Council leader Denise Hyland: Getting to grips with deprivation in Greenwich

In this part of London, food banks have steadily become part of the social landscape. This will be surprising to some of the millions of  visitors from all over the world who flock  to Greenwich each year to enjoy the historic town centre.

But the reality is that many local residents in this borough are so short of food that they have to return to Jobcentre Plus or to a frontline public sector professional for a food bank voucher on more than just the odd occasion. These are not people who are managing to recover quickly from a short-term crisis. Last autumn I talked to a young couple at the food bank who were there with their baby. Yesterday, more than a year on, they were back with that child. She’s now a toddler, and her baby brother is six months old.

What role does the local authority play in tackling deprivation and poverty here? Local politician Denise Hyland is the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and she took control of the Labour-run council this year. This week she visited the volunteers at Greenwich Food Bank, which runs a warehouse and eight donation points throughout the borough. Ahead of this visit, she talked to me about food banks, poverty, and the impact of the austerity agenda and welfare reforms on residents here. She outlined how her local authority works to support those most vulnerable to the impact of cuts to welfare.

‘We find it tragic that there’s a need for food banks, but we are deeply appreciative of all those who make the food bank possible,’ she said. As a measure of its commitment to the work done by the food banks in the borough – all of which are part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks – the borough provides some premises including the warehouse at a peppercorn rent, including the necessary work to make it fit for purpose. ‘We also have large (collection) bins in the Woolwich Centre and in other centres as well.’

The borough, which won the council of the year award last year for its work on regeneration, growth and investment, also has an emergency support scheme aimed at supporting some of the people who might, if not helped, be forced to use food banks. According to the council’s website, the scheme would meet ‘essential short term needs in an emergency or flood’ and it might ‘in very limited circumstances’ support those whose benefits have been stopped, reduced or those whose benefits have been sanctioned. When the council took over the scheme from Jobcentre Plus in April 2013, it ensured it developed ‘a very close relationship between the scheme and its Welfare Rights service’, said Cllr Hyland. She added: ‘It’s been a really useful scheme, and we’ve used it to triage people. We can for example refer them to the Families 1st service.’

The council is recognised nationally for its Families 1st programme and has one of the best figures in the country for offering targeted help to families with complex needs. Dedicated keyworkers give intensive support to families who have a range of issues, which may include an adult out of work, youth crime or anti-social behaviour. Launched in March 2013, the council says almost 450 families have engaged with the scheme. The council tries to target the people who are the most likely to be in a worse position if benefits are cut or capped.

Cllr Hyland added: ‘We try to be proactive and identify the people who might be most affected. When the welfare reforms started we contacted those who were likely to be impacted by the benefit cap. In Greenwich, 35 per cent of those affected were losing £50 or more a week. Most of the families affected by the benefit cap are in private accommodation. We also have people hit by the bedroom tax and we have families affected by the reduction in help with council tax benefits.’ She emphasized the importance of thorough assessments that take into account all the circumstances faced by an individual or family. ‘We offer a holistic assessment, as people can fall through the cracks – for example when they are helped with housing but not necessarily with employment.’ She pointed to the drive underway in other councils to rehouse people outside London. Her council’s aim is to build on the considerable regeneration and investment in education and skills going on in the borough. These programmes include improved transport links (including two Crossrail development sites in Woolwich and Abbey Wood) offering more access to the employment market, house-building and redevelopment on a major scale, and four new skills centres.

The council’s job agency is Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). It’s described by the council as a brokerage scheme between local employers and local people looking for work  – and the council says it has helped more than 16,000 people find jobs or access training since its inception. Cllr Hyland said one scheme  – the Highways Improvement Scheme  – has involved putting £5million of reserves into highway repairs while training young people in road repairing skills. One skills centre – the Royal Borough of Greenwich Construction Skills Centre – opened in the summer when 20 trainees began learning a wide range of skills from laying paving to street repairs. Cllr Hyland said this mobile unit stays on the construction site for the length of a build.

She sees this general approach to developing skills and job creation as part of a ‘double-sided strategy’ to bring together physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration.’If you go to Woolwich Common, Abbey Wood, Middle Park or Greenwich Town Centre, there are micro pockets of deprivation. But we have to share the prosperity around everyone.’ But some families are harder to help than others, she said – and there is a particular problem when people are housed  in Greenwich by other London councils. ‘Someone came into my surgery complaining of damp. The family lives in a private house and their home borough (in Central London) sent in an environmental health officer. This council then gave the family a notice to quit and offered them a place in Essex. This is too far from their cultural centre (they are from Eritrea) and too far from the father’s job in West London. This council has now washed its hands of that family. When that notice to quit is followed through, the family will probably turn up on our doorstep as homeless. Their child is due to start nursery in January. The family’s being shoved from pillar to post.’

