June 2021: “The foodbank has been my life line.” Naomi, 29 and a mum-of-three from London, explains why food banks provided comfort and hope for her.
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“Foodbanks have been my life line”
by Emma Elms June 2021
Naomi has battled depression, been declared bankrupt and ended up homeless, but she has managed to rebuild her life. She is now working part-time as a beauty sales rep and lives with her two sons Harry, aged four and Jayden, three, in South London. Here, Naomi shares the challenges she has faced…
‘I was five months’ pregnant with Harry when I reached my lowest point. The council had told us there was an issue with our flat and made my partner Max and I leave immediately. We stayed with family for a while, but after a fall-out we ended up on the streets. We were homeless for two days and spent the first night on London’s night buses, unable to sleep. I couldn’t believe my life had come to this. The next day we appealed to the council for emergency accommodation, but there was a mix-up and we got shuffled between two different authorities. By the time we reached the right office, to my horror, it was closed.
‘A woman, who worked in a different department, overheard me through an open window, saying we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. Seeing I was pregnant, she felt sorry for me and followed us down the street. She gave me £80 of her own money to help us out. Starving, we gratefully bought a takeaway and a sleeping bag. We had no possessions with us at all, so I also bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and shower gel, then we went back on the buses to brace ourselves for the night ahead.
Hungry and homeless
‘The next morning, we managed to find a place in a homeless shelter. I felt so dirty and exhausted, it was a relief to have a shower, breakfast and be given clean clothes. You’d imagine it might be a scary place, but the other homeless people there were so friendly and genuine, I just felt relieved to be taken care of.
‘The following day the council moved us into temporary accommodation. We spent all day sunbathing on the grass outside the office, waiting for news, then finally someone appeared with the keys. We were given a tiny studio flat in a block – just a bedroom with a shower and toilet – but we so appreciated having a roof over our heads.
‘My social worker from Croydon arranged for me to be given vouchers for a food bank the next day. I felt a little ashamed, but when we turned up, all the volunteers were so welcoming. They gave us a cup of tea and some biscuits, asking how we were. Max carried the bags home with all the basics we needed like pasta, tinned tomatoes, lentils, beans, fruit juice, and tinned fruit and veg. In the corner of the studio we had two hob rings and a kettle, so we were able to whip up a pasta meal. We used the food bank twice a week for the next fortnight until I got my benefit payment from The Job Centre.
‘Over the years, I’ve struggled with poverty. Things started to go awry when I left school at 15. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I drifted along, trying lots of different jobs, never finding anything I really liked.
‘I fell pregnant young and after having my daughter Ruby at 19, I struggled with post-natal depression and found it difficult to cope. I fell out with my mum and moved in with my dad. My relationship was on/off with Ruby’s dad and we finally split up when I was 21. Mum ended up taking care of Ruby for about six months. I later moved into a hostel with Ruby to try and make things work, but at 23 I lost custody of her to her dad because I was mixing with the wrong kind of people, who were using my place as a doss house. Looking back, I was so depressed I’d stopped caring about anything and didn’t have the energy to protest. When I met Max at 24 though, he kicked everyone out for me. We’re still together but our relationship has had its ups and downs so we live apart.
‘Sliding into debt was down to a combination of things – me being too young to manage my money, letting unpaid household bills pile up and people taking advantage of my kind nature. For instance, I naively lent a friend a phone registered in my name and she ran up a £2000 bill on it that I was then liable for.
‘By 2019, I was £19,000 in debt. It was just before Christmas and I was in despair. I couldn’t see any way out. Then a lovely man called Jon from the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), a debt counselling charity, helped me to apply for bankruptcy. I had no idea where to start with sorting the mess out, but he told me to give him all my bills and paperwork and he did the rest for me. CAP don’t mind if you’re not a Christian either – they’re open to any religion. It was amazing and with my level of debt, which I could never pay off, declaring myself bankrupt was by far the best option. It felt like a fresh start.
Finding food banks
‘Since I was 19, I’ve been using food banks on and off regularly – like when I’m waiting for my monthly benefit payment and have run out of money. Now I have two sons and without the food banks as back-up, I would have struggled to feed everyone.
‘For the past two years, I’ve been using the Norwood and Brixton Food Bank where Jon from CAP also works. Because of the pandemic, they’ve switched to a home delivery service, but I used to go into their centre to collect supplies. I’m allocated a certain amount of food vouchers through my health visitor.
