Fat Macy's
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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. 

"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.

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.