More residents in crisis are seeking help from Ely Foodbank than ever before, its boss says, warning that the problem is likely to get worse.
Project director Cathy Wright told Spotted in Ely that despite East Cambridgeshire being perceived as an affluent area, many working people are struggling to keep up with the cost of living.
Changes to how benefits are paid has also put huge pressure on the service, with many people hitting rock bottom due to delays in receiving payments, she said.
“We are seeing more people and this has happened very quickly.”
Cathy said this was largely due to transitions from the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), as well as the move to Universal Credit (UC).
“Clients talk of being without money for six weeks and longer whilst they transitions occur. We predict that 2018 will be busier as UC is moved to couples and families in East Cambs.”
A rise in demand
In September the charity handed out 3900 kg of food across East Cambridgeshire, an 18 per cent increase on the same month last year.
Cathy said the majority of people approaching the Foodbank were on low incomes, struggling to keep up with the cost of living.
“This can mean that they are in work but an unexpected bill or sickness has meant that they need to use the Foodbank to help them through.”
In September, the Ely Foodbank Partnership, which includes distribution centres in March, Chatteris, Sutton, Haddenham, Cottenham and Soham as well as Ely itself, fed 508 people, 183 of whom were children, distributing 3900 kg of food.
During the same month the previous year, the charity fed 475 people in crisis, 178 of whom were children, handing out 3300 kg of food.
The Foodbank sees a range of people of different ages and backgrounds, for a variety of reasons. Many of the stories are heartbreaking.
“A chap on zero contract hours came to us after losing his job. His wife was unwell and [he] had permission to take some time off but when he returned to work there was no job for him. We only saw him once, and then he came back to say he had a new job.”
In another incident, a woman who regularly donated to the Foodbank found herself needing its help after falling on hard times.
“Within a month she was needing Foodbank, not giving to it. She was the genuine ‘hidden poverty’ person – she had no idea that her life was built on debt and when the bills came in after Christmas, she had no where to go but Foodbank. From that situation we coined the phrase ‘that we are only a pay cheque away from life turning upside down’.
Some of the clients are embarrassed to ask for help.
“As said the new benefits play a large part in coming to Foodbank. People vary in their reactions – some are at such a low point that they are thankful for the help, and will express that ‘there was no other place to go, and what would they have done without us’.
“We do have those that are embarrassed, ashamed to be there, and often take some coaxing to accept the help. Pride is a massive thing, but we help people feel relaxed and welcomed to take over the negative feelings.”
According to the charity, one in five of the UK population lives beneath the breadline.
How the Foodbank operates
The way the charity operates is that people who receive support from an agency can request a voucher, entitling them to three days’ worth of food. If someone comes into the Foodbank seeking help, they are given advice on how to obtain a referral.
This ensures that those who need the help the most can get it. In most cases a maximum of three vouchers are given out in six months.
The Foodbank uses a database to record the vouchers to stamp out any abuse, Cathy said.
“We can check on those who may be playing the system. We look out for those who visit several of our centres and who also may get vouchers from a range of agencies but not responding to any advice given.
“Once a conversation has been had with any suspects, we quickly see a change in their behaviour, and probably won’t see them again.”
In Ely the Foodbank is run by Churches Together operating under the Trussell Trust, and there is a religious element to the charity although it is not a precursor to getting help.
“The Bible teaches to help your neighbour, or a stranger and that is basically what we do. We try to be of generous heart and non-judgemental, treating everyone the same.
“We would never preach to anyone, however we do offer to pray with those who would like it. If they say no, then that is not a problem as we know that everyone has a choice, and food and advice is given anyway.”
The Foodbank is always after volunteers to help out in their Ely warehouse, or at one of their distribution centres.
Bringing Christmas cheer to struggling residents
In the run-up to Christmas, the Foodbank is collecting gift donations for hampers on top of its regular food items, to give struggling residents some festive cheer.
“We work with all the agencies in the area so that many people who stress about this time of year can have peace of mind that they will have some extra food or even a gift to give at Christmas.”
Suggested items include Christmas puddings, dried fruit, chocolates and sweets, biscuits, mince pies, stuffing, snacks, hot chocolate, soft drinks, Christmas crackers and toiletries.
Opened, homemade, perishable or out of date food items can’t be accepted. Neither can alcohol or medicines.
Hamper donations can be dropped off until December 5 at the Foodbank warehouse, behind Centre E on Barton Road from 10am to 12pm on Tuesdays or 1pm to 2pm on Fridays or brought to the Countess Church on Chapel Street in Ely from 11-12.30pm on Tuesdays.
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