‘We are all in this together’: One year on and John and Marie are still at the food bank

‘We are all in this together’, said the chancellor George Osborne yesterday as he laid out his Autumn Statement plans to put Britain back into the black by cutting public spending as a percentage of GDP to the kind of low levels not seen since the 1930s.

According to the Treasury spending watchdog the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), the plans also presume that a further one million jobs in the public sector will be lost by 2020, a further squeeze on public sector pay and a further freeze on tax credits. The chief of the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that Britain faced five years of ‘gruesome’ spending cuts as the government attempts to balance the books, with some departments facing cuts of 50 per cent. Guardian commentator Aditya Chakrabortty said ‘the austerity plans look like they’ve dropped out of la-la land’. He says that by the end of the next parliament, according to the OBR, the British state will be smaller than it was before the introduction of the welfare state.

I headed to the food bank last night to meet some of those who are all in this together with the chancellor. I spoke to a young couple I recognised from more than a year ago, who came in with their two very young children. My previous interview with John and Marie (not their real names) is here. Back then, they told me that they were arguing with each other so much that their child  – a little girl who was then 15 months old and small for her age – had come to the attention of local authority child protection staff. They were worried that she was becoming emotionally damaged by her parents’ angry exchanges.

Marie, 31,  is from the Philippines and a year ago she had already incurred hundreds of pounds in fees in trying to become a UK citizen. She’s not allowed to work because of her immigration status. John was trying to pay the fees out of his employment and support allowance (ESA). By autumn 2013 he had started to receive ESA following a 16 month delay. He says he thinks the delay was due to ‘ a complete mix-up, lost documents and misinformation’. While his ESA was delayed he said he had received no benefits at all. Fast forward to last night, and their situation has not improved, to the extent that they are now once again having to get vouchers for this Trussell Trust food bank from their social worker. It was their second visit within a few weeks.

Their problems are compounding. They were pushing two prams – one of them broken – tonight, as Marie gave birth to a baby boy six months ago. Their daughter – still small for her age – is now two and a half. Last year they had to use the food bank on four occasions. John, 23, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in December 2013 and is now on income-related ESA of £144 a a fortnight.  They said they had been receiving child benefit and child tax credits intermittently during the past year, and have just sent off a fresh claim for child benefit. They’ve also called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) regarding the CTC. In the meantime, they’ve just received a letter from HMRC telling them they owe more than £1,000 in overpayments on CTC and child benefit. They’ve been told that the overpayments relate to two tax years. They have no idea how they would repay this money, if it is indeed owed. John says they are ‘blaming us for their mistakes’. The social worker, he says, is ‘telling us to sort it out’. More than six months ago he applied for Personal Independence Payment – a benefit which helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability  – but like thousands of others he is still waiting for a work capability assessment and has heard nothing. ‘I’ve been told there is a backlog.’ Marie is still not a UK citizen.

The couple have been housed in Greenwich by Lambeth Council, and they seem to be falling between the cracks in services to vulnerable people who are being moved out of their ‘home’ boroughs to be re-housed. ‘The complicating thing is who do we speak to?’ says John. ‘Every time we ask Lambeth Council if they can re-house us permanently they say we’ll be lucky if we get permanent housing within seven years.’ Their priority payments from the little money they have coming in are heating, food and nappies and travelling to appointments. They cannot make ends meet, and they are additionally stressed and worried by the HMRC development.

I’m very concerned about the long-term situation for both the adults and children in this family. They are facing a perfect storm of issues, including Marie’s immigration status. The children could potentially gain a lot from some early support. But the Autumn Statement does not offer any prospect of a lifeline for this family. How can an imploding public sector, with its demoralised workforce, offer them hope or targeted help? Their financial outlook, particularly in the light of the HMRC demand, is dire. John’s ASD diagnosis adds to the difficulties this family face trying to unravel a complex web of problems. I ask them to ensure they talk to their social worker again for help with benefits and the HMRC issue, but I also provide them with details of Greenwich Council’s Welfare Rights Service, the local Citizens Advice helpline, and the National Autistic Society Helpline.

Opening the doors: Debt, domestic violence, power relations and an eviction notice

Opening the doors: Debt, domestic violence, power relations and an eviction notice

Sarah, a single woman of 28 and a law graduate, came in on Friday and kindly shared her account of why she needed help.  Before I pass on her story I’d like to remind readers that I don’t speak for those who run this London food bank, although they’ve allowed me to interview their clients. Any opinions expressed on this site from time to time are my own. I don’t represent the food banks in the borough of Greenwich. Neither do I represent the views of the Trussell Trust, which partners with churches in this area to run the food banks.

Sarah (not her real name) must have thought her life was on a more even keel when she finally worked up the courage to escape the violence in her family home. She had moved back in again in 2008 when she struggled to find a job after leaving university. It wasn’t a good time to be graduating. The economy had just tanked. She was also battling a serious mental health issue – borderline personality disorder (BPD). Once home, she says she found herself  ‘scapegoated’ for not having a job and once again the target of  a relative’s abuse and violence.

Now she faces the reality of being evicted (see letter below) from the shared house run by a housing trust in Greenwich – the borough she came to for help.

eviction - no meta

Making the decision to flee her home at the end of January was a difficult one, as she had to leave two younger siblings behind. While she did bring in the police to have her relative arrested, after careful deliberation she decided against bringing charges, because she believed there would be ‘some fall-out’. It would now seem as if this intelligent, articulate and vulnerable young woman is being treated with a distressing lack of respect by those who are ‘dealing’ with her.

