The topic of food banks came up this morning on social media and on BBC Talkback, it’s an area I have particular interest in because when I was younger, I spent some years (fairly important formative ones at that…) homeless. It wasn’t that I was living rough per se. I did spend a good few nights in a car, but rarely consecutively and they were few and far between. I was in my mid teens, this was in the lead up to my GCSE’s, 13, 14 & 15, and I think everyone can agree, exam revision is hard enough without having to worry that when the school bell rang for end of day I would have to check my phone to see if my mother had text me the address of where we were staying for the night. We didn’t have food banks. We had very little of anything.
This isn’t some puff piece about how the system failed us, I genuinely don’t think it did, we (she) failed the system. This is my story of a particularly rough time, and why more should be done for those in dire need and not just sneered at as benefit spongers and people looking for some free shopping, shame on you. If food banks save 1 life, they have served their purpose well.
On most occasions we had a bit of stability in where we were staying, we would be in a shelter type accommodation for a couple of weeks at a time then get moved on to somewhere else. Her and her partner at the time had various issues, not least of which was a love of alcohol above most other priorities (and now I’m a professional alcohol dispenser…so trust me, when I say you’ve had enough…I KNOW you’ve had enough). We were living in a basement flat at the time with a pub not 50 yards from the front step, so most evenings when I got home from school, if they weren’t at the pub by then, they would go straight after dinner. Over time I learned the routine so 3 or 4 nights of the week I would go to friends houses after school so that when I did go home, it would be late and I would just go straight to bed rather than be awake listening to a domestic when they got back. So the booze kept flowing and the rent money dried up, we were evicted by the landlord and were deemed “voluntarily homeless” by the county council. Because her partner wasn’t married to her, he wasn’t included in the situation, he stayed with family members of his…we were then thrown headfirst into the system. The first couple of nights were in drug rehabilitation housing, this was absolutely terrifying, I wasn’t a timid teenager but I was scared for my life the first night there when the previous “tenant” of our room came banging on the door that he left his smack there that afternoon…we didn’t open the door…we didn’t find any smack either. Although there was a used needle on the floor of the (communal) bathroom…drug rehabilitation didn’t seem to be working how I expected. This was the worst, some of them weren’t too bad, but at this point my mother discovered she was pregnant, and there was no stability or healthy environment even on the horizon. I remember staying in a big detached house near the seaside where all the other guests seemed lovely, there was even a cooked breakfast available each morning…then the chef told me that it was a place for people released on parole to stay temporarily until a property was available for them. The system kept a roof over our head most of the time, which I guess is precisely what the system was supposed to do.
There were those occasions where no beds were available, once we got put into a fancy hotel for the night!! A few other times there was nothing available by the close of office hours and there was nothing whatsoever to do…we stayed in a builders workshop, Volvo estate, sofa of a distant relative…a regular from the pub that they had frequented put us up for a weekend (word of advice…never ever spend a weekend sleeping on wicker furniture, your body is not designed for it). Listening to David Vance this morning on his anti-poverty high horse, “we have never been better off than we are now as a society”…perhaps Mr Vance needs to understand the concept of an average…whilst most people might well be doing grand, there are those below average, those sleeping on wicker furniture, those hastily arranging sleepovers with friends as a last resort to the boot of a Volvo estate. We stayed in one place for a few months after my brother was born (half brother technically) it was safe and warm which was all we wanted at the time. 1 room, a 13 year old, a new born baby, my mother, 2 single beds, a fridge & a kettle. It was then that i discovered the art of creativity in a kitchen…you can cook a lot of things in a kettle…I would sterilise his bottle with the steam from boiling and reboiling the kettle, then mix the formula and heat it back in the kettle (making sure the plastic never touched the element otherwise we would need to buy another bottle).
There was income, she had her child support and job seekers or whatever the equivalent was back then, but we lived in a fairly well-to-do area, the cost of living wasn’t cheap, all the moving around meant that I had a daily cost of going to school, it was over £5 a day in return train fare…If I paid, plenty of times there were walls jumped over to avoid ticket inspectors (also, it’s not difficult to hide in the parcel shelf of the old shutter-door trains), this meant I could return the £5 to my mother or buy food with it on the way home. There was no assistance offered with school transport because the council felt that I could move schools each time we changed places, I was going through enough problems without being THE NEW KID every other week. Vance pointed out how cheap it is to eat healthy, well that’s true when you have all the modern conveniences of a fitted kitchen, but trust me…nobody on the Atkins diet is doing it from a kettle alone, or even in the places with a microwave or a 1 ring burner stove, £1 ready meals aren’t the healthiest, but I’m sure David Vance has tried his fair share of those…
There are plenty of other horror stories hidden within my psyche from this trying time, but I got through it and haven’t (yet) been a burden on the NHS for psychiatric help to cope with the repressed issues undoubtedly caused…which I’m sure Vance will again be glad to hear about. Whilst I’m sure there are those who have read to this point and thought “well, you’re here now aren’t you, so what are you complaining about?”…I lived a hell. There is a special kind of feeling that I don’t have a name for, you get it when you know you’re probably outstaying your welcome at a friends house after school for the 3rd time this week purely because you don’t want to return to “your own bed”(and those are very real inverted commas), humiliation doesn’t cut it…something more, more than burden, more than pitiable…but that’s how I felt a lot of the time. Going to a friends house for dinner because it meant you could have dinner and wouldn’t have to poach sausages in a kettle and then use the water to mix some powdered mash…poor-mans-bangers-and-mash. The system did not fail me. But just because it didn’t fail me doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been more done. Who knows, if my mother didn’t have to spend as much on shopping for a couple of weeks maybe she could have saved for a first months deposit on a flat…maybe my brother wouldn’t have spent the first couple of years of his life not being introduced to the concept of “home”. There are food banks springing up because they are needed. You get nowt for nowt…there is a humility unreached by most people in the act of admitting that you cannot do it on your own, that the mere act of keeping a roof over your head, of providing food, shelter, warmth, cannot be met be you alone…that you need help. David Vance does not understand this. There are people all over the country in a similar situation to mine, I got out relatively unscathed, there are those who don’t. If food banks can help people out when they need it most, then I support them and you should too. David Vance pointed out on BBC Talkback that groceries have never been as cheap as they are now…he is probably correct, so why is he begrudging a couple of tins of food going to those who may need it as a matter of survival.
People are making a big deal out of how many food banks there are in Northern Ireland now. They should be making a big deal out of why they weren’t around before now. This problem is not new, it has not sprung up in the past year, the poverty line is not just a notion or a headline; for a great many people it is their reality and that is indeed terrible, but this is not a new problem. The kind of ideas that were thrown out on Talkback today by David Vance and a significant(ly worrying) amount of other callers…if that convinced a listener to walk past a can drive in a supermarket, or ignore a plea that they see in the press, that has a very real possibility of meaning a child worse off than even I was could go hungry. If reading this article convinces one of you to pay a bit more attention the next time you see a call for any spare cans of food you have in the back of the cupboard that you keep meaning to use but haven’t…then it was worth the personal memory-searching that went into writing it.
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist
Hélder Camara – 1909 – 1999 – Archbishop of Olinda & Recife, Brazil