Inequality, one London church and the impact of universal credit

kings church exterior
In case you’ve forgotten, London is one of the wealthiest cities on earth, the capital of one of the world’s richest countries. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister David Cameron told us: “We are a wealthy country.” Let’s take a walk down one street in south-east London, call into a church, and see how effectively all this wealth is trickling down.

It’s not dropping into the laps of the large crowd of people packed into King’s church in Catford on a Wednesday night. There’s a hundred or so sitting around tables (and on some Wednesdays there are 150 people). They’re there for companionship, support with their problems, and a free three course meal. There’s a warm, welcoming buzz, and it’s definitely not just food that’s on offer at this truly wonderful project. They get access to a wide range of help – anything from debt advice to counselling and support with mental health and addiction issues. They can also volunteer to help out with the meal. Many are here tonight preparing food, cooking, serving, clearing up and chatting to diners. People also get support with looking for paid work.

Fundamentally, it’s about providing a community for adults of all ages who feel marginalised by politicians and by society and showing them that they belong – that they are valued for who they are and not what they do or don’t earn. It offers them a firm place in the world. This project wants to empower people to have functioning lives.

The church prioritises helping rough sleepers. There were 16 of them here last week, and this winter the church has had more rough sleepers than ever before. The rough sleepers were heading to a car park in Catford that night. The upward trend in the number of rough sleepers locally reflects the national picture. An estimated 2,414 people were sleeping rough in England on any one night in 2013, an increase of 37 per cent on 2010.

The project also provides 24 (soon to go up to 31)spaces in low support housing at a reasonable rent, and draws up care plans to help individuals find work. It also helps people address health issues and supports those fighting appeals against decisions to withdraw benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA).

Low support housing (c) King’s Church London

Marvellous work is going on here, and despite the horrendous pressures on the local Labour-led authority’s (Lewisham’s ) budgets, it is working hard to forge connections with the King’s Church project. On Thursday morning one of the project’s key co-ordinators Simon Allen was due to meet with the council to discuss the rough sleeping issue and how to get the large group of people sleeping rough in Catford off the streets.

Simon, who talked to me at length last week, couldn’t be more gentle towards, and supportive of, the people who come along here. But he’s angry about the way current Coalition polices including the reinvention of the benefits system are impacting on the least well off. Benefit stoppages are “horrendous”, he says – telling me about one man at tonight’s meal whose benefits have been completely stopped.”He’s been without benefits for about six months. These are the most vulnerable people in society and since the stoppage he has spent a month in a mental health unit and a month in prison.”

He can’t believe that people with mental health issues who are challenging decisions to withdraw ESA are being assessed by people with no knowledge of mental health. The project team helps such clients with the appeal process and wins most cases.

The project has a problem if people are dependent on the Wednesday night meal alone. “I don’t want people to be dependent. Our key philosophy is that everyone who comes here can contribute. People can come here and help out.” He recommends a book outlining his church’s approach to social action. “The book’s called Toxic Charity, and it’s an essential read. You can keep people in their poverty or you can treat them as powerful. It’s about building community, friendship, relationship and connection. It includes a sense of hope.”

Simon is “a little cautious” about the food bank model of providing help, which he sees as meeting people’s immediate needs but not able to lift them out of poverty. “It’s all very well going to a food bank and getting a parcel for a few weeks (clients are only meant to use a Trussell Trust food bank a maximum of three times), but we have some people here who have been without benefit for six months.” He believes the holistic model based around community and friendship, and the project’s “fantastic” working connections with the local authority makes it ultimately a more sustainable long-term approach.

Let’s be clear: the Trussell Trust itself says that food banks aren’t a sustainable response to food poverty. Back at the London food bank, the manager Alan reminds me that “most of the people who come to us are referred by people who should be providing mainstream help. If we start providing mainstream help it gives them no urgency to solve the problem. There’s also the issue of individual’s motivation. Where’s the motivation to drive a solution from their point of view?”

Alan also believes that something of a myth is circulating about people becoming “dependent” on food banks. “We see nine out of 10 people on three or fewer occasions.” The few he sees more than that are mostly experiencing very exceptional circumstances.

Undoubtedly, this debate about the longer-term role and strategic direction of food banks is going to intensify here in London and elsewhere as more and more people are forced to use them. A London Assembly Labour report by member Fiona Twycross quoted food bank use in London as having increased by 393 per cent in the past two years. It said that in 2011 there were 12,839 visits to food banks in London, increasing to 63,367 in the first nine months of the current financial year – including 24,500 children. The expanding chasm between rich and poor in London is starting to echo that world painted so vividly by Charles Dickens. Who would have thought it?

