“I was sanctioned because I missed an appointment at the Job Centre. I was severely depressed, and sometimes when I am like that I can’t leave the flat. My electric has almost run out so I can’t heat water and I am having a light on as little as possible. I know the cause of my depression and anxiety but I can’t get any free counselling or help.”
Mick’s* account of his struggle to keep his benefits in payment is typical of many of those we hear at Exeter Foodbank. Disclosing personal details to strangers, filling out complex paperwork or navigating call centre phone systems can be daunting for anyone. For those, like Mick, who suffer from chronic mental health conditions, or have limited literacy and digital skills, it can be a Herculean step too far. Many arrive at our foodbank’s doors in desperate circumstances, with nowhere else to turn.
Exeter Foodbank is not alone in this. A new report, published today by The Trussell Trust, provides fresh insight into the challenges faced by people with disabilities and health conditions who are referred to the foodbank network across the UK. Key issues reported by the 141 participating foodbanks include problems arising from changes to benefits, benefit cuts, assessments and long delays, particularly regarding Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals. Almost a quarter of respondents noted a sharp increase in the number of people referred whilst experiencing mental health problems in the last 12 months.
Ill-health can happen to anyone. Foodbanks often serve people with long employment histories – and the self-employed, or those in manual work, appear particularly vulnerable when illness or injury strikes. This was certainly our experience at Exeter Foodbank with Luke*. Having been a dairy farmer for over 30 years, Luke developed a serious neurological condition. When his claim for ESA was rejected, he lacked the skills to appeal and, with no previous experience of the welfare system, did not know how to get help. He was left isolated, with virtually no income and became depressed, having lost his entire way of life.
Neither Mick nor Luke found themselves in crisis purely as a result of their health conditions. Like many people we see, each experienced a challenging set of social circumstances and struggled to access financial help even when available. The complexity of these individual needs cannot always be expressed via standardised forms, nor met by digitalised systems alone. Sometimes, foodbanks can begin to meet some of them. Our motto at Exeter Foodbank is to ‘restore dignity and revive hope’, and our volunteers work hard to provide friendly face-to-face contact and a listening ear. Foodbanks are also taking innovative steps to provide further welfare support. Luke benefitted from one such measure when Exeter Foodbank referred him to a specialist welfare worker with another charity. After months of advocacy, Luke’s disability payments were instated and he received a large back-payment of monies owed.
Luke was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. The personalised support he received involved specialist, time-consuming work, which over-stretched charities often lack the capacity to provide. Foodbanks and their partners will continue to deliver the best support possible – but more needs to be done. The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ rings true. We need to work towards a future where foodbanks aren’t needed because people at risk of falling into crisis, like Mick and Luke, have been caught long before they have no money for food.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity