Jon Taylor with volunteers at the Brixton Foodbank. Photo by James Hopkirk
Jon Taylor with volunteers at the Brixton Foodbank. Interview and pictures by James Hopkirk

Jon Taylor has run the Brixton branch of the Norwood and Brixton Foodbank on Ferndale Road since 2011, and now manages a debt centre for Christians Against Poverty as well. In that time he’s seen demand grow fivefold – from providing food for 1,287 people in 2011-12 to 6,536 in 2015-16. He talked me through the Foodbank’s statistics from the last five years to help me understand who’s using them – and why…

Looking at the Foodbank’s statistics since you first opened, it seems that benefit changes and delays have consistently been the most common reason for people coming to you for help [accounting for 2,254 of the adults and children helped in 2015-16]. Why do you think that is?

Benefits have been the number one driver from the start. Sanctions [where people have their benefits cut for not following Department for Work and Pensions procedures or missing Job Centre appointments] are a constant problem. From the minute they introduced sanctions [in late 2012], they were a big problem and a very common reason for people to end up here. The system is so complex, people just don’t understand it, and there’s no help available.

I saw a client the other day who was really struggling to look for jobs online. He and his wife weren’t computer literate at all. The Job Centre told them to come to a training session, but all they did was log him on and say “off you go.” He’s just been sanctioned because he didn’t look for the required number of jobs – but he doesn’t know how to do it. So two of my team spent an hour showing him and his wife how it works, and how to use Universal Credit. It’s outrageous. Why are we doing the Job Centre’s job?

Another issue with Universal Credit, which they’re rolling out now, is that you can’t use a Post Office account any more, you have to have a proper bank account. Banks have got better at helping people to transfer, because you normally need a passport or driving licence, but our clients rarely have these things. So then you need paperwork for the last three months for whatever benefit it is they’re receiving. But often people don’t have the most recent paperwork.

Sometimes it’s the client’s fault, they’ve just lost it, but often they haven’t been sent it – the DWP is behind. If the paperwork’s out of date, the bank can’t accept it and you can’t set up an account. No account, no money. Getting the right paperwork together, making the calls to chase people up, can be an incredibly long and frustrating process, especially when you can’t get through to anyone.

What about when people are moved from one benefit to another?

Well, changes and delays are often linked. I saw someone last week who was moved from ESA [Employment and Support Allowance – a disability benefit] to JSA [Jobseeker’s Allowance], but was then reassessed and moved back to ESA. The upshot of all this bureaucratic to-ing and fro-ing is that he hasn’t received any money for months, which is why he’s been using the Foodbank. I just don’t understand why, when they switch you from one benefit to another, it has to take six weeks or longer before you start getting money again. How are people who have absolutely no money, who are barely coping as it is, supposed to manage with a gap like that? This is why people come to Foodbanks.

And it’s not just people moving from one benefit to another. It’s people signing on for the first time – people who have just been made unemployed. I’m talking about people who have worked all their lives, paid taxes all their lives but have lost their job and then have to wait a couple of months before any support comes through. It’s scandalous. I think that if the DWP sorted itself out, a lot of Foodbank clients wouldn’t have to come here. So much of this is completely avoidable.

Brixton-foodbank-001As people arrive, volunteers at the front desk check people in, pass on their vouchers and see if they need any other help.

Do you encounter a lot of people who are on the wrong benefits?

Yeah, all the time. Usually people who are clearly not fit for work who are being forced onto JSA from either ESA or DLA [Disability Living Allowance].

Why are they clearly not fit for work?

It varies. Sometimes it’s physical disabilities, sometimes it’s mental health issues. But we’re talking about conditions where it’s very, very obvious. With mental health, it seems increasingly like they don’t take it into consideration at all. Poor mental health is very common among the people we see here. Suggesting that some of the people I meet are ready to go straight back into work without any support is ludicrous. But everyone seems to be getting pushed onto JSA, where you’re just another jobseeker and there’s no additional support. If you want to get vulnerable people back into work, and stay in work, you have to help them.

What about people who are working? Do you get people coming here who have jobs but are still struggling?

Yeah, we get lots of people in this position. Mostly they’re working part time because they can’t find more work, or because they’re single parents who have to fit work around childcare. Sometimes you get people who are working multiple jobs, but still aren’t earning enough to pay the rent and feed their families. [In 2015-16 “Low income” accounted for 1,571 of the people the foodbank helped.]

You get people on zero hour contracts, who have no idea how many hours they’ll get to work each week. Sometimes it’ll be enough, sometimes it won’t. They’re living in constant financial uncertainty. This is why we opened our Streatham branch [which is open one evening a week], specifically to cater to people who are working.

Brixton-foodbank-002As well as food, Jon’s team offer formula, nappies and other baby products for struggling parents. 

What are other common drivers?

It’s not always the primary reason people come here, so it may not be the tick in the box in our statistics, but very often debt is in the background. Because of their benefits delay, they’re in debt. Because they’re working, but not earning enough money to pay the rent, they’re in debt. Because they’re ill or maybe suffered a bereavement, they’re in debt.

Through Christians Against Poverty, I see people about debt, so I see it the other way around as well. I go to see them about debt, but I then discover they have benefit problems, that they’re about to be evicted and made homeless. So then I refer them on to Brixton Advice Centre to help them with their other problems.

There’s real pressure on families to provide for their children and, rightly or wrongly, people are prepared to go to almost any lengths to give their children what they need. I know parents who go without food, who keep the heating off in all but the children’s room, who deny themselves everything, but who try to keep their children’s lives as normal as possible, often getting into debt in the process.

A family I saw this week had got a bargain from Iceland, something like 200 sausages and 400 fish fingers for some ridiculously small amount. And that’s all the family was eating. They knew it wasn’t great, but it was the only way they could afford to eat.

It’s interesting to see that single people account for the majority of vouchers [1,470 in 2015-16]. I think some people imagine that it’s mainly struggling families.

We do get lots of families, but we get an awful lot of single men, especially single men in their 50s and early 60s. These are people without any family left. They don’t have children, so they don’t get priority in terms of housing. As a man, you’re supposed to be able to look after yourself, so you’re the lowest priority for support. And this is reflected in all the social services. We see a lot of guys like this, sometimes whose wives have passed away, and they can’t cope.

Brixton-foodbank-003Jon with a client at the Brixton Foodbank last summer. 

Single parents feature pretty highly as well [accounting for 799 vouchers in 2015-16]. That’s perhaps less surprising.

Yeah, it’s incredibly hard for single parents. There’s one lady I know who has four kids, one at nursery, the rest at school. She was working in retail, but got made redundant. Her partner is in prison, so she’s had to cope by herself. She was finding it impossible to look after these kids and find new work. She’s a very focused person and so somehow she managed to retrain. It’s a story with a happy ending – she retrained as a teaching assistant and now has a job she can balance with school holidays. But we saw her here for two years really struggling. She couldn’t get back into retail, but she found another way – with some help from Foodbank. But it wasn’t easy.

How have you seen Government cuts affect your clients?

Well, there have been huge cuts to council budgets [56% to Lambeth Council], so they’ve inevitably had to cut services that some of our clients relied on. The threshold for the services that still exist, for things like mental health, are now absurdly high. Benefits are being cut [ESA by 30%], sanctions have been introduced, wages have stagnated, prices have gone up, housing is in short supply, people are working on zero hours contracts… it’s a bleak picture, and it’s having a devastating impact on our clients.

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