Two friends tackle the future together at the London food bank

Two  impressive women came to the London food bank for help on Friday. It’s inspiring to see how their supportive  friendship is helping them deal with the most adverse circumstances.

Julie and Bev (not their real names) crossed paths at an addiction treatment programme at a London clinic just over a month ago.  Julie is 36 and I think Bev is in her early 40s. Not a long- established friendship, but they’ve both been through so much in a short time. Sharing deeply about their lives while on the (continuing) programme has brought them close and cemented their relationship. The events that led them to meet were traumatic.

A victim of domestic violence, Julie had to leave her home quickly at the beginning of this year. She says: “I moved from pillar to post, sofa surfing and staying with friends. I then had a crisis about five weeks ago, when I hit rock bottom. I started binge drinking to black it all out….to  the point of being at a station trying to go under a fast train. I was staying with my cousin and she’d been worried about me because of the way I’d been talking before I left. She went to the train station, got me from the platform and took me to accident and emergency.”

Julie had been staying  on the coast at the time, and she says the hospital there looked after her brilliantly. They kept her for 24 hours, then transferred her to the specialist addiction treatment unit. That’s where she met Bev, who was there because of her problems with alcohol and binge drinking. Bev separated from her husband a year ago, and she began losing control of her life at that point.

Both women were able to receive treatment every day – a year’s worth of detox therapy condensed into three weeks. Both have high praise for the care they’re receiving. They left the in-patient element of the treatment last week, but both have a full programme of aftercare, including AA meetings twice a week. They’re undergoing the whole 12 step AA programme – along with three other people they met in the specialist unit. All of them are supporting each other,  says Bev. The five of them – men and women – have formed a tight friendship network to help each other through the challenging weeks and months ahead.

Now comes more of  the serendipity that seems to be mitigating some of the steep challenges they’re facing. It so happens that Julie has been given a temporary room in shared accommodation (shared bathroom and kitchen) by the  homelessness unit in our neighboring borough. Those facilities  in our borough may not include heating or hot water – but by chance she’s ended up  just round the corner from Bev’s father’s house. Bev couldn’t go back to the family home, as her three children are young and still wary.  She’s moved in with her dad, who won’t give her money, but will put petrol in her car. He’s supportive, but cautious. When she hit her lowest with the drinking he locked her in a bedroom for three days to get her away from the booze.

Julie has been supporting Bev too. Bev is trying to make sense of the new reality of life without her husband and, for the time being without being able to share her home with her kids.  Once she separated, she didn’t know she was able to claim benefits. She’s just been to the Jobcentre with her friend to sort that out.  They’re helping each other so much – just by sharing and working together to solve problems large and smaller.  Julie has now applied for employment and support allowance (ESA), While she waits for her application to be dealt with,  she had to spend a couple of days with only a tiny bit of food. A GP gave her a prescription for a few replacement meals, while Bev brought along some cake and biscuits to share with her at an AA meeting.  Julie says: “Yesterday I did feel ready to go back into hospital, as I’d had nothing to eat or drink for 24 hours.”

This is a woman struggling to feed herself in 21st century London. Luckily, the Jobcentre gave her a voucher allowing her to access crisis help at this Trussell Trust food bank. We shouldn’t require  food banks in this well-off Western European country. But the inequalities here are growing. The Trussell Trust and others know that basic needs have to be met somehow, while we wait endlessly for the politicians to acknowledge the scale of  need and to address it.

Eventually, if Julie gets stronger and moves from ESA to a job,  she’ll be trying to get some sort of  more permanent home.  How will she fare with that in this bit of the capital just a few miles  from Canary Wharf? Over there, property experts say homes in the planned new 74-storey, 714-apartment Hertsmere Tower could start at £1m. The project will target overseas buyers, who a Guardian article says are currently picking up four out of every five prime London properties. Green party member of the London assembly Darren Johnson said in the article that this was the last thing Tower Hamlets – an area with 23,000 people on housing waiting lists –  needed.

Social solidarity  – the binding together of people from all classes – is becoming less and less  a feature of life in London. It was  interesting to note that an estate agency firm (Savills) was quoted in the Guardian article warning that developers in London are focusing on high-ticket properties at the expense of the biggest need – for affordable homes.  When estate agents rather than Coalition politicians are making it clear that London has to change, it’s time to get worried.

People have an instinctive awareness that positive changes are more quickly achieved when people collaborate and care about those around them. Julie and Bev show us that we’re all in it together.

Standing taller…

Alan the food bank manager passes on some heartening news. “Elizabeth”, the Nigerian lady who came in two weeks ago with her baby, returned  to our London food bank on Friday with her children.  The older two were off school because of half term. At first the volunteers weren’t sure it was her.  Alan says she was much brighter, and “standing taller”.

When I interviewed her a fortnight ago, she was very low and so overcome by trauma that she spoke in a whisper. Her husband tried to commit suicide by hanging some weeks earlier. Her eight year old daughter had to fetch a knife to cut the rope.

