ST LUKE'S towers over West Norwood, an impressive, if austere, remnant of the early 19th century, built at a time when it was surrounded by fields rather than fumes.
Today it dominates the top of a clogged high street, an island severed from the mainland by an encircling one-way system. This part of the capital is home to some of London’s most deprived communities, cheek by jowl with multi-million pound Georgian mansions. Since 2011 St Luke’s has been home to the Norwood and Brixton Foodbank.
Inside the church’s cavernous interior, office dividers, metal shelves and trestle tables have been used to construct a large food storage area to one side, with a coffee and tea station set up on the other. Twice a week – on Tuesday and Friday mornings – this foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust network, gives out packages to south Londoners living in food poverty.
To get a package, you need a voucher. This could come from your GP, social services, your child’s school or one of many specialist charities in the area. In the dozens of visits I’ve made over the last 18 months, I’ve seen people queuing to get in, while at other times it’s been quiet – although even on the slowest days there’s always a steady trickle of clients coming through the doors. The rhythms can be hard to predict week to week, but Christmas and school holidays – when free school meals are no longer available – are reliably busy.
When you arrive, you’re met by volunteers who take your voucher. Another volunteer will then sit with you and run through what’s available. Every package is individually tailored and includes a mixture of food and basic toiletries. Formula and nappies are available for those with young children.
While the supplies are gathered, you wait on sofas or in the seats facing the altar. Sheila will offer you a hot drink and a biscuit. In a quiet area to one side, Centre 70 – a local legal advice centre – offers drop-in sessions for those that need help with debt, housing or their benefits.
The atmosphere is strange. The volunteers make it as welcoming and unintimidating an environment as possible but, with first time visitors in particular, the fear and shame are often palpable. People come here because they are desperate.
For those who have been before, there is a sense of community. Many former clients are now volunteers. Some people come without vouchers just for a cup of tea and a chat. Most of the local day centres – where adults with learning difficulties or mental health problems could once spend time – have now closed as a result of cutbacks. The foodbank now fills those shoes by default. There is nowhere else.
The Brixton branch, at St Paul’s on Ferndale Road, is much smaller, but the same services are still packed in – a food storage room at the back, tea, coffee and biscuits, plus free legal expertise from Brixton Advice Centre.
A third distribution centre, in Streatham, was set up more recently and is open on Wednesday evenings specifically to help those who work and yet still can’t afford the weekly shop.
It’s at the Brixton branch that I meet Eddie. He was released from prison about a year ago, and is a recovering drug addict, currently living in sheltered accommodation as part of his rehabilitation.
He has problems with his mental health and is claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) while he looks for work. This is his second visit. I ask what brought him here.
“Anxiety, depression, being out of work, a failed relationship, alcohol and drugs,” he lists, matter-of-factly. “And I can’t make ends meet. After paying my debts, I find that I have very little left. I try to budget my money carefully, but [ESA provides] such a low income that it’s not enough to live on for a fortnight. There’ll always be a week where you’ll have nothing and then you’ve got to seek places like the foodbank.”
I ask him what he would have done if there was no foodbank. “If this place wasn’t here, and I was hungry enough, I think I’d go shoplifting,” he says, after a pause. “In a big superstore. And that’s being honest. You do what you’ve got to do to survive and eat.”
A little later that morning Sara arrives with two young children – her four-year-old son and nine month old daughter. It’s her first time at the foodbank. She tells me she’s here because she split up with her partner. “The last few months I’ve been really struggling,” she says. “I’m not working at the moment. I’ve had three back operations… and I’m just waiting for [my youngest daughter] to go to nursery when she’s one in a few months’ time. And then I will look for a part-time job. I don’t want to be living on benefits.”
She says she feels like a failure as a mother, a common sentiment among the parents I talk to. “I feel a little bit disappointed with myself, and with my partner. But there’s nothing I can do. They need me, so whatever I need to do for my kids I have to do.”
Over at West Norwood, I talk to Catherine. She works in a call centre on a zero hours contract and so her income fluctuates unpredictably. “The reason I’m here this month is because my wages were less than what I’d normally have got,” she says. She’s been working like this for four years, and has been homeless since July last year. “At the moment I’m sofa surfing,” she says. “I turned 55 in December.”
She tells me that she’s a recovering addict, but has been drug and alcohol-free for nearly six years and has been rebuilding her life. “I was living in supported housing but Lambeth withdrew the funding last year and I’ve been homeless ever since.”
I ask what she makes of those who claim that there is no real poverty in the UK, and that foodbanks aren’t necessary. “I think [people who criticise foodbanks] are not living in the real world,” she says. “I’m sure if people were on adequate wages that can sustain a family, or receiving adequate benefits, you wouldn’t have need for these things. But all these Government cuts… it’s just getting worse and worse. To me, it’s like they’re trying to get rid of all the poor people, in one way or another.”
