“Twelve bags, mainly men’s and baby’s clothes. All washed and clean,” Dawn Wilson lists, pleased, as she checks through the latest donations collected from her local area.
Wilson, in her forties, has been co-running the Durham Socialist Clothes bank for three months now. She’s a full-time carer for her disabled husband and is characteristic of what is emerging as a makeshift frontline service up and down the country: volunteers, often on benefits or low wages themselves, filling in the gaps now being left by the state.
Wilson tells me she formed the idea for the bank with a friend last year after seeing a woman crying in a local shoe shop.
“This mother was saying to her young son, ‘it’s your sister’s turn, I’m sorry son’. It spurred us on to do something to help, to help people on benefits or who’ve been sanctioned or are homeless,” she says.
With help from regional union funding, Wilson and friends began running the clothes bank out of their local community centre in October 2014. By mid-December, they were handing out around a hundred and fifty bags of clothing, with toys on top for Christmas, and seeing over a hundred people through the door in a day.
“We thought we’d be starting with two tables,” Wilson says. “But it’s just ballooned.”
Demand is so high that they are now looking for a permanent storage facility for the donations (Wilson currently uses her house and garage). Two more, separate north east clothes banks – one in Teeside and one in Stanley – are due to open in the coming month, she tells me.
Clothes banks are perhaps the latest stage of what the “safety net” has become under austerity. A few years ago, not many of us would have believed that food banks – at last count, having fed a million people – would be entrenched into our towns and cities on a national scale. The reality is they are now only one part of a much wider trend of charity substituting for government: a twenty-first century Britain where poorer citizens are back to relying on handouts to live.
The clothes bank in Durham
Since coming into office, the coalition has presided over “a dramatic decline in support for some of the most vulnerable groups in society”, as researchers behind an extensive study put it last month (pdf). Benefits are being cut and sanctioned at the same time as crisis funds are being removed. This is turning out to be a lethal two-tier loss of state support: where policies like the introduction of the bedroom tax, the removal of council tax exemption for the poorest, and failing reforms to disability benefits push people into financial crisis as ongoing abolition to local welfare funds removes where they can go for emergency help.
“People haven’t got money for rent, gas, or food, never mind clothing. That comes way down the list,” Wilson tells me. “It’s a mixture of people who come to us but mostly they’re unemployed, disabled, homeless…but also ones who are employed and struggling on child tax credits. Zero hour contracts are a nightmare, as they don’t know when their next money’s coming in.”
“I remember, we saw a pregnant girl,” she says. “Twenty-six weeks pregnant but she’d been without money for over ten weeks because she’d had her benefits sanctioned. We put a plea out for her and we got her a lot of baby things. Clothing, a buggy, things like that.”
It’s telling of the scale of the problems leading people through the doors that the title “clothes banks” only goes some way to describing the needs being met by services like the one Wilson runs. These banks are keeping people warm (there are bags of jumpers, hats and winter coats in what Wilson tells me are for all ages and sizes) or fed. But there are bigger items, notably often for children and babies: buggies, car seats, and cots. Shampoo bottles and nappies sit on other tables. Boxes of tampons wait for women who can’t afford to buy their own.
“We find a lot of people are embarrassed to ask for help,” Wilson says. “We have this one woman in her seventies… She got so upset that she had to ask for help. Her pension just didn’t go far enough due to her heating bills.”
“Wherever possible we prefer to give money so that people can feel that they have some autonomy and control over their own life,” Jemima Hunt* tells me over email, writing from her London home. “I’ve always said that if we gave a family money for food and they bought cake as well as fruit and vegetables then that should be their choice.”
Hunt, 35, is the founding member of the Biscuit Fund: a charity project that gives small grants, advice, and gifts to “people who are struggling and at their wit’s end”. Hunt herself relies on disability benefits due to having severe chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety and much of the work is done from bed.
Hunt tells me she had the idea for the project in 2013 when, seeing a friend was struggling, she put a plea on social media for help. She raised £100 in around ten minutes and had what she calls a “eureka” moment. Formed with a few people who had offered help in Hunt’s original post, the Biscuit Fund has now assisted just fewer than 250 people, providing anything from money to help pay the bills to delivering a washing machine.
