Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
Here in the UK, the daily experiences of  the increasing numbers of people who’ve had  benefits sanctioned or removed aren’t discussed much across the media. Often individuals seem to drop off the public services radar, and no-one appears to be looking out for them. Many become homeless.

There seem to be fewer sources of help available now for the destitute.  The number of support workers, social workers, GPs  or probation officers with the time and resources to help a client with complex issues appears to be dwindling. The  ‘multi-agency approach’ seems like a sick joke now – unless you know differently?

Last night, at the Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London, I spoke to David Goddard, a 27-year-old who comes from South-West England, but has moved around constantly in the last year. He’d come along to this church-based support project for the regular Wednesday night hot meal –  alongside others  who’ve ended up at the sharp end of the austerity experiment in London. Quite a few of the 90 or so people attending this week are homeless. David is one of them.

He very honestly laid out what’s happened to him since February 2013, since he lost his job in catering in Gloucester. Before that he had run raves within the alternative scene and had a record label. He has also worked part-time in a nightclub and as a part-time carer. After losing his catering job he spent six weeks with no money while waiting for his Jobseeker’s Allowance  (JSA) claim to be processed. During this time he had to borrow money from family to survive. By the end of March/early April 2013 he’d been suspended from JSA for a week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for apparently missing an interview. He then says he got a letter through saying his JSA had been cancelled. He said: ‘I then spent the next month or two seeing if the DWP would give me an interview, filling in applications for a fresh claim online, but not getting any texts or acknowledgements.’

At this stage things took a substantial turn for the worse: ‘I was back taking heroin, and I got made homeless, because I’d moved into a family member’s home, but had to move out because that person said they couldn’t let me continue to live there unless I got benefits. But Gloucester Council wouldn’t pay me housing benefits, because I was living in a family member’s house. Then I started shoplifting. I’m not proud of it, but if  you went 24 hours without food you will shoplift. By the end of the summer I was taking enough to survive.’ At this stage, he was also paying for the heroin that way.

He got in touch with the local food bank, but he says they told him they couldn’t help unless he was on employment and support allowance (ESA). He couldn’t find anyone who would give him a voucher to access the food bank. He says he tried the jobcentre and Citizen’s Advice, to no avail.

Between July and Christmas 2013 David was arrested 10 times as he moved around the country, mostly for shoplifting food. Once, when shoplifting for a meal, he was arrested  for possession of some quiche and a cheese knife to eat it with. On that occasion he was charged with possession of a blade. The shoplifting happened in various locations. He ended up in court six times, ‘but they did not actually prosecute me’, and the cases were postponed.

He moved to Southall in West London last November while on bail – at which point he says he was ‘off heroin – but shoplifting to survive’. Southall put him in a probation house. But on Boxing Day he was arrested for stealing a microwave dinner from Tesco. At that point, he says ‘they stacked up nine months of shoplifting charges, plus charges for common assault’ – he got in a fight with a security guard and a roadsweeper who tried to stop him stealing the meal – plus criminal damage and theft of a motor vehicle and put him inside for two and a half months from New Year’s Day 2014.

While he was initially in prison in Wormwood Scrubs, he says he then got shunted  at very short notice to a host of  prisons to attend nearby hearings on the other accumulated charges. During this series of ‘expeditions’, he was shifted to Wandsworth, Bristol, Leicester, and Hewell (near Redditch, Worcestershire) prisons in succession. David was released on March 28, with a travel warrant to get him to London, but without a probation officer. He had a JSA payment of £140 that had hit his account in December from a fresh claim made on November 6th. But this had to last him  ‘until my benefits came through, so I was homeless again’.

He headed back to his old shared probation house in Southall: ‘Everything I had was in that house. Eight suitcases of my property and my portfolio on arts, graphics and fashion work that I was planning to take with me to university interviews, and my computer.’  He says that he and a number of his friends were very interested in design, ‘and when I was in prison I spent my time drawing and sketching’. But he couldn’t get access to the house, and couldn’t contact the support workers, because ‘every number had changed’.

Next he submitted a further fresh JSA claim to the DWP in Catford, South-East London on April 14th, and was offered a place at a housing association hostel for the homeless in nearby Lewisham on April 16. He received one JSA payment after that, but says that because he had to attend an interview back at Gloucester Council, ‘I missed a jobcentre interview in Catford, so the DWP cancelled my claim’  He says he spent six weeks at the hostel sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag  ‘in one large room with seats and a television, sharing with 25 men and women’.

He believes some of those in the room were aged no more than 16 or 17. It’s very hard to see how treating a group who are vulnerable by nature of being homeless in this way could comply with any safeguarding or duty of care responsibilities. Are these people really safer here in this room than they are on the streets?

David says he was ‘kicked out’ of  the hostel when he ‘got into a verbal disagreement’ with another client that then turned into a physical fight. He left last Friday, May 30. He’s now squatting in a unit on an industrial estate that’s being used to store scrap metal. There’s no electricity there.

The dedicated volunteers at the Jerico Road project are going to do what they can to help David. They’ve fixed a meeting with him very soon to talk about his benefits and housing situation. One of the great aspects of this church is its focus on trying to tackle underlying problems such as debt, addiction and homelessness.

David wonders whether his past involvement in the alternative scene and in running raves is counting against him when it comes to looking for a job. He says the past five years have been tough ones for him and his friends from the former scene. ‘Lots of people have been shut down from doing music events, and a lot of my friends have been screwed over. Three of my friends have committed suicide in the last few years.’  He wonders if he’s ‘on a list’.

