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.

 

 

 

 

 

Inequality, one London church and the impact of universal credit

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In case you’ve forgotten, London is one of the wealthiest cities on earth, the capital of one of the world’s richest countries. Only a few weeks ago Prime Minister David Cameron told us: “We are a wealthy country.” Let’s take a walk down one street in south-east London, call into a church, and see how effectively all this wealth is trickling down.

It’s not dropping into the laps of the large crowd of people packed into King’s church in Catford on a Wednesday night. There’s a hundred or so sitting around tables (and on some Wednesdays there are 150 people). They’re there for companionship, support with their problems, and a free three course meal. There’s a warm, welcoming buzz, and it’s definitely not just food that’s on offer at this truly wonderful project. They get access to a wide range of help – anything from debt advice to counselling and support with mental health and addiction issues. They can also volunteer to help out with the meal. Many are here tonight preparing food, cooking, serving, clearing up and chatting to diners. People also get support with looking for paid work.

Fundamentally, it’s about providing a community for adults of all ages who feel marginalised by politicians and by society and showing them that they belong – that they are valued for who they are and not what they do or don’t earn. It offers them a firm place in the world. This project wants to empower people to have functioning lives.

The church prioritises helping rough sleepers. There were 16 of them here last week, and this winter the church has had more rough sleepers than ever before. The rough sleepers were heading to a car park in Catford that night. The upward trend in the number of rough sleepers locally reflects the national picture. An estimated 2,414 people were sleeping rough in England on any one night in 2013, an increase of 37 per cent on 2010.

The project also provides 24 (soon to go up to 31)spaces in low support housing at a reasonable rent, and draws up care plans to help individuals find work. It also helps people address health issues and supports those fighting appeals against decisions to withdraw benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA).

Low support housing (c) King’s Church London

Marvellous work is going on here, and despite the horrendous pressures on the local Labour-led authority’s (Lewisham’s ) budgets, it is working hard to forge connections with the King’s Church project. On Thursday morning one of the project’s key co-ordinators Simon Allen was due to meet with the council to discuss the rough sleeping issue and how to get the large group of people sleeping rough in Catford off the streets.

Simon, who talked to me at length last week, couldn’t be more gentle towards, and supportive of, the people who come along here. But he’s angry about the way current Coalition polices including the reinvention of the benefits system are impacting on the least well off. Benefit stoppages are “horrendous”, he says – telling me about one man at tonight’s meal whose benefits have been completely stopped.”He’s been without benefits for about six months. These are the most vulnerable people in society and since the stoppage he has spent a month in a mental health unit and a month in prison.”

He can’t believe that people with mental health issues who are challenging decisions to withdraw ESA are being assessed by people with no knowledge of mental health. The project team helps such clients with the appeal process and wins most cases.

The project has a problem if people are dependent on the Wednesday night meal alone. “I don’t want people to be dependent. Our key philosophy is that everyone who comes here can contribute. People can come here and help out.” He recommends a book outlining his church’s approach to social action. “The book’s called Toxic Charity, and it’s an essential read. You can keep people in their poverty or you can treat them as powerful. It’s about building community, friendship, relationship and connection. It includes a sense of hope.”

Simon is “a little cautious” about the food bank model of providing help, which he sees as meeting people’s immediate needs but not able to lift them out of poverty. “It’s all very well going to a food bank and getting a parcel for a few weeks (clients are only meant to use a Trussell Trust food bank a maximum of three times), but we have some people here who have been without benefit for six months.” He believes the holistic model based around community and friendship, and the project’s “fantastic” working connections with the local authority makes it ultimately a more sustainable long-term approach.

Let’s be clear: the Trussell Trust itself says that food banks aren’t a sustainable response to food poverty. Back at the London food bank, the manager Alan reminds me that “most of the people who come to us are referred by people who should be providing mainstream help. If we start providing mainstream help it gives them no urgency to solve the problem. There’s also the issue of individual’s motivation. Where’s the motivation to drive a solution from their point of view?”

Alan also believes that something of a myth is circulating about people becoming “dependent” on food banks. “We see nine out of 10 people on three or fewer occasions.” The few he sees more than that are mostly experiencing very exceptional circumstances.

Undoubtedly, this debate about the longer-term role and strategic direction of food banks is going to intensify here in London and elsewhere as more and more people are forced to use them. A London Assembly Labour report by member Fiona Twycross quoted food bank use in London as having increased by 393 per cent in the past two years. It said that in 2011 there were 12,839 visits to food banks in London, increasing to 63,367 in the first nine months of the current financial year – including 24,500 children. The expanding chasm between rich and poor in London is starting to echo that world painted so vividly by Charles Dickens. Who would have thought it?

Simon is particularly furious about the planned move towards Universal Credit (UC), which he predicts will have a terrible impact on those with the most complex problems. UC is the new single payment for people looking for work or on a low income. It will replace housing benefit, income based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), income related ESA, income support, child tax credits and working tax credits.

The new payment, which will be paid monthly direct to the claimant and will include support for housing costs, will be an unmitigated disaster for many, particularly those with alcohol and gambling addictions, says Simon: “Some people will be given figures such as £1,500 a month in their pockets. We’ve got one man here who is a gambler who is almost crying and saying he doesn’t want this. Why are they obsessed with paying people monthly?.”

He’s approached the DWP about this issue, and they’ve tried to reassure him by telling him about something called “jamjar accounts”, which are starting to emerge as a way of allowing people to ring-fence money to pay specific bills such as gas and electricity. “The DWP also says they will have advisers who will come out and help people. Are there really going to be hundreds of thousands of advisers giving advice to people they don’t know?”

This experienced person sees the evolving system as a disaster starting to unfold. I’ll be returning to the project over the next few weeks to find out more about the individuals involved and how their lives are being affected by the apparent dismantling of the welfare state in London.