Initially she went to her own borough some distance away for help with rehousing,  but she says they ‘put me in a half way house for the weekend, with no money and no food, sharing with a guy who had just come out of prison for armed robbery – despite me having just come away from a situation of domestic violence’. For safety, she fled to our borough, with the help of some of  her wider family network (whom she can’t stay with as it would bring her back within the orbit of the relative she’s fled). After five days of  pleading with this council for help, she was registered as homeless and says she was placed by the council in a shared hostel run by a housing trust that also owns a number of properties in the area.

Sarah says she complained to the housing trust, which I’m not naming to preserve her anonymity, about regular absences of heating and hot water. She also complained about the intrusive room inspections at odd times that she says were carried out. ‘Every time they want to annoy us, they just say it’s time for a room inspection. I feel that I’m being ambushed all the time.’ She says those running the hostel charge each resident – Sarah shares the house with three other people – a £15 a week service charge on top of the money they receive from the council. Sarah says the council are paying for her housing benefit, council tax and heating. She says that there’s a meter for heating and hot water, but that the staff ‘don’t put enough money on the card’, leaving them short at least one day a week. ‘Even when we do run out of heat, there are still signs around saying that if we have an electric heater it will be taken away.’

She says she’s also heard that each resident is supposed to be getting £3 per head for breakfast, but hasn’t received any of that. This week she says it was the combination of the service charge and a broken fridge that took a couple of days to replace that led her to the food bank (she got the voucher from the job centre). Although she gets on well with one of the men (aged 57) she shares with, it doesn’t seem at all appropriate that she should be in mixed sex accommodation at this stage given the issues that led to her being declared homeless. Where’s the safeguarding?

Now the people who run the housing trust have given her a 28-day notice to quit. In the letter they say: ‘We have reviewed your situation, and it has been decided that the services and facilities that we provide are no longer suitable for your needs’. She has been told in writing to move out by 11 April. The letter does not give any reasons why the hostel is thought to be unsuitable for Sarah – or why she’s deemed unsuitable for the hostel.

She says she’s been told verbally it’s because she’s ‘complaining too much’. According to Sarah, they have other houses in the area, ‘where drug taking and drinking are going on, and they turn a blind eye’.

Sarah has a female case worker at the council, whom she says tells her that she’s ‘lucky not to be out on the streets’. At this stage Sarah doesn’t know where to go or who to talk to, and feels that she’s being treated in a contemptuous and degrading way. ‘I know that when you are on benefits people talk to you like crap, but I feel really belittled when she talks to me like that. She knows I have mental health issues, and I know it’s not just me she talks to like that.’

The housing trust says on the eviction letter that it is a not for profit company, limited by guarantee, The letter also displays a registered charity number. Sarah says her understanding is that because she has ‘a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement, they don’t need a court order to evict me’.

At noon yesterday I asked both the council and the housing trust to address the concerns raised by Sarah, asking them to respond by this morning. I’ve also asked the housing trust to tell me why she’s being evicted. As yet, I’ve heard nothing at all from the housing trust. The council have told me that they would update me today about ‘what we may be able to come back on, and when’. I’m still waiting, and will of course pass on anything I receive.

What Sarah really wants is to get well enough to get a job. She did some volunteering in the autumn, for which she received some expenses. But sadly that messed up her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)payments. Two weeks before Christmas her benefits were suspended, and she was told she couldn’t contact any of the ‘decision makers’. Wait, and we will get in touch with you when we’re ready, was the message.

She recognises that ‘certain things that happened are messing me up long term’. She says she would like to take programmes in mindfulness and dialectical behavioural therapy, which has been recommended as an excellent approach for BPD. This may be available on the NHS, but there is of course a waiting list. The good news is that her old mental health trust has a recovery team, who have said they will try to help.

The last thing she needed was the stressful and destabilising experience she has described since running away from a terrible home situation. All she wants – and surely deserves – is some stability and a measure of contentment after many years of hell.

Debt also played a corrosive, polluting role in Sarah’s story. I was among 600 people who attended a landmark free conference at the weekend organised by the Jubilee Debt Campaign Life Before Debt’s extraordinary range of speakers forensically examined debt from all angles, including the morality of debt repayment in the currentl neoliberal economy. It asked: ‘Is it a moral absolute: more important than feeding families, teaching children and providing healthcare and basic social protections?’ This conference made me feel as if I was waking up from a long sleep. It looked at how, six years on from the crash, ‘debt is at the centre of a broken economic system that is hurting people everywhere’.

Sarah says her family was ‘bound together’ by debt – and debt contributed to the family’s implosion. From the outside all would have looked good to the neighbours. Large house, nice cars in the drive. There had been wealth, and there is still work for some in the family. But the money has been ‘squandered completely’, says Sarah. The house is falling apart and the family had to cut back on food and heating. The house went on the market for a while, and Sarah says she felt humiliated when would-be buyers saw how they were living.

The conference talked about the power imbalances between debtors and creditors, and the toxic shame felt by those in debt, who hide the reality of their situation. Campaigns Officer of the Children’s Society Katie Curtis says that debt issues are being felt around the household, causing ‘a mental health time bomb, ready to go off’.

Alinah Azadeh, an interdisciplinary artist, told the conference about creative debt resistance project Burning the Books – a chance for people to add their own stories about debt to the Book of Debts. There is ‘no debt without a story, from private loans, unpaid corporate taxes, unrequited love and lost lives, to political repression, family feuds and missed opportunities….’.

Debt is many things, says Alinah: ‘Debt as freedom, obscenity, excess, a form of violence, a dead end…Debt as crime, fear, lament, a sign of poverty and wealth. Burn the records, redistribute the land, take control.’ The Book of Debts will be burned in a symbolic act of debt relief in Brighton on 22 May.