Besma and her twins

greenwich foodbank
Greenwich Foodbank

A quietly spoken young woman comes into the foodbank for help and tells me about the events that have led her here.

Besma (not her real name) is 24 and is  from Casablanca in Morocco. Her English is good. She speaks slowly and precisely, and is keen to share her story. She wants people to understand that she needs help because of  her particularly vulnerable situation.

She tells me she had been studying management and economics at university in her home country. Back in Morocco, she met a 46-year-old  Polish man who had been living in England for 12 years. They  got married  two years ago and seven months ago she moved here to join him. She became pregnant almost immediately.

She tells me that in March  – when she was still at an early stage in her pregnancy  – he  was abusive towards her. While in Morocco he had been a “model man”, but when she came to London she says he became very different  –  “like he wanted to control you. He was always saying ‘I’m jealous’”.

The police were called following an incident and they advised her to remove his things and that he should stay away. Her husband then stopped paying the rent and the landlady told her to move out. The same day she went to the council and was given some temporary accommodation. She was given her own bedroom in a shared house.

She found out she was expecting twin girls. She adds: “It’s hard for me. Too many things have happened to me in the last month. But I keep going just for  my  girls” That house, with her room on the first floor, is suitable for a single person. But it will not be adequate for a woman with twin babies to care for, and she is seeking to be rehoused. I also wonder why she has been rehoused in mixed gender accommodation. Were any risk assessments done before rehousing her as victim of domestic violence?

In March she applied for jobseeker’s allowance, but this was refused. She is now appealing that decision. One of the grounds for the appeal is that she is entitled to recourse to public funds based on her marriage to a citizen with permanent leave to remain. The local Citizens’ Advice Bureau  and  Greenwich Community Law Centre have been providing help to her during the appeal process.

She says the people she’s encountered in London haven’t always been kind to her. But she met a woman from Kenya at the local mosque who has befriended and supported her. She admitted to the woman that she had no access to benefits and was having to survive on  foodbank vouchers. The woman gave her some money. “The woman told  me: ‘I haven’t given you a gift for the girls, so this is your gift now.’”

When her husband became violent, she contacted Al Hasaniya – an organisation that serves the needs of Moroccan and Arabic -speaking women and their families in London. They provided her with a social worker. Two months ago the social worker helped her apply for a one-off grant  of  £300 from  the Zakat Foundation, an initiative which uses funds and voluntary donations collected in the UK to benefit vulnerable members of the Muslim community.

She is very aware that her diet needs to be good. While the foodbank voucher enables her to have a three-day emergency supply of long life food, she is using what remains of her £300 to buy some fresh food. She also has to find £10 each week for the service charge for her emergency temporary accommodation. “This was a surprise to me as they know I don’t have money,” she says.

In addition to the ongoing support she’s receiving from the Al Hasaniya social worker, Greenwich  Children’s Services have also provided her with a social worker.

Her experiences seems to reflect those of a growing number of  people using the foodbank, according to Greenwich foodbank manager Alan Robinson. He is noticing an increase in those who cite domestic violence as a reason for needing help.

Besma’s only concern now is to provide a safe home, food and some measure of security for the twins. Her resourcefulness and dignity as she searches for these in a City where she has no family and few friends is truly impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jam, bread and universal credit

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It’s more than 18 months since I  last caught up with the manager of  Greenwich Foodbank  Alan Robinson. So what’s changed since then?

On the face of it the number of people food  has been provided to across the eight foodbanks in the borough has stayed constant in this part of south-east London.

In the year to March 2014  they provided donated food to 6,500 people in total and the figure was more or less the same in the year to March 2015 –  but with fewer children within that total.

There were  2,500 referrals  to the foodbank in 2014/15 and 2,700 referrals in 2015/16. So the local picture in Greenwich is one of  more referrals year on year but fewer households and families with children being referred.

Greenwich Foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust  – a network of 400 foodbanks providing a minimum of three days’ emergency food and support to people in crisis. Nationally the network provided food for 1.1m in 2015/16  and that compares with 1.03m in 2014/15.

Any steady growth in referrals would seem to have been stemmed, says Alan – “but the cynical amongst us would say that it was an election year”.

He adds: “There were very few welfare changes planned for last year and the welfare programme still has a significant number of changes outstanding. The principle one is universal credit which hasn’t really hit Greenwich. Universal credit only exist in Greenwich for new claimants who are single. If you are single and a new claimant you go directly to universal credit.”

Universal credit is a single monthly payment for people out of work or on a low income which has started to replace six benefits with a single monthly payment. A comment piece  in yesterday’s Guardian  highlights the experience of one 23-year-old graduate living in Greenwich, whose postcode falls into a Department of Work and Pensions “trial area” for universal credit. She told the interviewer of a litany of problems with the application process that have resulted in her having to make a new claim over a month after she first applied. She is now £1,500 in debt after having to take out a bank loan to pay her rent and borrow money from friends. According to the author of the article @DrFrances Ryan, the scheme is “littered with administrative errors” …. and “even when it works exactly as intended claimants have to wait at least 42 days before receiving any money”.

Meanwhile she tells the author she’s “living off  bread and jam”. The universal credit welfare scheme will not now be completely rolled out until 2022, the seventh delay since 2013. Given this young woman’s experiences perhaps the delays are actually a small blessing, says Dr Ryan.

It sounds as if she’ll soon become another statistic at the Greenwich Foodbank, if she can get a referral sorted out. Greenwich job centres are a major source of referrals to the local foodbanks.

Manager Alan Robinson says that in terms of organisations in Greenwich who refer people to the foodbanks, there’s been a year on year increase of about 10 per cent. Which organisations are referring? “We have good coverage with the community health teams, people who do health visiting and organisations helping  those in the community with mental health issues. The vast majority of people in those teams are signed up. In terms of GP practices it’s largely the big health centres.”

He notes two key trend in terms of  the groups of clients whose numbers have increased year on year. He is seeing an increase in people who cite domestic violence as a reason for needing to come to the foodbanks. This also chimes with the story of one young woman I’ve just interviewed for the blog whose experiences I’ll be writing about next week.

The other growth area in clients year on year is amongst those who have no recourse to public funds – “people who are present in this country but can make no valid claim for benefits”.

He adds: “In the main it’s people in this country with no (legal) right to remain here and that could include asylum seekers or people who are here because they’ve managed to sneak in. It’s a whole mixed bag of reasons. We are seeing more people in that category.”

It’s very good to start catching up with people like Alan, his wife Esme, and  the other lovely and dedicated volunteers across their network.

I’m looking forward to starting to get to know some of the many clients they support and to sharing their life stories and insights with you over the coming months. Behind every foodbank statistic there’s a unique and valuable human story.

 

 

 

 

 

Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’