Fat Macy's: How one man escaped the Catch-22 of the benefits system

Tarek's descent into homelessness was typical. His escape was not. 

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"What’s wrong, Tarek?"
"Nothing... I’m just broken."

Tarek came to London in 2006 from South Yorkshire. He started working in McDonalds, where he used his wages to send money to family overseas and to care for his blind uncle. He was living in a privately-rented apartment, but the landlord sold it and the rent shot up. He couldn’t afford it. "That was it, that was the beginning of homelessness," says Tarek, deadpan. "Friends disappeared."

He ran out of renting options. For a month and a half, he rented a sofa for £200 a week in a crack den. During that time, he kept going to the council and saying he was homeless and needed help. "I begged for a place for one month," says Tarek. "They said they couldn’t help me because I’m young and healthy and they need to save money.

Then he lost his job. "That’s when it really became a struggle," he said. "I started doing stuff I didn’t want to do."

Tarek couldn’t apply for benefits because he had no fixed address, so he slept in libraries and hospitals for three months. He had nightmares about his mother telling him to come home. He didn't feel he could. 

The council referred Tarek to a room in a hostel in North London. While living in the hostel, Tarek received £147 every two weeks in the form of Jobseeker’s Allowance. Service charge took £50.16 of that sum and housing benefit was paid straight to the hostel at £281.88 a week. Living on the remaining £50 a week was tough, but it got more complicated. As soon as you start working more than17 hours a week, housing benefit is slashed. As a resident of the hostel, once he found a job, Tarek would have to pay expensive rent on a paltry salary. So he stuck to shift work. 

Residents move on through council housing, which can mean waiting a long time, or by finding a privately-rented apartment. The latter requires saving money for a deposit, but when you’re juggling a minimum wage, part-time job, meagre benefits and high rent, saving money is impossible. 

"The system is f**ked," is Tarek’s diagnosis. "The system should help us to be better people. Not demolish us by taking away our independence. When you’re living in there, you see the people working there like they’re evil, because they’re doing their job." It is not unusual for residents to languish in what is supposed to be the temporary accommodation for up to six years.

"You get a job, your housing benefit stops, you have to take a day off to go to the job centre to sort it out. You lose your job because you’re not reliable… It’s a Catch-22," recalls Tarek. Not working was what tipped him over the edge, resulting in a crisis that landed him in a cell for a night with an accusation of dealing class-A drugs. He sat in the cell wondering what happened. "Two years ago I was studying for my business management and IT bachelor degree," he recalls. "How the f**k did I end up here?" What kept him going was the thought of two cold beers that he had put in the fridge before his arrest.

Lost in a swamp of rent arrears, back payments and benefit slips, Tarek was evicted from the hostel. But this time there was a silver lining.

While he was in the hostel, Tarek had been involved with a social enterprise called Fat Macy’s, which employs residents of the hostel to cook for supper clubs around London. The cooks work as volunteers but for each hour they work, £10 goes into a deposit for a flat, thereby skirting the benefits complication. Tarek had £1,200 in savings from his work with Fat Macy’s. So instead of ending up on the streets again, he quickly moved into a flat in Kentish Town, sorted himself out and got a job. "I have the biggest title on earth - sales and administration support coordinator," he says. "The title is big, the money isn’t. I [am] just trying to stand on my feet."

Fat Macy’s has been useful to Tarek because it allowed him to sidestep the system. As the film I, Daniel Blake, and Tarek’s story among countless others show, the system surrounding homelessness (hostels, benefits etc) entrenches those it is trying to help. 

The founders of Fat Macy's, Meg Doherty and Fred Andrews, see their project as a way to give tailored support to YMCA residents, and give them a leg up and out of the hostel. But Fat Macy’s goes further. It allows people to feel useful and employed by being useful and employed. The idea behind the reformed benefit, Universal Credit, is that work will always pay more than benefits, and will be paid into your account every four weeks to get you into the salaried mind-set. But surely the best way to adapt the mind-set is to actually work, and see how the process and the act makes you feel. 

"Fat Macy’s," says Tarek. "Fat Macy’s is the bomb."

This December, Fat Macy’s is running supper clubs at the Printworks Kitchen, Clerkenwell. Tickets are £30 for three courses and a welcome cocktail.