Sweeter tales from the food bank

Sweeter tales from the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank

Often the accounts of the people who use this food bank in the London suburbs are harrowing. No-one comes here unless they’ve exhausted other options. There’s been a crisis – often it’s because benefits have been delayed. One young woman who came in last week – Sarah – had her employment and support allowance (ESA) held up before Christmas because she’d received some expenses for volunteering work done in the autumn. Often, food bank users are struggling with the repayments on doorstep loans and can’t afford to buy food. Often they’re on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) but are endlessly waiting for decisions on their claim for ESA. This is the case for Mark, whom I’ve written about recently.

So when good and life-enhancing things happened today, I felt the need to share. Femi, who was so distressed when I last saw him. came in with a food bank voucher, and told us the news that his family has been rehoused. Femi (not his real name), who tried to take his own life last September when he heard that his immigration appeal had been rejected, has been found a home by the Royal Borough of Greenwich. He’s moved in, along with his wife and three young children. A new baby is due next month. Femi, from Nigeria, had been studying for an accountancy degree here – he has only got two modules left to finish – but had got increasingly depressed towards the time he received the immigration decision last autumn. Their private landlord was also threatening them with eviction. Now they’ve been housed, things have eased. ‘It’s a big help for us, and it has helped me to concentrate on my recovery. The only thing left to sort out now is the immigration issue.’

When I last saw him back in February, he told me that he was still crying every day. Today, helped by months of intensive therapy, he was smiling and held his head high. He says that now, whenever he wants to ‘be harsh to himself’, he takes a step back and says ‘be kind’. He’s also speaking positively about the future. He has a solicitor, who is helping him apply for leave to remain in the UK. If that works out, he wants to get a job so that he can support his family. In the meantime, as a part-qualified accountant, he is very keen to volunteer and get work experience, particularly in the field of accountancy. He’s prepared to do an internship, so if your firm is interested in speaking to Femi, please get in touch.

Finally, another story from the food bank today: A local Brownie pack were given an Easter egg each by their leaders a few days ago and told they could either take them home or leave them to the borough’s food banks. The generous girls left 35 Easter eggs for the needy families who come for help. Surrounded as we often are by evidence of a less caring, more judgemental society, it’s heartening to see that some councils – despite their slashed budgets – are still doing what they can to protect the poor and vulnerable. It’s also good to see how many London children have that instinct to reach out to poorer families this Easter.

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The food bank helps depressed Femi as he recovers from a suicide bid

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As soon as I met Femi (not his real name) at this London food bank, I felt I knew him already. It turned out that as soon as he started talking I realised that I’d met his wife some months ago. Her story is here. Elizabeth (not her real name) came into the food bank for support after her husband had tried to hang himself and had become an inpatient at the local mental health trust.

As soon as he began to tell me that he was from Nigeria, had three young children (aged 8, 6 and 11 months) and started studying accountancy in London before he ran into difficulties, I’d a strong feeling I’d been talking to his wife. The lovely Elizabeth had made a deep impression on me as she described how her family’s life had got so hard. She said she’d just about managed to stop her husband as he had tried to hang himself at home in September, and of how her young daughter (of 8) had to run and get a knife to help cut her husband down in time.

What drove Femi, 34, who came here in 2008 to study, to the brink of suicide? He told me he had been working in banking back in Nigeria and came to England in search of a better life for himself and his family. Initially he arrived on his own to start studying for his ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) exams. “The UK was like a dreamland to me. My dad came here in 1975 and he told me many things about it. I lost my mum (in Nigeria) 30 years ago, so I had to grow up very quickly. I left home when I was 12.” When he was growing up in Nigeria he had to spend a lot of time fending for himself. He put much of his own savings into paying for his studies in London, with some support from his father in Nigeria. I also remembered that Elizabeth said her husband had worked when he could while he was studying.

But by 2010, things were getting tough. His wife joined him, but noticed that he was struggling with things like brushing his teeth and keeping clean. “I went to the GP and was diagnosed with depression. I was so ashamed.” He says that there’s a massive stigma in Nigeria about having depression, so he didn’t think he could share his feelings with what remains of his family back in Africa. Despite all, he still managed to pass the exams before he had to leave his course without completing it. “I keep my results on a piece of paper in my pocket, just to remind me of what I’ve done.”