One of the most disturbing stories I hear is Mary’s. She’s 29, raising her four-year-old son with no support from her former partner or her family. She tells me that this is her third time at the foodbank.
When she first came, some years ago now, it was shortly after her child had been born. Her partner had left her and she was homeless, staying with friends with her newborn. She was claiming benefits, but it wasn’t enough to survive on. “[Using the foodbank] meant we didn’t have to spend as much on food that week, so I could get my son some clothes,” she says. Last year, however, her situation took a frightening turn for the worse.
Mary tells me that her parents were first generation immigrants, but that she was born in London, has a British birth certificate and has lived here all her life. Despite this, when she approached social services for help, her homelessness claim was referred to the Home Office. They then informed social services that she had to prove she had been living continuously in the UK.
“I’m not sure what my parents did in the past, but I found out that I’m now under immigration control,” she says. “So they had to cut my benefits off.”
“I was born here, but I just can’t prove that I’ve been living here the whole time,” she explains. “I’ve been trying to get my school records, but it closed down years ago and no-one seems to have kept any records or archived them. Until I can prove that I’ve been here [continuously], I’m not allowed to work and I can’t get any benefits. So we have to come here to get food.”
Why social services thought to refer this English woman to the Home Office is unclear. She says that at no point did they ask about her immigration status or request her birth certificate or passport. Now, however, she is trapped in a bureaucratic loop, being treated as if she were a refugee.
She says she first heard about the foodbank through an outreach worker at her son’s children’s centre. “It feels like I’m failing as a parent, because I can’t provide for myself or my child, and I have to depend on others to provide for him. But I don’t know what else to do.”
It’s Marcy’s first time coming to the foodbank. She’s 59 and is here with her two grandchildren, both of whom live with her. “It’s just that on benefits I find it difficult to pay the bills and buy clothing and also have food,” she says. “So last week I bought a few extra bits that I needed for the grandkids and it left me short. That’s where the foodbank comes in handy.”
She shows me the items she’s received – pasta, canned meat, some fresh vegetables. “This package is for me and the two little ones that live with me. It’s not a very nice situation having to come here, but at the same time when you need help, you need help.”
“The people here make you feel very welcome,” she adds. “I’m very grateful for what I’ve been given.”
Back at Brixton, I meet Frank. He’s 21 and has been out of work for five months since being made redundant. “It’s very hard to find a job right now,” he says. “I’m not working and I’m not receiving any benefits.”
He says he was too embarrassed to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) initially and thought he’d find another job quickly. But as time went on, and after several rejections, he realised he had little choice. The problem now is that the process is slow – after several weeks there’s still no sign of any money.
“I’m here because I don’t have any income at all,” he says. “This is the second time I’ve been here now. This voucher is going to support me and my partner.”
I ask how it felt the first time he came here. “It felt alright,” he says, shrugging. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. Everyone needs help sometimes.”
Elizabeth is 51 and originally from Jamaica, but she’s been living in the UK for 16 years. She was recently told she no longer has the right to remain in this country. While her case is being dealt with, she isn’t allowed to work or claim benefits. “I’m homeless,” she says. “I’m staying with a friend at the moment. I have to go to counselling because it gets me crazy sometimes and I’m taking depression tablets.”
I ask how she’s surviving with no income. “I have family here, and sometimes they help me, but sometimes they don’t have anything themselves,” she says. “The foodbank has helped me so much. I used to beg sometimes, but when I got [foodbank vouchers] I stopped.”
The interviews we recorded for this film represent a tiny fraction of the clients I’ve spoken to over the last 18 months – but while each individual’s circumstances are unique, they are broadly representative of the sort of stories I’ve been hearing.
I’ve met a remarkable cross section of Lambeth residents at the foodbanks in that time – the working poor, the homeless, the unemployed, people on benefits, refugees, families, single parents, people with profound physical and mental disabilities, the young, the middle aged and the elderly.
What unites them is poverty – not having enough money to be able to put food on the table, for themselves or for their families. For some, poverty is a short-term affliction. For others it is a lifelong reality. But the number of people finding themselves in this situation seems to be growing every year. Demand has been steadily rising at both branches since they opened six years ago, as Brixton’s manager Jon Taylor explained when he talked me through their statistics last year.
Nationally, foodbank use also continues to grow, with a staggering 1.18 million packages given out by Trussell Trust foodbanks last year. This is a problem that is getting steadily worse as the effects of austerity cut ever deeper and the structures that once protected the most vulnerable members of our society are defunded and dismantled.
What’s more, while the Trussell Trust represents the largest single group of foodbanks, there are countless others around the country, run independently by community centres, churches, temples, mosques and charities. The truth is that we simply don’t know the full extent of the food poverty that exists in this country today.
Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees. The photographs and film intentionally do not depict any of the people quoted. This story was first published on my blog, Lambeth: Living with the Cuts, in June 2017.
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