Simon is particularly furious about the planned move towards Universal Credit (UC), which he predicts will have a terrible impact on those with the most complex problems. UC is the new single payment for people looking for work or on a low income. It will replace housing benefit, income based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), income related ESA, income support, child tax credits and working tax credits.

The new payment, which will be paid monthly direct to the claimant and will include support for housing costs, will be an unmitigated disaster for many, particularly those with alcohol and gambling addictions, says Simon: “Some people will be given figures such as £1,500 a month in their pockets. We’ve got one man here who is a gambler who is almost crying and saying he doesn’t want this. Why are they obsessed with paying people monthly?.”

He’s approached the DWP about this issue, and they’ve tried to reassure him by telling him about something called “jamjar accounts”, which are starting to emerge as a way of allowing people to ring-fence money to pay specific bills such as gas and electricity. “The DWP also says they will have advisers who will come out and help people. Are there really going to be hundreds of thousands of advisers giving advice to people they don’t know?”

This experienced person sees the evolving system as a disaster starting to unfold. I’ll be returning to the project over the next few weeks to find out more about the individuals involved and how their lives are being affected by the apparent dismantling of the welfare state in London.

Will Peter and Sue get added to this year’s malnutrition statistics?

Is the government rushing to close down the few remaining sources of help for people like Peter and Sue (not their real names), a couple who came into the London food bank last week? Both of them have serious health issues and their sickness benefits have been delayed.

Yesterday, the story broke that the £347m hardship fund, a potential safety net for the couple, is being scrapped. The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for ministers to review the decision. The LGA says its abolition could leave councils unable to support families who face a crisis. The loss of the Local Welfare Assistance Fund would leave councils having to find money for this from their overall budgets. The government is reported as saying that councils will continue to give support to those in financial difficulties, but the LGA has highlighted that overall funding for local government has been cut by more than 40 per cent over the course of this parliament. Doing away with this fund could leave some areas unable to afford to help out people in crisis.

This development is not going to make life any easier for Peter and Sue, who usually get employment and support allowance (ESA), but had no way of feeding themselves last week. Peter, who is bipolar, had sent the sick note that he hopes would have triggered a renewal of ESA to an office in Ireland, but believes it’s been lost in the post. Before he can start receiving ESA again, he has to repeat the process of getting his key mental health worker to arrange an appointment with his psychiatrist. It’s easy to see that this is all going to take a while to sort. Sue, who is epileptic, had been friends with Peter for many years before they became a couple. They got together after she broke up with her ex-husband, who had been violent towards her. She doesn’t seem to know why her ESA has been delayed.

Both of them have older children from their previous relationships, and now Sue, 36, thinks she may be pregnant. The couple, who are clearly devoted to each other, are living together. Sue receives housing benefit and disability living allowance (DLA) in addition to ESA. With both sets of ESA now on hold, they are trying and failing to survive on Sue’s DLA of £41 a week. That sum has to cover rent, gas, electricity, council tax and food for two. Except of course, it isn’t covering food, which is why they’re here at the food bank.

They’re worried their gas and electricity are about to run out. That would leave them in a cold house, unable to heat up some of the tins of food we’re giving them. Our food bank manager Alan rang their energy supplier Utilita, which calls itself “the UK’s leading prepayment gas and electricity supplier”. He said they weren’t very interested in helping. “The couple had recently switched suppliers and this supplier (Utilita) did not seem to understand its responsibility to help vulnerable people and in any case could not act until their smart meter was installed.”

He added that in stark contrast, he contacted energy provider EDF the same day on behalf of another client, and they quickly agreed to provide an emergency supply of gas and electricity – £20 in each case. A bit of welcome good news. Well done EDF.

Getting help from the state seems to be getting harder and harder. Sue says that when they went to the job centre to use the phones, only one phone was left for clients to use. There used to be six lines available. The pair walked miles from their home to the job centre only to find they were unable to get help.

For Peter and Sue, life is very tough at the moment. Peter says they have both been “hungry the last week or two”. This is a particularly worrying development for someone who may be in the first three months of pregnancy. Life is a daily battle for survival. Peter says the key person who helps them is a local vicar. He’s the one who gave them a voucher for the food bank. “He’s understanding and he looks after us. He hates the government like I do. We are just oiks to them. If we get one less payment then the government saves a bit of money.”

The anger expressed by Peter’s vicar is being writ large across the nation. The open letter published in the Daily Mirror last week signed by 27 Anglican bishops is scathing about the Coalition’s “cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system” that have left half a million people visiting food banks since last Easter. It also says that 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK with malnutrition last year. Peter and Sue are in danger of being included in this year’s malnutrition statistics.