust if they were going to use a court order to evict her, but didn’t receive a reply to this. Sarah’s understanding is that they won’t do this because she has a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement.

According to the housing trust, there were issues that led to Sarah being given a notice to quit, but that it can only say more if she offers consent in writing. I’ve passed this information onto her. The housing trust also strongly rejects Sarah’s comment that it does not deal with drinking and drug taking at other accommodation it runs. The trust adds: ‘We are working actively and strenuously with the council to reduce homelessness within the borough and to help vulnerable adults.’

Responding to Sarah’s concern that her council case worker was not dealing sensitively with her homelessness issues, the Royal Borough of Greenwich said it had ‘not received a complaint from the resident against the actions or behaviour of any member of Royal Borough staff’. It added: ‘We are committed to ensuring that we support people who access our services in a professional manner, and in a way which is sensitive to any additional needs they may have. If the resident has concerns about her tenancy and the actions of her landlord, we would encourage her to contact the Royal Borough for advice and assistance by calling 020 8921 2618 or email housingaidcentre@royalgreenwich.gov.uk’