Why are Londoners relying on food-banks and soup kitchens?

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London, England – The elevator screeches as it opens onto a cramped balcony on the fifth floor of a social housing block.

“I’ve been going through hell,” says 63-year-old Maurice as he points to the concrete stairwell where he’s been sleeping for the past year. 

“People always say to me ‘Maurice, you know what? No one will ever know if you’re down because of that smile on your face.’ They don’t realise that [under] that smile there’s a lot of pain and sorrow.”

Bright-eyed, toned and agile, Maurice points to a garage roof where he stows his mattress and pillows each morning. 

It’s 10am and a clear blue sky unrolls across the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. 

Traffic zips over nearby motorways, the plastic-wrapped shell of Grenfell Tower stark on the horizon. 

Maurice relies on food banks. 

Maurice has been sleeping rough for the past year [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

Last year, when he was evicted from his flat following noise complaints as his relationship with a girlfriend battling alcoholism fell apart, he became homeless. 

After applying for social housing, confusion arose when the Home Office’s database found absolutely no trace of him. He had emigrated from St Lucia on a British passport 50 years ago.

He attended school locally before working as a machinist assembling stainless steel hip replacements. 

Despite possessing a British National Insurance number and drawing Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), he is now trapped in a limbo that even his caseworker struggles to comprehend. 

“I’ve worked for 36 years in this country. I’ve paid my [tax] contributions. I’ve not come here and begged or freeloaded. 

“I lost my dad. I lost my girlfriend that I was living with. I almost lost my life because I was anaemic … And I lost my flat,” he says pushing his bike towards the nearby Hub food bank. 

“As long as I’m able, I’ll keep on fighting to the end.

“I’ll be so happy to have a roof over my head, a key for the door, you know? To have a stable condition … I’ve been through the worst and I’m walking with my head straight and I’ve not cracked up.”

Food-bank staff attend to clients [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

It’s Saturday morning and The Hub is awash with activity. 

Staff scurry between the storeroom and tables, arms laden with bags. A young Muslim mother and daughter in matching pink headscarves sit by the entrance. 

A white couple in their fifties sip tea. 

Natasha, a British woman of 33 plays with a boy making faces through the window. 

The environment is a vivid snapshot of London’s multicultural backbone.  

I blame the government entirely as they are cheating the destitute, pushing people into debt.

Louisa Haye, food-bank manager

An increasing number of people rely daily on operations such as this, their circumstances compounded by personal circumstances and austerity-driven budget cuts.

April 2017 to March 2018 saw food-bank usage rise by 13 percent in the UK – the fastest ever rate of growth – according to umbrella organisation The Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks across the country.

“This is primarily due to the roll out of Universal Credit and the effects it’s had on people’s lives,” explains 38-year-old Louisa Haye, The Hub’s manager. “I blame the government entirely as they are cheating the destitute, pushing people into debt.”

The government’s switch from weekly Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) payments to a monthly Universal Credit sum has come under fire. Reports cite losses of income and arbitrary non-payments, leaving people unable to eat or pay bills.

Some say that they have been sent pre-emptive eviction letters ahead of rollouts.

Volunteer staff select ingredients for each foodbank clients’ picking list in The Hub’s store room [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

The government’s move to sanction those who default on utility bills has further increased food bank dependency.

“How can anyone who is already struggling on low income, barely able to put food on the table or pay for heating, then be sanctioned for being unable to pay bills when the government are choosing not to pay out Universal Credit for five weeks?” says Haye. 

“And they’re still not getting their utilities anyway because they’ve defaulted. They lose out in both ways,” chips in Hub regular Kevin, from across the room. 

Kevin, who requested Al Jazeera only use his first name, receives ESA due to nerve injury in his back after contracting tuberculosis of the bone. 

He claims even this payment scheme has become erratic. 

“It’s supposed to be 300 pounds ($396) but the other day, they gave me 70 pounds ($93) and they expected me to survive off that for a month … They don’t give a damn about us.”

Kevin has been evicted from his flat [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

Born in White City, Kevin believes community erosion and evaporating social housing pools play a pivotal role in pushing its population into poverty.

After construction of nearby Westfield – Europe’s largest shopping centre, White City Place business district and The Bloom housing development opposite The Hub opened doors to an 8 billion pounds ($10.6bn) regeneration plan, attracting developers and private landlords looking to raise rents. 

Recently evicted from his flat, Kevin now drifts between outreach centres across west London.

“After that I’ll go and spend time with my gran … it gets really depressing sometimes, the fact that there’s no structure,” he says.

I’ve seen families who literally have been put out on the pavement in the morning with all their worldly possessions – including the children – not knowing where they will be sleeping, where they will be living in the evening.

Father Richard Nesbit, parish priest

At 11:30am, Father Richard Nesbit, parish priest of Our Lady Of Fatima, strolls in.

He’s part of the Trussell Trust’s referral system and – alongside 330 other organisations – issues food bank vouchers daily. 

He also cites urban redevelopment as an aggravating factor. 

“I’ve seen families who literally have been put out on the pavement in the morning with all their worldly possessions – including the children – not knowing where they will be sleeping, where they will be living in the evening,” he says.

Haye also runs a weekly Community Kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush. 

One regular is 63-year-old James who, after ESA cuts, found himself 360 pounds ($478) a month down. 

Diagnosed with Aids in 1982, he remained supported by ESA until last year. Now, he is also no longer eligible for mobility-related home-care.

James has Aids and his benefits were recently cut [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

“It’s been tough. But I remind myself that some people have lost it all,” he says. “I was going out to a party on Saturday in about ’82 and I noticed a lymph node.”

Ten years later, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and osteoarthritis; a golfball-sized tumour pushing his teeth through his chin. 

After successful treatment in 1993, he volunteered for charities Crusade and The Riverhouse Trust. But it was his theatre group that kept him going. 

“I was sunken, I just clung on … They were my family and they pulled me through. It was tremendous. I was just surrounded with love and support.”

People in work ‘increasingly using food-banks’

At present, ATOS and Capita – the groups behind ESA’s medical assessments, risk losing government contracts after failing to meet quality standards.

“In food-banks, the biggest single user group are people who suffer benefit cuts. It’s austerity driven. This is true across Europe,” explains professor Martin Caraher of the centre for food policy at City University, London.

“[The] biggest growing group is people who are in work. And that relates to the gig economy: people who are on short-term contracts not knowing whether they’re going to have money or work next week, that’s the wider issue.

“I think this is symptomatic of society – if food is the metaphor here – that we don’t really care about the poor and we [distinguish] between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

“If people don’t care about the poor, they should care about the health costs – because they will come with rises in diabetes, and other chronic diseases – and we will pick that up.” 

*Anna, a regular food-bank user, takes a break from job applications [James Rippingale/Al Jazeera]

Inside the Community Kitchen, the smell of homemade soup and simmering ragu greets diners. 

*Anna, another Hub regular, appears from a computer room upstairs with a stack of application forms. She is looking for a job.

At 33, she’s living in cramped government housing with four others and still two years away from eligibility for single-occupancy accommodation. 

“This service helps me with food when I need it, and employment stuff. And also I get to meet new people and integrate with them. It helps me a lot with my confidence,” she says, shuffling the printouts.  

“I just want to better my life I suppose. I know, it’s such a cliche.

“There’s such a stigma about people who are on housing benefits – ‘Oh, they’re just scroungers, they just wanna live off the system’. At the same time, you don’t know what are person’s life is like.

“You may have the greatest, most affluent background or be privileged, but one day this could be you.”

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

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