Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope

Mohammed and the night bus: A search for #asylum and hope
Mohammed's asylum application has been refused
Mohammed’s asylum application has been refused

Mohammed came into this  south-east London food bank in search of help. But he feels no sense of belonging here any more – and seems disconnected from the events taking place around him.

He’s a casualty of war. He made the journey from Iraq to the UK in 2005 as a stowaway on a lorry, when he was 22 years old. His father, one of Saddam Hussein’s policemen, had been killed. The terrible trip took three or four weeks. To this day he doesn’t know what happened to the rest of his Kurdish family. They ran away to Syria and he lost track of them after that.

He’s homeless now and his asylum case has been refused. He can’t work, because he hasn’t got the immigration status to do that. Feeling that he’s come to the end of the line here in England, he wants to return to Iraq. The UK Immigration Services won’t let him, given the ongoing insurgency. Now 33, Mohammed is drinking heavily and depressed.  Some days, when he doesn’t have a drink, he starts shaking. ‘I drink too much and I’m thinking about my family.’ He’s had enough of life on the streets of London, where he sleeps when he can’t find a place on the floor of a pub. Some nights he sleeps at the train station or at a homeless shelter. On a few occasions he is allowed  to stay at a friend’s flat.

It’s cold and he doesn’t feel it would be any more dangerous in Iraq than it is here. ‘I have no home – nowhere to go. Two weeks ago I saw someone stab a person with a knife on the streets. Sometimes you see very dangerous people. Three months ago someone attacked me. He punched me in the mouth and I lost a tooth.’ His health is deteriorating. ‘I went to the GP today and told him I can’t eat properly.’ He showed me some medicine he’s been given.

In 2008 Mohammed ended up in prison for a year, followed by a 17-month spell in a detention centre because of his immigration status. Mohammed says all he had done was to ask someone for a cigarette – ‘but the man said I robbed him’.  He says that he challenged the detention at High Court and ‘won the case – I should have got £60,000, but they gave me £5,000. His girlfriend at the time stood by him while he was in detention and offered good support. But the relationship foundered.

He was sent to hospital for help to overcome his addiction to alcohol, but the detox therapy would have cost £4,800 and the Immigration Services refused to fund it. He has to check in with the Immigration Services regularly to prove he’s still in the country. Because he is destitute he can’t afford the train ticket. So every time he travels by train he runs the risk of a fine he can’t pay – followed by a trip to court and potentially another conviction for a criminal offence.

This Trussell Trust food bank was able to give Mohammed a supply of three days non-perishable food. This food is long life, and much of it needs to be cooked or heated. That’s a problem, because Mohammed normally has nowhere to cook it. He’s homeless. On the night we met he was trying hard to contact a friend to see if he could sleep at his home. I spoke to one of  the volunteers at the food bank, who said how difficult it can be to ‘signpost’ people such as Mohammed, to try to get them some help. There don’t seem to be any avenues left for him.

Mohammed told me he often sleeps on the night buses that connect the centre of London to the outer suburbs. ‘It’s not just me – there are many people who do this. People without houses.’

You don’t have to be an asylum seeker to be at risk of  homelessness in the UK. A recent analysis of government data by the University of St Andrews on behalf of Shelter, found that one in 8 UK households are surviving on low incomes while paying unaffordable housing costs. This is putting them under huge financial pressure, and  ‘more than one in 10 working families in England have had to sell possessions to cover their housing costs’. A two-bedroom flat in London costs up to £1,470 in rent, with many remaining empty and unlet for months because many public sector workers and pensioners just can’t afford them.

Next time you’re in London on a night bus, try looking around to work out  how many people are there because they have nowhere else to go.  But you might find that everyone is staring at you.

Many thanks to Mohammed for sharing his experiences of  life as an asylum seeker in London.


Mark and the Jobseeker’s Allowance/Payday Loan Diet

House prices aren’t the only thing taking off in London. There’s been a big spike recently in the numbers using this Trussell Trust food bank. Last week  13 clients came in with their vouchers during the three-hour weekly slot that  we’re open. That’s a significant increase on before Christmas. I’ll be trying to collate numbers this week to see if that  January increase is reflected at the other food banks in the borough.

One of the clients who came in just before the weekend was Mark, an endearing  man of 29, who had used another food bank at the start of the week. That supply would have seen him through for a minimum of three days. This time he didn’t have a voucher (the worker from the job centre who usually allocates them wasn’t available), but he decided to call in with us anyway. He brought us a box of biscuits he’d received from the food bank to say thanks for the earlier help. We weren’t able to give him a nutritionally balanced package of food without a voucher, but we gave him some bits and pieces that were still in date, and a loaf of bread that had been brought in that morning.

Mark has been receiving  jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for some time. His last job was agency work as a barman and waiter. The company got bought out, and Mark ended up being paid two weeks after he did a shift. He told me: “I could be called up on the day, and I had to pay out £40 a week for my travel card, as the work took me all over London. I just couldn’t afford it.”

He tells me that he normally sets aside a small amount (£18-40) a fortnight for food. He carefully juggled all this and it was tricky. But recently things got harder, as he started paying off a hire purchase agreement to BrightHouse for a PC. He uses the PC (which he describes as his lifeline)  to prepare and send off job applications. Being poor is expensive. A typical BrightHouse HP agreement involves an APR of 70 per cent. He’s also paying off another loan from The Money Shop, where short-term loans of up £1,000 typically have an APR of 2961.4 per cent. He says his problems were also made worse (probably before Christmas) by bills coming out of his account earlier than he expected.

To make matters worse he got ill in October, when he hurt his right shoulder and arm, and the right side of his neck. This really affected his original  food budget (which assumed one to two meals a day), as the painkillers he’s taking require him to eat more regularly. It got to the point where he has needed to pay out £4.40 a week more than is paid in – and that’s before buying food. The injury is in danger of turning into a chronic health problem. Mark is also paying a Sky subscription. Some will point a finger here and say he shouldn’t be doing this if he can’t afford food. But try standing his shoes (size nines – needing superglue as the soles have come off) for a while…

Mark has a kind heart. On the day he was in he put his name down to become a volunteer at the food bank. He also helps his neighbour (in her 80s) to carry her heavy shopping. That won’t be doing his arm much good. What does he think will happen next, and what would he like from life in the future? I tell him I see him as very good with people and extremely thoughtful.  “In the short term I’m going to keep struggling to feed myself. A nice steady job would help and somewhere of my own to live (he has slept on a friend’s sofa for more than six years).” I suggest he goes back to see his GP and asks for better medication, some physiotherapy and help with applying  for employment and support allowance (ESA). The higher rate of ESA would make a difference until his health improves.

He looks gaunt, and says that he’s lost substantial amounts of weight over the last few years – about three stones, he thinks. Being on JSA is not good for your health. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg has recently said that welfare payments in the UK , including JSA (£67 a week) are manifestly inadequate. Our Government doesn’t agree.

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.