When I met John, he was in such mental distress that he could barely speak. Referred to Wandsworth Foodbank by a Community Mental Health Team, he’d come to us because he had no food in the house and no money to buy food.
Over the course of a morning, he gradually traced the currents that had pulled him into destitution in the previous 11 months: a zero-hours contract cleaning ambulances; a mistake by a JobCentrePlus work coach who wrongly closed his Jobseekers Allowance (which was meant to top up his low and insecure wage), meaning he had to apply for Universal Credit instead; an 11-week wait for first payment of Universal Credit, which even then failed to include the housing element for his rent; debt and rent arrears for the first time in his life, and eventually notice of eviction.
John sold anything of value he had to try to find money for food, gas and electric and rent. He borrowed from friends, although soon realised that he had no idea when he could pay them back, and friends stopped lending. An only child – his mum had tragically died when he was 11, and his dad three years ago – he was completely alone.
For the first few months of all this, John fought to resolve the crisis he’d been pulled into: chasing Universal Credit, pleading with his housing association for more time to sort out rent payments. He went to Wandsworth Council, thinking surely they would help – the local council where he had been born, gone to school, paid Council Tax.
At the Town Hall, he was helped to fill out a claim to the Council’s Discretionary Social Fund: emergency help towards the missing rent payments. However at the end of the form, the Council employee apologetically said he’d realised that because John wasn’t ‘in receipt of qualifying benefits’, he didn’t meet the eligibility criteria set by Council policy and so couldn’t actually receive help after all, despite being so clearly in need.
That’s the tragedy. John didn’t meet the Council’s criteria for crisis help because his social security payment was not in place, but because his social security payment was not in place was precisely why he needed crisis help from his Council. (Ironically, if John’s Universal Credit was being paid as it should have been, but he was still struggling on the low income, then he could have applied for help.)
Just when John most needed help, he was excluded from it.
For John, this was the final straw, the moment when all the fight went out of him. Already struggling with depression and anxiety from the weight of these months’ pressures on him, he could no longer see hope. He took his dad’s ashes, got on a bus to a place where he and his dad had happy seaside memories, and came within a few seconds of taking his own life.
Thankfully, something pulled him back at the last moment, and he came home and talked to his GP who referred him urgently to mental health services, who referred him to the Foodbank. And that was when we met him.
It is for people like John who we meet on a daily basis, that we have again in our Food Poverty Report this year asked Wandsworth Council to broaden their DSF eligibility criteria to include people unable to meet their basic needs because of benefit interruption and delayed payments – not continue to exclude them. Early crisis help – Sainsbury’s vouchers and gas/electricity grants, as well as wider help with housing costs – from our local authority would go a long way to protecting residents from being pulled further into destitution and mental health crisis.
This Thursday, as England plays Belgium in the World Cup, John and I will be at Wandsworth Council’s Finance and Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee, invited by Cllr Aydin Dikerdem whose report ‘Improving Social Security in Wandsworth’ has got this issue on the meeting’s agenda. We’ll contribute our experiences, and the Committee will vote on whether to take the proposal to broaden DSF eligibility criteria (and cover travel costs of homeless families placed outside of the Borough) to the next stage, to a full Council vote.
We are really hopeful that Cllr Melanie Hampton, who chairs the committee, and her colleagues present will choose to protect local people from risk of destitution by voting for these provisions, which we know from our five years of work would make a vital difference to local people.
Last year Wandsworth Council was one of the top three referrers to Wandsworth Foodbank, accounting for 19% of crisis referrals. We are so glad to help, but would love to know that our charitable provision is being matched by local policy decisions that protect residents from poverty. Thursday’s meeting is a great opportunity for the Council to demonstrate it is living up to its aspiration of being a Brighter Borough for All.
If you’d like to add your voice to ours, and encourage Councillors on this Committee to vote for policies that protect local people, you can simply email them via the links below as soon as possible this week, so they know it’s an issue that local people care about. Thank you!
Finance and Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee:
- Councillor Mrs. Melanie Hampton (Chair)
- Councillor Peter Graham (Deputy Chair)
- Councillor James Daley
- Councillor Peter Dawson
- Councillor Andy Gibbons (Opposition Speaker)
- Councillor Ian Lewer
- Councillor Aled Richards-Jones
- Councillor Jo Rigby
- Councillor Clare Salier
- Councillor Ms Rosemary Torrington
- Councillor Hector Wakefield
- Councillor Emily Wintle