Poverty and the pandemic
An interview with Angie Allgood, Poverty Response Project Co-ordinator
Did you realise what you were in for when lockdown was announced?
No! It all happened so quickly. I felt like we were moving into this strange, parallel universe and I had no idea how long it would last and how busy we would be – we were just concentrating on getting everything set up.
Because I’ve run the foodbank for seven years, in my mind I thought we’d maybe be issuing 20-30 foodbank vouchers, and suddenly we started to hit 140 vouchers serving upwards of 400 people a week, along with 40 emergency deliveries to people’s homes. I had no idea it would be on that scale and if we’d known, we probably would have said no, we can’t do this!
The destitution and desperation have been hard to observe and it’s taken its toll on all of us. But the way everyone stepped up as a team was incredible – the workers, the volunteers, the drivers, the packers and everyone else. Overnight we became a logistics company – we were running a borough-wide warehouse and delivery service with maps on walls pinpointing routes. How Dave Mann and Liam Adam pulled that operation off I don’t know, it was amazing!
Can you tell us about some of the groups of people that you helped?
At first, the kind of people we had coming for help included vulnerable elders and families, the homeless community, and people who had lost work and moving on to benefits. These are the groups that we’ve historically been aware of and working with, so that wasn’t a surprise.
But at the start, many people hoped this would be a short-lived problem, and that they would be able to return to their jobs or find alternative work. As time went on, that didn’t happen. So we began to see new families struggling for the first time. For example, many faced with delays waiting for universal credit. It’s also a complicated system so they didn’t always get their claims right first time but, working remotely, our advocacy team was able to help people with these.
How did things evolve as lockdown continued?
Newham Council began to take on the most vulnerable people, so we referred many of our elders and vulnerable families to them. But then we began to see new groups emerging from the shadows. The main one was people with no recourse to public funds – a whole new cohort of the community for us, mainly but not exclusively from South Asia, along with some Europeans who had fallen foul of settled status and work treaty rules.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was when we started to get online requests from people in their early 20s in households of 15 people. I knew these addresses and began to think – that’s just a terraced house, is this is a scam? In fact, what was happening was that well-prepared students from previously affluent families had arrived in January but had been made destitute, because they had lost their jobs in retail and hospitality, they couldn’t access money in India because of lockdown there and they couldn’t fly home. They had no income and were now living in overcrowded accommodation.
Eventually we became aware of about 70 students, and invited them to come to the foodbank. We found them to be ambitious, highly intelligent young people caught in crisis. We reported back to Newham Council and found that other groups were doing the same. Thanks to the willingness of the voluntary sector to come together and the Council to co-ordinate efforts we were able to find practical ways to help them – from providing food and essentials to liaising with airlines and talking to the universities and landlords.
This was a big learning experience for me and it was great to have a happy resolution! We’re also hugely grateful to the Newham Muslim Forum for their support and taking on the students we were working with as they developed a particular expertise in this area.
How else has the poverty response team been helping people beyond emergency food and essentials?
We quickly changed our face-to-face advice service to a remote model. We were able to continue doing some debt advice on the phone, and we supported people with writing to landlords and applying for council tax relief.
We also responded to many calls from people seeking support and advice with employment and welfare. Although the furlough scheme has brought relief to many people in our community, there has also been a surge in unemployment due to COVID and some were searching for a new role, while others had been recently furloughed and some were struggling to understand the furlough system. We were able to help nearly 60 individuals with welfare benefit support and a further 45 with employment support and advice during this period.
We had 78 homeless or vulnerably housed people registered with us when we went into lockdown. Partnering with NEWway, we were able to keep our homeless day centre open remotely and working with the Council and their Rough Sleeping team, we ensured that not one of them returned to the street during lockdown. We were also able to move some people into more settled accommodation. So we saw a positive shift in reducing street homelessness, and our focus now is working to keep people off the streets in a more permanent way.
How did you cope with the pressure?
Sometimes I didn’t cope. Some says, I just was exhausted and tearful and wasn’t always my best self. But I enjoyed walking my dog and watching Netflix, and the team looked out for each other and we had moments of real laughter together too – such as when someone requested a large quantity of condoms in their emergency delivery. I’m pleased to say that we were able to oblige!
And what has inspired you most from the last six months?
Though it’s been a horrendous time for so many people, it’s also been an amazing experience of our Newham community coming together. The willingness of people from all walks of life to get involved, their generosity and the donations of food and money and the new volunteers that have come on board has been unbelievable. The support from other organisations has been absolutely fantastic too – the way we have been able to work together with other charities, other community groups and Newham Council has been a really positive takeaway for us.
The thankfulness of the people we’ve helped has also been incredibly uplifting. In August, a woman with no money whatsoever but went out and bought us a cake to say thank you for the help we gave her. These little acts of kindness every day have been so touching and really humbling.
What have we learned about poverty from the pandemic?
The pandemic has shown us that everyone really is just one step away from poverty. It’s something that could potentially affect us all. People who previously thought that they had secure lives have found themselves in situations they never imagined.
I think the other thing that’s it’s reinforced is how poverty has such a ripple effect on every aspect of your life. It’s not only about money. It also affects mental health, and it brings stress and affects family relationships. It’s reminded us of the importance of friendship, emotional support and volunteering – all of these little things can make a difference even when you can’t solve the financial issues.
What lessons will you be able to apply to the future of Bonny Downs’ poverty response work?
We learnt a lot about food poverty during the pandemic. It’s such a big problem so we’ve decided we need to do more to tackle it and the issues around it.
By repurposing our budget, we’ve been able to appoint Susan Masters as a part-time food poverty co-ordinator. She will help us think about how we can respond even better in future and consider how we can tackle issues such as nutrition, and whether we can provide solutions such as freshly cooked ‘meals on wheels’ on a more permanent basis. Building on our positive relationship with the Council, we’re also piloting a ‘wraparound’ model to explore how we can better support people with the underlying causes of the poverty that lead them to use the foodbank.
We’ll also continue to work closely with Council and others around how we can prevent homeless people returning to the street – one of our biggest fears is what happens when the moratorium on evictions lifts. Our partner charity NEWway has recruited a part-time private rental sector specialist to support the work in NEWday and this will help us try to get ahead of this a bit and provide better housing advice. We’re also working with Shelter so we can start to challenge evictions better when we advocate for homeless people.
Finally, having seen the extent of the challenges that people with no recourse to public funds can face, we really want to keep building our relationships and supporting that community. This includes continuing to campaign for changes to government rules, partnering with the council and other local organisations, and considering how we can build our knowledge and expertise on immigration.
To support the future of Bonny Downs Community Association and its services for Newham, you can make a one-off donation or set up a monthly gift at localgiving.org/BDCA