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Sue Noel at the Brixton Foodbank. Words and pictures by James Hopkirk

Sue Noel has been helping struggling Lambeth residents at Brixton Advice Centre (BAC) since 2009. Unlike some of BAC’s specialists, she advises on all the issues the centre covers – from benefits and debt to housing, disrepair and homelessness. It means she has a unique overview of why people come to BAC – and how the introduction of austerity in 2010 has affected them…

Twice a week, Sue Noel travels to the foodbank in Brixton to offer advice on debt, housing and benefits to people living in food poverty.

Brixton Advice Centre and the Norwood and Brixton Foodbank have been working together since 2014, with Sue’s sessions funded by Lambeth Council and the Walcot Foundation. The aim is to turn the bank into a one-stop-shop, where those in crisis can come for food parcels and at the same time get help with the problems that brought them there in the first place.

Sue’s been working at BAC for seven years – and a lot has changed in that time. “Back when I started we helped with pretty much everything,” she says. “There were a lot of consumer issues, people who’d bought faulty goods. We helped with employment, and elderly people filling out forms for things like passports.”

In 2010, when austerity kicked in, the centre experienced the first in a series of cutbacks, forcing it to reduce the range of advice it could offer. Then, when the Civil Legal Aid budget was slashed in 2013, it had to further concentrate its efforts. Today, it focuses exclusively on debt, housing and benefits.

“Back when I first started, the [benefits] system wasn’t as brutal as it is now… it was complicated, but it wasn’t as cruel”

On the day I join Sue at the foodbank on Ferndale Road, all the issues she encounters are benefits-related. The clients include people struggling with mental health issues, physical disabilities and drug and alcohol addiction.

“We dealt with lots of benefits issues back when I first started, but the system wasn’t as brutal then as it is now,” Sue says. “There were no sanctions. It was complicated, but it wasn’t as cruel.” One man we talk to says he’s been sanctioned for nine months. He has a long history of mental health problems, along with substance abuse issues. He’s currently living on hardship payments of £16 a week – in effect loans which he may have to pay back once he starts working or receiving benefits again.

He was on Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), but Sue says he should be on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), because of his mental health and drug problems. He’s very obviously not currently employable. “Lots of people are on the wrong benefits,” she says. “People are being pushed onto JSA who clearly aren’t fit for work. And this whole process of sanctioning people, of going through the mandatory reconsideration process – it just ends up costing the Government more.”

She says she meets a lot of people at the foodbank who have jobs, but are on zero hours contracts so their income is completely unpredictable. “They come here because they can’t afford to buy food,” she says. “They’re desperate. And some of them are clearly ashamed to be seen. I’ve had families come in dressed as if they’re going on holiday, with suitcases [to hide the donated food in]. It’s heartbreaking.”

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As well as benefits cases, Sue says she’s also seen a sharp rise in the number of people in debt, both at BAC and the foodbank. “The two often go hand-in-hand,” she says. “One leads to the other. [By sanctioning people] the Government is effectively putting people into debt.”

She also deals with disrepair issues, particularly in social housing. “There are people living in horrible conditions. And now there’s no Legal Aid to cover this, unless it’s so bad that it’s affecting your physical health. Some places I’ve seen should clearly be condemned.”

Most of the issues she deals with are linked to benefits in one way or another, however. One of the most significant changes she’s seen in her time at BAC came with the 2013 overhaul to the benefits system (see my interview with BAC’s Nathan Scott for details).

“There’s now this knock-on effect,” she explains. “If your ESA or JSA gets cut, it’s immediately relayed to the Housing Benefit people, so that gets cut too. But what people don’t realise is that you can potentially still be entitled to Housing Benefit – you just have to contact them. But the job centres don’t tell people this, so people start building up rent arrears completely unnecessarily. They get possession orders and may end up being evicted. And it could so easily be prevented.”

She tells me about one woman she’s helping who had a well-paid job, but then got cancer. “She was on statutory sick pay but then that ran out, so she needed to go onto ESA. She’s still very unwell, and she can’t go back to work yet because her workplace needs to make changes to the office as she now walks with a stick and has to sit in a special chair.”

“These cuts are making sane people lose their minds. There’s just no empathy any more”

Despite being presented with clear evidence from her GP and hospital doctors, she failed the Department for Work and Pensions’ capability assessment and was judged fit to work. “It was obvious she couldn’t do the things they said she could – you only had to look at her,” Sue says.

The stress of this on top of her illness has taken its toll. “She’d never had any mental health issues in the past, but now she’s suffering from depression. This was someone with a good job, a good position, reduced to this. She feels like she’s gone mad. It could be me, it could be any of us. These cuts are making sane people lose their minds. There’s just no empathy any more.”

I ask what she thinks will happen over the next few years. “I think it’s going to get worse,” she says. “There aren’t enough jobs – and what jobs there are are often on zero hours contracts. Sick people are being sanctioned. They’re trying to put people on the wrong benefit. They’re closing down alcohol and drug recovery centres. They’re shutting mental health services. How are people going to get better?”

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There’s a client at the foodbank she’s worked with who was comfortably off but after a marriage breakdown suffered significant mental health issues. He ended up living on the streets. “We managed to get him somewhere to live,” says Sue. “But what it showed me is that it can happen very, very fast. Your health can change in the blink of an eye, and your whole life can fall apart much faster than people realise.”

She pauses. “There shouldn’t be people on the street in this country,” she adds. “There shouldn’t be foodbanks. We’re supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, but the gap between rich and poor is massive – and it’s getting bigger.”

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