She added: ‘With the policies that are being pursued, these people are at more of a disadvantage, and communities are being fractured because of the whole debate about immigrant’s rights and benefits. These are people with no recourse to public funds, and we’re spending about £4million on them. This new burden is not being recognised (by central Government). If they turn up and it’s a couple without children, we would declare there is no duty to help them and refer them to a homeless charity. If they have children who are dependents we have a duty of care to those children and we’ll give them temporary accommodation in a property that’s due for demolition. But those people need a school and those people need food. They let people through the border and keep them waiting to hear of their status. In the meantime they can’t work and are left in destitution. We are having to deal with the human tragedy.’

 

Not laughing on the way to the #foodbank: ‘Marie’ the carer and her sons

Marie (not her real name) is 53 and is separated from her husband,  although they are still legally married.  Despite her many health issues, she has been his full-time carer for four years.  He has dementia, while she lives with chronic arthritis, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and anger management issues. They have four sons in their 20s – three of whom still live with Marie. All four of her sons have mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Left with no benefits, she came into the London food bank last week with three of her sons for some help. Her employment and support allowance (ESA) – a benefit paid to the sick and disabled if they are unable to work – had been withdrawn.  It was stopped following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos (whose controversial contract with the government to undertake the tests is ending early). She was declared fit for work and her ESA payments officially stopped on October 16th – a day before her 53rd birthday.

In reality, she says her household hasn’t received any money  – other than one  son’s jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)  – since October 7th. When she began signing last week for JSA, she was not informed by staff at Jobcentre Plus when she would receive a payment. ‘I was due a payment on my birthday week, and that’s when I was told I wouldn’t get anything. I was beside myself  – I was crying a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.’ Another son who lives with her has been told he has to go back on ESA, and her third son who lives at home is in the process of applying for ESA.

She’s very concerned about the impact of her dire financial situation on her housing. ‘Before the ESA was stopped they (the housing association) said that if I did not pay a certain amount of money I would be kicked out. They know my situation and I’ve got a month to let them know what payment I’m going to get.’

Marie broke down in tears as she explained her situation. One of the food bank volunteers brought her a cup of tea. She said that she’s the only person in her house who can read and write, and that she’s been trying to explain to Jobcentre Plus about her sons’ learning disabilities. She described a disconnect between what staff there are asking the young men to do and what their mother believes they can realistically manage. She’s also worried about the impact of the staffs’ approach on one son’s state of mind. ‘They had been telling my sons to do certain things – to meet certain criteria. They are trying – but they don’t meet the criteria required by work plans. They’ve got to look on the computer for jobs (on Universal Jobmatch).’

‘What upset me the most was that my youngest son, who’s 23, saw a disability officer at Jobcentre Plus – and she told him that he didn’t know anything. She was implying that my son was thick and that upset him and he was crying.’

Marie has applied for a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to turn down her ESA application. She is most concerned about having to stop caring for her husband, if she has to now actively search for work. ‘I can’t leave my husband, as my sons wouldn’t know what to do then things get tricky. I’m very loyal to him. I get upset because he’s got dementia and his memory is getting quite bad now. The life expectancy for what he’s got is about eight years. Because he’s been my rock, it’s been hard for me. In the past I could go and ask his advice.’

She adds: ‘My husband is on a low budget  – yet he’s been giving us a little money and food. It makes me feel awkward, because he’s on a tight budget himself.’ Her house is cold, she has to use key cards for her gas and electricity and put a little money at a time on them.  To wash, they have to fill up the kettle and use the sink. Her sons and herself suffer from chest problems. Places like the food bank (this is the fourth time she’s had to use it) have ‘ taken the pressure off, but it’s hit my self-esteem and dignity.’ But she says that if it hadn’t been for the food bank she doesn’t know what she would have done – as she has no support network.

A month ago she says she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, ‘because stuff was getting too much and I felt like ending my life – but I’ve got responsibilities to my husband and kids’. She says the stress she’s under is causing her to lose weight and ‘my hair is falling out’. She talks to mental health charity Mind and to her GP. She says her GP, who has known her for 30 years,  is ‘disgusted’ about the way the welfare system has handled her case.

She says she expects a decision on the mandatory reconsideration this week, and that if the answer is another refusal, she will immediately make an appointment with Citizens Advice to discuss next steps.

Marie left the food bank, with her sons helping her carry the bags of food.

This is how what some policy gurus  might call ‘radical changes to  the welfare system in the UK’  are converging to impact one family in London – the capital city of the world’s sixth richest economy by GDP.

 

Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’