What is particularly striking is the way the fund actively seeks out its recipients. Forty-six volunteers – from Newcastle to Cornwall – now keep an eye on their own communities through local papers and trusted officials as well as scouring online, from bedroom tax forums to disabled advisory groups, for people who need help. It clearly meets what are basic practical needs but, each time I talk to Hunt, it’s the emotional impact of the donations that is most evident. (Hunt tells me one recipient who was given a new fridge invited her father over simply to “admire it”. Another took a photo of herself with her donated oven.) The aim, she says, is to offer “a reminder that there are people who care”.
“I’ve never seen the Biscuit Fund as a political project,” Hunt explains. “It’s purely an exercise in hope and bringing a sense of relief. It’s deeply upsetting that there’s a need for us to exist, but while that need is there we will be here.”
The majority of people the fund finds in need have disabilities or health problems and are struggling on benefits or low wages, or are one of the many who have encountered the sudden loss of money that comes with a growing sanction system – or, as Hunt says, are a combination of each as they “frequently roll into one giant issue”.
“One quite poignant case for me was a gentleman who’d previously had substance abuse issues and had several quite serious heath issues,” she tells me. “He’d managed to get clean specifically so that he could have contact with his daughter [and] it was to be the first Christmas in a long time that she spent with him, but due to a sanction he was struggling for food. In fact he was missing meals so that he could feed her when she visited twice a week.”
The Biscuit Fund team sent the man some shopping, and then another food order “so he could do a full Christmas dinner with his daughter”, along with a couple of stocking fillers for her and a few baubles.
“He reported that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been excited about Christmas and that he’d been dreading it because he couldn’t provide her with the kind of Christmas they had both dreamed of,” Hunt says. “Apparently they had an absolutely wonderful Christmas together.”
“It still often amazes me, though, how little it can cost to help someone and restore a bit of hope,” she adds. “Quite frequently, we’ve had cases where the client has actually been considering suicide… Once in a while, something as insignificant as £50 can actually…restore a bit of faith in humanity.”
Sarah Timothy*, 35, is a previous recipient of the Biscuit Fund and, after being touched by the help she received, their newest volunteer. Her gratitude beams from her.
“They’re the reason I’m still here today and able to help others who are now how I once was,” she tells me from her flat in a small town she asks to keep anonymous. “I was blown away by them. They offered me that tiny glimmer of hope which I very much had thought impossible at the time to have.”
Timothy, who has emphysema, mobility problems and agoraphobia, is classed as a vulnerable adult. She lives in supported housing with the help of nurses who visit her daily but after being attacked in her home by a man known to her in February 2014, had to move to the first flat available. The floors had been left without carpet, the curtains needed replacing and there was no oven or washing machine. Timothy found herself in a situation familiar to many on a fixed or low income: forced to live hand to mouth and when a crisis hits, there are no savings or spare money to fix it.
“I tried all things [to get help] but I met with a brick wall each time,” she tells me. “The DWP were little support and every agency I approached said no. I did try a lot of places and each time I’d go back to the lady and she’d say ‘No, they can’t help.’ I did honestly try everyone, I even rung the council for help. Every suggestion was met with a ‘no’.”
Timothy was eventually given a no-interest Budgetary Loan – a government pot designed to pay for essential items such as household equipment or furniture – for £113. It had cost £150 for removals alone and, by nature of a loan, she now has to pay it all back to the social fund. She tells me her application form still had a slot for Community Care grants on, despite the fact these were abolished in April 2013 as part of the “reforms” to local welfare funding.
Often, these charitable services end up as a last resort for those in crisis
“I’m on benefits and disabled so I had no means of buying an oven or anything,” she tells me. “I had to either choose to eat or keep warm and I chose to stay warm and live on Cuppa Soups.”
“When you’re at rock bottom already, it becomes a mundane task daily to battle to get simple things you need to live,” she adds. “I don’t know why in emergencies like this urgent help can’t be given by the DWP.”
It gives some insight into the extent the coalition has tampered with people’s ability to access “urgent help” that 75 per cent fewer financial awards were made in 2013/14 than before the Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans were abolished. Recent research into the impact of the coalition’s changes concluded that the ability of low-income households to access emergency financial assistance on a repeat basis has now been “virtually lost” in many areas.
