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.