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?

 

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Life after #Atos: Good news for Deborah

Life after #Atos: Good news for Deborah
Deborah successfully challenges the decision by #Atos to deem her 'fit for work'.
Deborah successfully challenges the decision by #Atos to deem her ‘fit for work’.

What a difference a couple of days can make. Last week Deborah came into this London Trussell Trust food bank in despair . She ‘d had  a face-to-face Atos work capability assessment (WCA) back in June, and despite her multiple chronic health problems, she was awarded zero points. This meant that from July 24 this year, she lost her employment and support allowance (ESA). This single parent of 51 – with one of her four children still at school and a dependent – was forced to accept a voucher for the food bank from a social worker.

By last Friday, things had improved massively. Deborah came into the Greenwich food bank to tell us that her application for a mandatory reconsideration has been successful. Following this review of  her health issues and the original assessment, she’s now been awarded 18 points (she needed 15 to remain entitled to ESA).  Deborah believes that an intervention made by an NHS psychologist  who became aware of her difficulties has made a difference. That person  worked with her GP to supply more information about the impact of her many health difficulties on her ability to work.

This is of course a very positive development. But a key puzzle remains unanswered. How did Deborah end up with no points first time round, given the range and complexity of her health conditions? These include arthritis in the lower spine, hips, neck and knees, congenital heart problems, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and long-term depression. Deborah described being having to be helped on and off the couch at the WCA by a health service professional that she assumed was a doctor. She says she was in pain throughout the assessment. In the written assessment that person claimed Deborah had no problems getting on and off the couch and wasn’t in pain. There was also the strange matter of the coat. Deborah says her assessment referred to her being able to take her coat on and off. But she insists she was not wearing a coat that day.

Isn’t Deborah’s case an example if one more were needed of just how slapdash (at best) and unfit for purpose the WCA process has become? Yes, the original decision may have been revised. She will now get ESA again, but she is waiting to see if that will be backdated from late July. She has been placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) for 18 months from 24 July 2014. Deborah was ‘luckier’ than some – she still had some money coming in during this time – her disability living allowance (DLA). Her sister was also able to keep an eye on her for a few weeks.

But this wasn’t enough of a safety net to stop her from needing emergency food aid, with all that this involves for someone with depression and in  poor  physical health.

The new system of mandatory reconsideration before appeals introduced in October 2013 seemed to pick up the flaws in Deborah’s assessment. It may be the case that the drop by 92% in ESA appeals in April to June 2014 is mostly down to changes of decision in favour of  prospective appellants. But we don’t yet have the figures to show how many reconsiderations result in changed decisions.

People like Deborah appear to be having to wait for six to eight weeks – maybe this is ‘fast’ – do you know better? – for the outcome of mandatory reviews. If the review outcome leads to the decision being overturned,  it looks like they spend a minimum of  six to eight weeks without the benefit they depend on. If the review is unsuccessful then how long they are languishing and at what cost? We know only too well what can happen when the benefits of the chronically ill are stopped. In Deborah’s case she lost her benefit because of a failed ‘fit for work’ test. David Clapson, a former soldier, died after he lost his JSA as a result of a sanction. But the effect on people’s lives is the same – access to the means of survival is vastly reduced temporarily or completely blocked permanently. ‘Lucky’ Deborah had a social work who became involved and offered a food bank voucher. The psychologist and Deborah’s GP liaised to provide health information that appears to have made the difference. However the evidence suggests that many others are too vulnerable by this stage to fight on for their benefits or to access basic means of survival – such as a food bank voucher .

As the author of this Guardian article about David Clapson points out, ‘I’ll resist calling Clapson’s death a tragedy. Tragedy suggests a one-off incident, a rarity that couldn’t be prevented. What was done to Clapson – and it was done, not something that simply happened – is a particularly horrific example of what has, almost silently, turned into a widespread crisis. More than a million people in this country have had their benefits stopped over the past year. Sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people have risen by 580% in a year. This is a system out of control.’

Some advice on WCA assessments has been offered by readers. Welfare rights consultant Jim Strang reminds those going through the process that they can inform the assessor that they would like their assessment recorded. This should be requested in advance. He adds that anyone whose ESA is stopped can also make a fresh claim for housing benefit, based on income.

Paul Trembath says that those who go ahead with an ESA appeal following mandatory reconsideration (and the Department for Work and Pensions have had confirmation from the Tribunals Service) can ask for ESA to be paid again even if they are claiming JSA – ‘they have to ask, the DWP will not suggest’.

Many thanks to Jim and Paul for their advice – and a big thanks to Deborah for speaking out.

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma

According to Vox Political  and the Disability News Service, the UK government seems to have become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). The committee has the power to do this if it receives what it calls “reliable information of grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol.

The committee conducts its investigations “confidentially”, so it has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. Disability News Service has reported that CRPD appeared to have put off its public examination of the UK’s approach to implementing the disability convention until after next year’s general election. According to Vox Political, it now appears that the committee “may have taken this decision because it had launched the much more serious – and so far unprecedented – inquiry into the UK’s violation of disabled people’s rights”.