Not content at that, the government is currently in a battle to abolish the funding for local Welfare Assistance funds. This, despite warnings from the Keep the Safety Net campaign – backed by a national network of over 100 voluntary sector organisations and local councils – that the government getting its way would be a “present” to loan sharks and further force low-income families to turn to charity.
It was the kindness of strangers and sheer coincidence, rather than structured governmental support, which allowed Timothy to wash her clothes and eat hot food again. Upset, she wrote a post on social media about her situation and a volunteer from the Biscuit Fund happened to spot it. Three days later, a brand new oven and washing machine arrived at her door.
“I remember I sat and cried when they said they’d help,” she tells me. “I hadn’t eaten well for weeks or been able to even wash my clothes. At first I kept thinking that it maybe wasn’t true. I still didn’t believe it until they were actually delivered.”
“I do find it hard having to fight for simple needs,” she adds. “The basics, as well. Not luxuries.”
Rob Graham, 45, spent two and half years helping to meet these “simple needs” in his local area. He was one of the original volunteers at “NG7”, an independent food bank in one of the most deprived areas in Nottingham. This was a large-scale operation: table after table of toilet rolls, food tins and crates of fresh fruit and veg given out to people referred by multiple agencies, from refuges to the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Since the bank opened in 2012, 45 volunteers helped run the service – including Graham’s three teenage children – feeding over 5,500 people. After holding a final Christmas session, it closed its doors in December. I ask Graham what happened.
“Unlike the Trussell Trust we chose [from the beginning] not to set up a referral arrangement with the DWP. We created our own referral arrangements with specific organisations…where we could be sure that alongside us providing food there was in place some support to address the issue that had created the food crisis,” he explains. “We started with a clear ethos to be ‘a service of last resort’, not an alternative for the local authority or the DWP to use instead of their own funds.”
But Graham and others at the bank soon began to be contacted by workers from the local council.
“We spent significant time signposting staff from Nottingham City Council Family and Community Teams from across the city,” he says. “It was individual workers in these teams who informed us of how they were advised to use food bank referrals by their management and felt pressure to not use internal funds.”
This pattern of using the bank to fill in for statutory services ties in with the Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests that the NG7 volunteers made.
“A mere £68,000 was handed out in emergency hardship payments in 2013/ 2014,” Graham explains. “Our FOI request clearly shows that the council have not addressed the issue of access to emergency hardship support through its local welfare assistance programme, especially around those people who have been sanctioned by the DWP.”
Some of the supplies offered by the NG7 food bank
Graham tells me it reached the point where he and other volunteers were “regularly overwhelmed” by phone calls from support agencies and Nottingham County Council to the extent that in March 2014 they stopped accepting them.
“[We ended up leaving] a voice message which signposted workers or potential service users to where they could find immediate advice,” he says.
The experience of the NG7 food bank highlights the lurking fear at the back of any discussion of these expanding charitable services: that this may be exactly what the government wants. It is not clear whether the slow entrenchment of food banks and charitable services are the product of an active attempt to draw back the state or simply the tacit approval of a lack of action.
By the end of 2014, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was stating that “colossal” cuts – both current and those still to come – mean it would be justified to ask whether the government was planning “a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state”, changing it “beyond recognition”. It is difficult, as we watch carers open clothes banks and the chronically ill deliver food parcels, to not recall David Cameron’s 2010 promise: a shift “from state power to people power.” Perhaps the “big society” has come to life.
It has been just over a month since the NG7 food bank stopped its service and Graham tells me, as the funding for welfare assistance schemes is planned to come to an end this year, he fears things will only get worse.
“I’m aware that some voluntary sector groups, mainly charities, are looking to extend their work into food banks,” he says. “Without critical challenges from food banks or campaign groups, councils and the DWP can continue to utilize these free resources unfettered.”
“When we initially opened there were only five food banks in the city,” he adds. “Now there are thirteen.”
Back in Durham, Dawn Wilson is finishing sorting the piles of donations. There will be another session in a few days.
“It’s heart breaking to see people on their knees and not getting the help,” she tells me. “We do shed a few tears.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” Wilson adds. “This government has a lot to answer for.”
*Some names have been changed
You can donate to The Biscuit Fund here: www.biscuitfund.org