Maeve: The food bank volunteer

Maeve: The food bank volunteer

 

Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank
Maeve Adams, a committed warehouse volunteer at Greenwich food bank

While the focus of this blog has been on the personal stories of food bank clients, I thought I’d mention what goes on behind the scenes, and try to find out what makes the Trussell Trust food banks here in Greenwich run so smoothly. I’m also going to try to find out why people want to help out as volunteers.

Greenwich food bank currently runs seven food banks throughout the borough. Thanks to the continuing support of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – and its partner organisation Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Greenwich food bank opened two new public donation points earlier this year at the Arches Leisure Centre in Trafalgar Road, Greenwich and at Charlton House in Charlton. This meant that people living in the west of the borough could donate more easily. There are already donation points in Woolwich and Eltham  Centres, Greenwich Community College, Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s in Eltham.

The food bank’s network of churches across the borough also provides collection points, and many of the schools in the borough also donate, particularly around Harvest Festival time. The amount of food donated seems to be on the increase, as awareness grows about the need for food banks.

A small but committed army – the vast majority of them volunteers – keeps the show on the road. In Greenwich borough there is one central food bank warehouse, where food is sorted by volunteers according to type and its ‘best before’ date. They also check it is undamaged, then pack it into boxes and store it, ready for use. Food is then taken to foodbank centres by van, where it’s made up into food parcels ready for use.

The Greenwich food bank operation is thriving in no small part because of its volunteers of all ages and background. Many of them are drawn from local churches. Some are secondary-aged children helping out for an hour or two as some form of local community activity. A number of volunteers work ‘front of house’ – greeting clients who bring in food vouchers issued by frontline professionals such as social workers, GPs and Citizens Advice Bureau staff. If facilities are available – as is the case in Eltham – they’ll get a cup of tea and the chance of some emotional support as well as an emergency food supply. A lot of ‘signposting’ can get done at this point, if clients can spare the time and energy to talk. The volunteers I see are great at engaging with the people who come in,. They try their best to offer useful help, or whatever it is that someone needs most that day.

Some clients just want a person they can talk to who will actually take their minds off the harsh realities of the ghastly situation they’re in.  Sometimes they don’t want ‘solutions’. They might want help with a crossword rather than analysis of the likely outcome of their application for employment and support allowance.

The people I’ve seen are instinctively good at knowing what clients really need. Yes, they need food on the table, but more than that they want to be valued for who they are. Many of the clients end up wanting to volunteer at the food bank themselves.

Maeve Adams, a lovely lady with a grown-up daughter, is long-standing volunteer in the Eltham warehouse. She doesn’t meet clients, as her role is to sort out the donations as they’re received. She’s very committed indeed, and has been helping here for over a year. She dedicates a couple of hours each Wednesday and Friday. Why does she spend so much of her free time volunteering? ‘The first time I heard about food banks was on the news. I didn’t realise there was still a need for food banks. I’m not naive, but I didn’t realise they still existed. That was a shock. I really enjoy helping out here.’

She does have religious convictions – she’s a Catholic – and for her it’s about wanting to give something back to the community. ‘We’ve all got our own individual ways to feel wanted and needed, and for me I feel that I’ve got that balance. There are people worse off than me. The people here volunteer for different reasons. There are different age groups, but everyone here has the same intentions, so it’s easy to blend in. We want to do something good.’

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.

Sarah’s story: The housing trust and council response

This week I wrote about Sarah. She told me that she was forced to flee her home some distance away in another borough because of her relative’s violent behaviour. A housing trust which runs a hostel for the homeless in Greenwich took her in after she was registered homeless, but it has handed her an eviction letter, telling her that she must vacate by April 11.

It says that if she fails to hand in her keys by 11am that day, it will be ‘forced to carry out an eviction with the Metropolitan Police present’. It adds that following a review, ‘it has been decided that the services and facilities that the accommodation provides are no longer suitable for your needs’. It does not say why that is the case. Sarah says she’s been told it’s because she’s made a number of complaints to the hostel.

Sarah (not her real name), a law graduate aged 28, moved back home after her studies and struggled to find a job. She says that because she couldn’t find work she was ‘scapegoated’ by the relative. Eventually, she left home in January for her own safety. Sarah has also been dealing with a serious mental health issue – borderline personality disorder (BPD) for many years. After pleading with them to help her, she says The Royal Borough of Greenwich registered her homeless and placed her with the housing trust.

She says the council is paying the housing trust her housing benefit, council tax and for her heating. Her main complaints about the housing trust focus on ‘intrusive’ room inspections at odd times of the day, a card meter regularly not being topped up by the staff – leaving residents without heating and hot water about one day a week – and a service charge made by the staff of £15 a week per resident. She says she was forced to the food bank because of the service charge and because she lost food when a fridge broke down for a few days.

The housing trust (not named to preserve Sarah’s anonymity) has now responded. It says it that Sarah was one of the first clients to move into the new accommodation, and that when she arrived she was given a ‘small loan and a large bag of food’.

The statement says there ‘was an issue with the heating system where the whole system had to be shut down for repairs’. It says the ‘leak in the pipe work was fixed’ On another occasion ‘the gas meter was faulty and we had to report it and accordingly waited for an engineer from the gas company to exchange the meter’. It was ‘due to those problems that there was no hot water or heating for a period of time’. The fridge wasn’t working ‘because someone from the property switched off the fridge function’.

The statement adds: ‘The service charge is for the TV licence and broadband. Gas and electric are only covered partially.’

I asked the housing trust if they were going to use a court order to evict her, but didn’t receive a reply to this. Sarah’s understanding is that they won’t do this because she has a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement.

According to the housing trust, there were issues that led to Sarah being given a notice to quit, but that it can only say more if she offers consent in writing. I’ve passed this information onto her. The housing trust also strongly rejects Sarah’s comment that it does not deal with drinking and drug taking at other accommodation it runs. The trust adds: ‘We are working actively and strenuously with the council to reduce homelessness within the borough and to help vulnerable adults.’

Responding to Sarah’s concern that her council case worker was not dealing sensitively with her homelessness issues, the Royal Borough of Greenwich said it had ‘not received a complaint from the resident against the actions or behaviour of any member of Royal Borough staff’. It added: ‘We are committed to ensuring that we support people who access our services in a professional manner, and in a way which is sensitive to any additional needs they may have. If the resident has concerns about her tenancy and the actions of her landlord, we would encourage her to contact the Royal Borough for advice and assistance by calling 020 8921 2618 or email housingaidcentre@royalgreenwich.gov.uk’