The biggest blow of all came on September 17 last year, when the outcome of his immigration appeal came through. He had spent all his money – and received some financial help from friends – to fund an appeal on health grounds against the decision by the Home Office to refuse his immigration application. The process cost £3,000, to include the costs of the tribunal, £1,400 to the Home Office and £1,340 to the solicitor who took on his case. The news was the trigger for the already depressed Femi to carry out his suicide attempt. “I tried to commit suicide in the middle of the night. My daughter saw me.”

Femi sees the judge’s appeal decision as deeply unfair: “The judge said I should not be treated here. I said that I did not come here with depression. I worked in banking before I came to England. I took the UK as my home.” He even managed to donate £15 to charity every month for a while when he was working. He now has no money to fall back on, and he and his family are facing eviction from his privately-rented house.

He has nothing but praise for the social worker involved with the family, and he’s also receiving intensive treatment three days a week from the local mental health trust. The family has had some emergency payments from the council (which I’ve noticed tries so much harder than the other council on our doorstep to help the vulnerable when it can), but the money has to cover everything and there’s not often enough to buy adequate food. There have been times when the children didn’t have anything to eat. So the social worker has given the family the occasional voucher for the food bank. The family really needs this extra support, but the food bank can’t ever be more than a stop gap to cover an immediate crisis.

The couple only realised recently that Elizabeth is pregnant again – she had been taking contraceptives so this came as a great shock – with the new baby due in May. Femi is once again appealing the decision to refuse his immigration application on health grounds, and the hearing is due at the end of this month. The council is looking at how the family might be rehoused, but of course there are no guarantees of anything. He’s still crying every day, he tells me…

He went home last night with some food for his children, and that, at least is a small comfort.

Wish him well.

Food bank mum is more positive, despite eviction notice

Elizabeth (not her real name) is looking better. She’s come back to this London food bank and  it’s wonderful to see her smiling face.  She has her head up and is keen to talk. When I first wrote about her here, she was so traumatised she couldn’t look at me and could hardly speak.  Her husband had been hospitalised following a suicide bid. He tried to hang himself, with their eight-year-old daughter a witness to all.  The youngster had to run to get a knife, then hand it to her mother. Elizabeth cut the rope and called the ambulance.

She brings me up to date.  Her young daughter has now begun therapy, and she and her brother have just started getting free school meals. People are now rallying to support this lovely mum and her three children – the youngest a baby boy of seven months. Elizabeth says: “The primary school was very helpful. They asked what they could do. The social worker has been visiting the children every week, and the kids have been eating better for the last few weeks.” Thankfully, some of the boroughs in this area are disturbed about the disgraceful fact that increasing numbers of families in this wealthy city are unable to feed their children.

Her husband is still in hospital being treated for severe depression, although he’s been shouting that he wants to go home. He and Elizabeth are Nigerian and have been in the UK for a few years. They’re applying for British Citizenship.  Her husband had been working part-time to help support his family while studying here to become an accountant. But he had to stop working because of a change in the student visa rules.

He got depressed, and has had to leave his course. You know what happened next.  He has been deemed a high risk patient, and will not be leaving his in-patient unit in the near future. Elizabeth says he is a good dad, who loves to see her and kids when they go to visit him in hospital. The family is now surviving on Elizabeth’s maternity pay of £278 a fortnight, from her job as a carer for the elderly. In addition, social services have got her to start claiming £47.10 a week (probably child benefit)  – the total for all three children.

Elizabeth rents privately, paying £700 a month for a one-bedroom flat. All five of them share the same bedroom. Her landlord has now served a notice on her to quit the flat. Amazingly – and this shows the incredible resilience demonstrated by many of our food bank clients – Elizabeth says “I feel more positive, though my landlord is still on my neck. He gave me two month’s notice to quit.”

He gave her a repossession order, which she passed to social services. Elizabeth says she became one month in arrears with the rent, and the landlord used her deposit to cover that. Social services have told her they can’t help until she’s evicted.

Neither will the Coalition’s “flagship” Help to Buy scheme  be able to offer any hope to Elizabeth. David Cameron says the scheme is helping first time buyers outside the south-east on an average house price of £163,000. London prices are much higher. Elizabeth has lost the battle to pay the  rent on the small flat that is totally unsuited to her family’s needs.

This London food bank – one of almost 400 in the UK run by the wonderful Trussell Trust in partnership with local churches and communities – has been able to give Elizabeth help of the most practical kind. But she’s now received her third supply of emergency food.  At this point Alan, the food bank manager, has to gently tell clients that it is now up to other agencies to solve the longer-term problems causing their inability to buy food. What will happen to Elizabeth next?