Alan tells me: “We had a good chat and it seems that social services are now fully involved and are helping her. The kids were sweet and very engaging. It was so good to see her looking so much better, even though hubby is still in hospital and not making much progress. Still we pray….”

This food bank is one of almost 400 set up by the Trussell Trust – which partners with churches and communities to provide a supply of at least three days emergency food to those in a crisis. Alan is the kindest of people and devotes his life to providing practical help to his food bank clients. He also believes in the power of  divine intervention and prayer, as do many of the volunteers who help here in this borough.

I respect Alan’s strong Christian beliefs, which motivate him to do this work.  But  I’m much more of a believer in the power of citizens  to protest at this government’s targeting of  the poorest and most vulnerable. The current direction of welfare and immigration  policies is disturbing – and is turning people like Elizabeth and her family into England’s scapegoats.  A perceptive article in the New Statesman describes the Immigration Bill as an “explicit response” to public perceptions that the benefit system is a “magnet for migrants coming to access more generous benefits that they would receive at home, even though there is very little hard evidence of this…” This Bill, says the article’s author Alex Glennie, is “essentially a statement of intent and a triumph of symbolism over substance, designed to send a message that the government is serious about creating a hostile environment for those whose legal right to live and work in the UK is in question”.

I would guess that Elizabeth has contributed much to the UK.  She rents privately and is receiving maternity pay of £278 a fortnight from her job as a support worker for the elderly.  Elizabeth has been looking after London’s elderly parents and grandparents. Her maternity pay doesn’t cover her rent to the private landlord, food and bills.  Her husband had to leave his accountancy training course because of his depression and is still very ill following his suicide bid.  Elizabeth says he had to stop working while on the course because of changes in the visa rules (the couple are applying to stay permanently in the UK).

As well as myths about immigration, there are also an increasing number of  fables in circulation about why food banks are growing in “popularity” – for want of a better word. One of the 10 most common myths about food  banks is that they create dependency and don’t address the causes of poverty. If people come to a food bank more than three times in six months the system flags this so that the food bank manager can contact the service or person that referred them. They can then make sure a plan is in place to help the client overcome poverty. Elizabeth was referred by her GP,  who would seem to be very much on the ball and has made the referral to social services. Of course it won’t be easy for Elizabeth to improve her family’s circumstances quickly. But there are some optimistic signs now that she’s on the radar of  an alert GP and social services.

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‘Elizabeth’, her sick husband, and the knife

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is appointing a new NHS director of costs. His job, says Mr Hunt, will be  to help the health service ‘get better’ at charging immigrants who are already in Britain, but not eligible for free treatment on the NHS. The coalition’s position is that short term immigrant and foreign visitors should pay more than £500m a year towards the cost of their NHS care.

Let’s look at the account of one woman who came to our London food bank a few days ago, and who happens to be making an immigration application.  ‘Elizabeth’ (not her real name)  came to the UK from Nigeria with her husband in 2010, and she is the quietest, saddest-looking woman I’ve seen for a long time. She brought her baby boy of seven months, who was fast asleep.

In a voice that’s no more than a whisper, she slowly, painfully, tells me her story.  I desperately hope that this is the worst account from a food bank client that I ever have to pass on.

Both Elizabeth and her husband have been renewing their visas while they try to negotiate the immigration application process. They also have two older children  – a girl of eight and a son of five. Elizabeth says: ‘My husband is in hospital. He has depression and he’s had it since 2010. He was working for 20 hours a week, and was also a student. But the rules changed and he wasn’t allowed to work. He was studying to be an ACCA (chartered accountant), and he has passed the first stage. But he has been in hospital now for over a month.’

How do they all survive, now that he is unable to work? ‘My maternity pay is the only money coming in. I get £278 every fortnight, from my job as a support worker for the elderly. A social worker is getting involved now, and is looking at whether there will be any financial help with regard to the rent.’

Why has a social worker suddenly intervened? Elizabeth tells me of the terrible circumstances which led to her husband being taken into a mental health unit as an in-patient recently: ‘He tried to commit suicide. I called the ambulance. My eight year old daughter got me a knife and I cut the rope.’ This poor woman’s daughter saw everything. By the time she’d reached the end of the account she had broken down and was in tears.

The stress this woman is going through, along with three small children, is horrific. Elizabeth’s GP was able to ease things a little by giving her a voucher for the food bank. We were then able to give her an emergency supply of food, including some nappies. She stayed with us for quite a while that afternoon, and I hope that talking to us about this almost unimaginable trauma, helped her – even a little. At least  – small comfort – she was able to feed herself and her two older children that weekend. She is still breast-feeding her baby.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth and her family this week. Let’s hope that he responds well to the treatment he’s receiving. I’m not completely sure whether she and her husband have ‘temporary migrant’ status – It looks as if they do. What is a ‘health tourist’? Is Elizabeth’s husband one of those? If these new proposals supported by Jeremy Hunt do make their way into law – the Immigration Bill was passed yesterday by 303 votes to 18 – at what point during his recovery would some NHS doctor have to present Elizabeth’s husband with the bill for his treatment?