Since April 2018 local people have requested and received 770 food vouchers at CARBS offices, a rise of nearly 40 per cent on the previous 12 months. Other agencies, including social services, GPs and health workers, are permitted to provide vouchers, so the full local number is considerably higher. Food banks no longer limit the number of vouchers people receive, accepting that people’s difficulties don’t get resolved for many weeks, sometimes months.
Here, I look at those who rely on food banks to stop themselves and their dependants going hungry.
At Citizens Advice we always discuss people’s situation to see if we can improve things. Where appropriate, we intervene to discuss problems and disputes with the Job Centre or DWP, or we follow up an appeal. But, like our clients, we know nothing happens quickly.
Everyone is different, everyone’s problem personal and complex, but some specific situations all too often lead to people running out of money…..
Unfortunately, food is often the item people try to save on. In the past, I was shocked by the number of clients who told me (without self-pity) they lived on toast and baked beans because that was all they could afford. The truth is the increase in food banks in the last 10 years has been a life-saver for many individuals and families such as those whose experience we describe below.
Are things about to change? Reforms of universal credit and aspects of the appeal system proposed by Citizens Advice and others could make a difference.
But with policy-makers so taken up with Brexit there seems little prospect of anything happening soon.
At CARBS we can only be thankful there are people in the community dedicated to running our food banks and generous individuals and organisations willing to fund them.
Real experiences (names changed in all cases)
1 Malcolm and family – poor health, sanctions, bill arrears
Malcolm is a 60-year old man living in rented accommodation with his wife and two daughters. He recently retired from the army and is unable to work due to major health problems. His wife is also unable to work due to poor health. Their only income is his army pension. Their older daughter was receiving universal credit but was sanctioned for 66 days for not attending an appointment. She is appealing this decision. They struggle to pay rent; they have a pre-payment meter for gas and electricity but currently have no gas and their electricity payment includes a sum for paying off arrears. They have no money and there is minimal food in the house; they feel they just aren’t coping.
We were able to provide food and utility vouchers and help their daughter apply for personal independence payment and appeal the universal credit sanction.
2 Sheila and family – disability, appeal delay
Sheila is a 40 year old disabled woman living with a partner and her 18-year old daughter. With our help she has been appealing a PIP decision, a process that has taken almost a year. In all this time she has had minimal income and been forced to rely on food banks. At the last meeting Sheila told us she had been successful at the Tribunal; she hoped this would be the last food voucher she would need (although she was still awaiting a payment from the DWP).
3 William – lost job, multiple debts, threat of eviction
William is a 70 year old man who has been struggling to pay his rent and bills for some months. He was recently dismissed from his job and decided at that point that he would retire. However he explained he was using almost all his pension to pay credit card bills and had no money for essentials, including rent and food. Looking into the situation, we found he also had rent arrears and was threatened with eviction, and other debts he couldn’t cope with and was now ignoring. He came to Citizens Advice in desperation.
As well as providing food vouchers, we gave William a full benefit check and negotiated the reinstatement of a local council benefit that had been stopped. We also arranged an appointment with a money adviser to help him manage the rent arrears and discuss options including ‘writing off’ some debts.
4 Samira and friend – refugees
Samira and her friend are Syrian refugees. They know no one in the area and have very poor English. Their situation meant we were able to provide food vouchers but we also offered to help them search for secure accommodation and check their entitlement to benefit support.