Maybe David would have ended up on the streets without that initial JSA suspension in Gloucester, but at the very least he was destabilised once that small amount of regular money was withdrawn. According to the latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) crime survey released in April, shoplifting is up 6 per cent year on year, while overall crime has fallen significantly. The government is still arguing that there is no link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks.  Is it equally convinced that benefits sanctions don’t lead directly to desperate people shoplifting to feed themselves?

Janine, the magic of MST, and the myth of easy-to-get food bank vouchers

The new lie in circulation is that people are heading to food banks in vastly increasing numbers simply because they’re now aware that food banks exist. Was it Chancellor George Osborne who got this myth up and running earlier in 2013, when he suggested food bank use had gone up, ‘because people have been made aware of the food bank service through jobcentres’? The insulting implication being that a bunch of layabout chancers are flooding through the doors of food banks in search of freebies that ‘hard-working people’ would never dream of taking.

It’s been emphasised already, and it was good to see this addressed in the first episode of Famous, Rich and Hungry, but the message hasn’t quite got through yet: Getting a food bank voucher is anything but easy. If you want to use a Trussell Trust food bank, you need to be referred by the jobcentre, by a frontline professional such as a doctor, a health visitor, a social worker or the police. They are deemed to be best placed to identify if you’re going through a real crisis and that your need is genuine. It’s only then that a voucher will be issued.

Are thousands of people in the UK – escalating numbers every month – really jumping through those hoops to collect a three-day supply of long-life food, without being in real need of help? In six months of interviewing clients at a number of food banks in this fairly typical London borough, I’ve met very few indeed whom I thought were anything other than desperate. Most of them have problems with delayed, sanctioned or stopped benefits, or are trying to move from jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) to employment and support allowance (ESA) due to (often extreme) ill health. Most have disabilities and multiple health problems, including severe depression in many cases.

Some, like Janine (not her real name) who came in just before the weekend, are former victims of domestic abuse and experience periods of crisis when the food budget becomes impossible to manage. Janine, a mum of a 12 year-old boy and a 15 year-old girl, is starting to get her life back on track after splitting with her partner. He’s a drug addict and an alcoholic, and her children had to watch him being violent towards Janine. She says her 42-year-old ex-partner is now very ill indeed as a result of his addictions. Janine, 39, was happy for me to use her real name and be photographed, but I’ve given her a pseudonymn instead to protect her identity and that of her still-vulnerable family.

Her life hit its lowest point in October last year, after she lost the job she loved in the charity sector. By that time she’d become extremely depressed because of her partner’s problems with addiction and violent behaviour, and the effect on the children. She has no support from any extended family. Why did she need to access a food bank? Had she simply heard that food banks offered free food, and decided to head on down? No. She was referred by her council social worker, who gave her a voucher. She needed it because she is struggling to survive on £71 a week of ESA and the £56 (child tax credit and child benefit) she gets for her daughter. She’s currently paying heating of £20 a week and water rates of £7, plus £3 for her council flat rent (reduced from £38 since she lost her job). Her son of 12 moved back in with her a week ago after he was removed from his father’s residence. Janine says that while with his father he was fending for himself – running out on the streets until late at night and missing school.

So although she’s relieved to have her son back, she has another mouth to feed, but as yet no benefits in place for him. That’s what plunged her into crisis this week.

Luckily, her plight was spotted by a key person who’s been working extremely closely with her and her children. Our local council has got involved with an intensive family and community based treatment programme that originates in the US called MST (Multisystemic Therapy). It’s an approach that’s fairly new to England, and ‘blends the best clinical treatments including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and family therapy to put parents and caregivers in control and to improve family relationships and functioning’. It aims to treat troubled young people ‘in the full context of their lives’. MST is also offering to support Janine as she tries to get back into the workforce. The MST key worker told Janine to ask her social worker for a food voucher, and Janine says the only reason she got it is ‘because my boy came back to live with me’. She had only ever used the food bank once before, with a voucher.

She’s evangelical about the positive impact the programme is having – given that it’s a small team based out of a local health centre: ‘I suffer from really bad depression, and they’ve been brilliant to me. They’re helping me sort out my finances, and that help is ongoing. My 15-year-old daughter suffers from anxiety, and is seeing a paediatrician(within the MST programme). They’re really good. They’re helping me with my CV and with ‘getting back into work.’

Before MST got involved, local council social services ‘didn’t provide the support, to be honest’, in Janine’s view. ‘My ex had alcohol and drugs problems, but the council still let my boy live with his father.’ She says he daughter has ‘a bit of an eating disorder, and is losing too much weight – myself and MST are keeping an eye.’ Her daughter did not go to school for six months last year, but she’s now in a good specialist school for children who have witnessed violence and suffer from conditions such as anxiety and depression. ‘There’s an open door at all times for her to go in and out and talk to people. She’s doing really well, and is ready for her exams. She’s caught up.’

It’s still too early to feel that things have permanently improved for the family, but so heartening to hear Janine say that MST is the best thing that’s ever happened to her: ‘It’s changed my whole life. My daughter is so much more relaxed. The people from MST turn up at school and ask her if she has any problems.’ Her account of why she was offered a food bank voucher should be read alongside the stories of greedy, dishonest, food bank clients that are starting to feature in some sections of the media.