‘People worry that food bank volunteers might judge you but no one ever does. Everyone has always been so caring. It’s not just about being given food, they always ask if you need support with anything else too, like housing, so they can refer you. They’ve helped me with my current council flat in Tooting – it’s a nice two-bed flat, but I’ve struggled with mould issues here and my son has asthma, so we’ve been in and out of hospital for two years.
‘In the past, when I’ve been into the food bank, there are usually around eight volunteers, each tending to different families. If ever I see someone alone, I always chat to them to stop them feeling isolated – I know what it’s like to feel lonely. Once, I saw a mum in there with about seven children all under the age of 15 – we gave each other a smile in solidarity. I like cooking, so when I get home, I’ll make something with the ingredients like a vegetable casserole using a slow cooker that my dad gave me years ago.
‘During hard times, I’ve also used Tooting Community Kitchen, a food service for local people, especially the homeless community. They give out food to those in need outside Iceland on Tooting High Street at 11am on Saturdays, but people start queuing up from 8am. You don’t even need a referral or a food bank voucher – it’s a brilliant service. The boys love it and see it like a fun day out as all the staff are so friendly!
A new life
‘Life is going well for me now. I’ve started working part-time as a self-employed sales rep, promoting skincare products. Finally, I’ve found something I’m passionate about. I’m determined to make this work so I can be financially independent one day.
‘I’m so grateful for the support I’ve had from food banks in my time of need. Now if I ever have anything in the flat I don’t need, like old furniture, I always give it away to other people through sharing apps like Olio. So many people have helped me – I want to do the same in return.’
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“The people at the foodbank were wonderful, they understood and saved us.”
Having always worked and never claimed benefits, Holly, 29, from Chichester was bringing up her four-year-old daughter, Phoebe alone. She was determined to give her the best possible start in life, but when Phoebe suddenly fell ill, Holly was forced to turn to a foodbank for help.
The council flat that Holly was living in was in a deprived area with drug dealing and dog fouling taking place in the corridor outside her door. Holly was adamant that her daughter should have a better environment to grow up in and was offered alternative accommodation near her parents but at double the cost. As well as borrowing money from her parents to meet the cost, Holly was working part time. At the same time, she had been selling second-hand clothes online and the shop she was working in noticed its success and offered her a space selling clothes in their shop.
Under normal circumstances, Holly could just about scrape by, but when her daughter became poorly and had to spend three weeks in hospital, she was forced to close the shop temporarily. When Phoebe recovered, they returned home to empty kitchen cupboards, bills racking up and no income to support them.
Holly felt unable to ask her family for help again and after discussions with the local Citizens Advice Bureau she was referred to the foodbank.
Holly said: “The people at the foodbank were wonderful, they understood and saved us.”
Although Holly’s situation is still precarious, knowing the foodbank is there in an emergency is a huge weight off her shoulders.
“Without the foodbank, I don’t think I would be here today.”
Having worked in the police force for six years, followed by 12-years in the Royal Military Police, Richard, 49, from New Milton, had always considered himself fit and healthy. However, this all changed when a chest infection quickly developed into a heart condition and he suffered from two major strokes followed by 19 mini strokes, leaving him unable to work.
Richard’s situation deteriorated further when he separated from his wife and moved out of their family home, where, unfortunately due to this change of address his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) was delayed. As a result of his serious heart condition Richard needs 35 tablets a day, but the cost of travelling to collect his prescriptions left him without enough money for food, and his local Citizens Advice Bureau referred him to the foodbank.
Although Richard admits he never expected to be in this situation, on arrival he was put at ease straight away. “The volunteers were fantastic, offering a chat and a shoulder to cry on. I suffer from depression as well and without the foodbank I don’t think I would be here today,” he said.
Richard looks forward to seeing his 10-year-old daughter every weekend but admits he has skipped meals on a few occasions so she can eat. He explains: “It’s a really bad situation that people have to decide whether they can feed themselves, feed their children or put the heating on. It’s a case of having to budget or having to go without.”
At the moment things are still tough for Richard, he’s on the waiting list for a heart transplant and will be on medication for the rest of his life, but he’s grateful that the foodbank is available if he ever needs some extra help.