Surely here in the UK we wouldn’t abuse disabled people? Could that really happen in London, for example – a sophisticated and rich world capital, recently revealed by an article in Forbes as the world’s “most influential global city”. London was ranked first in the world on the Z/Yen Group’s 2013 Global Financial Centres Index. The article admiringly states that “its location outside the United States and the eurozone keeps it away from unfriendly regulators”, and it’s a “preferred domicile for the global rich”. Given all that serendipity and wealth, the world’s most influential city must also be in a position to influence things to ensure its residents don’t starve?

The benefits of London’s position as a welcoming home for the world’s rich don’t appear to be improving matters for the clients at the food bank frontline in London – or nationally for that matter. Greenwich food bank (which is currently operating from seven locations across the borough) has seen visitors increasing from 776 to 5025 in the past year. In nearby Lewisham, the figure rose from 623 to 3895. Mananger of the Greenwich food banks Alan Robinson tracks the increase he’s seen to welfare changes dating from April 2013, including the bedroom tax and welfare cap.

A few days ago I caught up with long-standing Greenwich food bank client Mark Bothwell, who has depression and whose shoulder injury had developed into a chronic problem. I’ve interviewed Mark many times, and he’s a warm, intelligent and engaging young man of 29. His experiences must make him one of those said to be experiencing diabolical treatment – those “grave violations” – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over many, many months. Mark told me that by July he was so distraught that he felt  suicidal.

Despite having already waited  for a prolonged period on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) while believing that his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was being assessed, Mark was not only told that his ESA paperwork had been lost, but that he had been sanctioned – twice – for supposedly failing turn up for jobseeker advice appointments with Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). He was told that he’d received the first sanction stopping his JSA at the end of May and that they had written to him telling him about the appointment. He says he did not receive any such letter. He began an appeals process with the help of Greenwich borough’s Welfare Rights Service. While he was told that the appeal for this sanction was being allowed, he was informed “in the same sentence that I was not going to get any money, because there was a second sanction for the same period of time for another missed appointment that I didn’t know about”. He says they told him they had sent another letter – “but I didn’t receive them”.

When the initial sanction was imposed, Mark was plunged into a nightmare of making multiple phone calls to different people in an attempt to get some help. It took two weeks to get a DWP hardship payment (about 40 per cent of normal JSA) through, and this was not enough to cover his bills – ” I had to borrow money”. He had to make multiple calls to the JSA enquiry line on his landline. He was told that if he wanted to talk to a “decision maker” he would have to call the enquiry line and leave a message for the “decision maker”, who would then call him back. He says that “on almost every phone call he was told something different”.

He added: “From about the beginning of June until mid-July I made about 60 phone calls trying to sort out the appeals and the (lost) ESA (claim). I had to resubmit the application for ESA because they said they lost it. On almost every phone call I’d be told something different. That process left me feeling suicidal. They were telling me a different thing every single time. They would tell me it (my money) would be a week, then I phoned up and they said no they shouldn’t have told you that. Then with the last phone call the woman said, no it doesn’t happen like that, it takes another two weeks. She was so rude I just hung up and collapsed on the floor. Tears were running down my face. I actually said out loud the word suicide to my flatmate, to my family and to complete strangers. I hit rock bottom around July 10-12.”

About a week later, Mark was told that he would get ESA, and that it would be backdated from the end of May. He is now receiving £144.80 a fortnight. The regular money is “helping a lot” and he says he can now buy food items such as fresh meat. He’s certainly looking brighter and stronger now.  Mark shares a home with a disabled flatmate and friend. This person has been told he’ll be getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for help with some of the extra costs of being disabled. With the PIP finally in place, Mark has at last been able to fill in the application form for Carer’s Allowance in relation to the help he gives his friend. He’s also finally getting better help for his depression, and has been able to come off his Tramadol medication, which was beginning to badly affect his short-term memory.

Finally, after this atrocious wait and a host of adverse developments, Mark is starting to get the benefits he’s entitled to. But why did the state allow him to languish for such a long time waiting to move from JSA to ESA, and without Carer’s Allowance? Mark began experiencing problems with his shoulder last October, and in May, I reported that he’d already been waiting months for his ESA claim to be processed. In respect of his friend’s PIP application, we know that PIP claim backlogs during the first year of its introduction have caused tremendous problems for the disabled.

During his time without benefits because of the sanctions, Mark had to survive for two days without any food. As a long-standing client of Greenwich food bank, Mark has been provided with the usual three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food on about a dozen occasions. Greenwich food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Its policy and commitment is to provide short-term help through a crisis for people who’ve been referred by a frontline professional such as a social worker or health visitor. The decision was taken not to provide another food parcel. This happened after careful discussion and review. The Trussell Trust believes that providing food aid on multiple occasions for an individual can remove an essential incentive to fix the underlying problems that drive people to the food bank in the first place.

Mark has been very appreciative of the support he’s received from the food bank over the last number of months. Very thoughtfully, once his ESA money came through he brought in a cake and a thank-you card – to the delight of the volunteers.

Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank's help
Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank’s help

In July, a report – Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era – was published by the Just Fair consortium, which included Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London. it suggests the UK had moved from being an international disability rights leader to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”. Many of the individual accounts I’ve collected here, including Mark’s, add to the evidence that the vulnerable and disabled are the subject of the gravest injustices.