High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?

 

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Giving and Receiving at the #Londonfoodbank

 

Greenwich food bank volunteer Debbie Angel
Greenwich food bank volunteer Debbie Angel

This is the story of food bank volunteer Debbie Angel and her feelings about  both the work that she does and the clients who come to the food banks in this corner of  London. Debbie (pictured left) greets the people who come in here, helps them to feel more at ease, and provides a listening ear as well as a crisis package of food to those  in need.

They’re coming through her doors in increasing numbers. London  may be the best city in the world to move to for work,  according to a survey of over 200,000 people in 189 countries compiled by The Boston Consulting Group, recruiters The Network, and totaljobs.com.  But for many of  London’s existing residents – mainly those who are out of work, or on low incomes, or disabled and in ill-health – the city doesn’t seem nearly as attractive as this. It doesn’t seem quite the gleaming metropolis to the clients who arrive to see Debbie and the other volunteers each week.

When you take a closer look there’s a massive problem here and throughout the UK. The food banks here in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and across the UK come under the franchise of the Trussell Trust Network and the Trussell Trust’s statistics on food bank use are truly shocking. In 2013-14 913,138 people were given three days of emergency food and support, and the primary referral causes were benefit delays (31%) and low income (20%).  In 2012-13 the figure was 346,992. But as the chairman of the Trussell Trust Chris Mould says – these figures are merely the ‘tip of the iceberg’.  The charity has more than 420 food banks, but represents well under half of the total number of emergency food suppliers in the UK.  A  January 2014 report by Dr Eoin Clarke put the Trussell’s Trust’s share of the food bank sector at 43%.

When they reach the food banks here, people are desperate and at the end of a road. They can’t feed themselves or any dependents they may have.

If that happened to you, how would you feel about it? Maybe you’d be angry, depressed, frustrated or powerless? Would you feel somewhat bitter and resentful of  others in this rich capital that people from all over the world seem to want to move to for work?

Well here’s the thing.

While people do want to share their experiences and explain the life circumstances that have led them here, people don’t tend to leave the food bank steeped in those emotions.

The accounts that people often share of their lives are ‘very heavy and very difficult’, says Debbie. But she believes that the common thread linking together the people she meets is gratitude and a desire to give something back to the organisation that has helped them through one of the hardest times in their lives. She says: ‘They are so grateful that we care about them. It’s the fact that you’ve listened to them. They encourage me as much as I encourage them. Giving them the food is the least of what happens. That’s the hardest thing for them to take away. Giving them some loving care and kindness and being here and hearing them speak is the important bit. They want to give things back when they are able.’

She adds: ‘This is not a one-sided thing – I love speaking to people here.’

I see people leaving with their heads held higher than when they came in, thanks to people such as Debbie.

 

Deborah, her ATOS debacle, and the missing coat mystery

Deborah, her ATOS debacle, and the missing coat mystery

Deborah Ruby, who had her ESA stopped, despite her multiple chronic health issues.
Deborah Ruby, who has had her ESA stopped, despite her multiple chronic health issues.
Deborah Ruby struggled into this London Trussell Trust food bank with her voucher. She’s a 51-year-old lady with multiple health issues. These include, but are not limited to, arthritis in the lower spine, hips, neck and knees, depression, severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome and congenital heart problems. She has been separated from her husband for 12 years and has four children – the youngest of whom is still at school.

A social worker gave her a voucher for the food bank after her employment and support allowance (ESA) was stopped on July 25. This stoppage followed her ATOS work capability assessment in June. Atos Healthcare is of course making an early exit from its contract to carry out “fit for work” tests on disability claimants. If Deborah’s experience is typical, the ATOS assessment process is if possible leading to ever more unfair outcomes for individuals. She describes the worst sort of bureaucratic bungling, and a medical report that appears to bear little resemblance to Deborah’s account of the ATOS medical interview it was based on.

Given what Deborah says happened at the medical, it’s hard to see how she wouldn’t succeed in her appeal. But the likelihood of a successful appeal at some future date isn’t any consolation to someone in her position. For nearly eight weeks she’s had no ESA and no money for food. Her sister – the only sibling who could help – had been able to offer some assistance over the summer. But now she’s had to go back to her home outside the UK. So last week Deborah hit a full-blown crisis – and has no idea if or when she will receive any benefits again. Now that her ESA has been stopped, her housing benefit has also been stopped – pushing her into arrears.

Deborah says she brought along a letter from her doctor to the Croydon medical, describing all her medical conditions. She says that at the medical, she was having so much difficulty moving around – she needs two knee replacement operations – that the doctor had to help her on and off the couch. She was in pain throughout the assessment.

The letter that followed informing her of the decision and the medical report was both contradictory and wrong, says Deborah. While there was a statement at the top of the letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she would be receiving an award and that they would write to her in due course, the assessment and medical report contained in the correspondence told her that she had failed the medical and had in fact been given zero points. She would have needed 15 points to keep her ESA award. According to Deborah, “the report said she could get on and off the couch and she was not in pain, and it said I had no problems putting on my coat myself – but I didn’t have a coat with me. The assessment referred to my depression and other illnesses with the exception of fibromyalgia – but they feel that I’m fit for work. It referred to my incontinence, and she (the doctor) acknowledged that, but said that I can still go out. It seems that in the report they put down the things they wanted to put. The doctor’s report also says ‘she was well enough that she made it here’ and I feel she glossed over and downplayed everything.”

Though initially confused about the contradictory letter, Deborah said that when a follow-up letter did not arrive within a few days, she then sent back a copy of the assessment form as part of an appeal, indicating where she disagreed with the doctor’s assessment. The DWP sent a letter back saying that it had read her challenge, but that it agreed with the ATOS decision. It told her to apply for jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). She has been back to her GP to get medical certificates saying that she cannot attend work-related programmes or work because of her health, and an NHS psychologist is also liaising with her GP ahead of the appeal. Meanwhile, Deborah is having to deal with letters from the council about her stopped housing benefits.

While it at least appears as if she has got past the reconsideration stages and lodged an appeal successfully, she has no idea when it might be heard and has been left stranded with no support while she waits.

According to the latest tribunal statistics, there has been a drop of 92% in employment and support allowance (ESA) appeals and a 93% drop in Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) appeals in April to June 2014 compared to the same period last year. A new system of mandatory reconsiderations before appeals was introduced by the DWP for ESA and JSA at the end of October 2013. Figures have yet to be published by the DWP to show how many reconsiderations result in a change of decision.

We do of course need to know much much more about the people who don’t get as far as an appeal. Precisely how many people are left destitute or dead because they’ve abandoned – or been abandoned by – the system at this most tortuous stage?