As Ken Loach’s new film, I Daniel Blake lays bare the reality for people who bear the human cost of the attack on our social security system, read this story from Kayleigh Garthwaite’s Hunger Pains.
Like the film, Paul’s story reveals the complexities of life at the mercy of the system and forces us to question the ‘skivers vs strivers’ narrative. We must look at how we are treating the most vulnerable in a supposedly civilised society.
“Paul was in his late 30s but looked much older than his years. He had been to the foodbank around nine times that I knew of. His clothes were filthy and hung off his skinny frame and his fingers were stained with nicotine. I watched as he put three spoonsful of sugar into his tea. His eyes were always distant, and there seemed to be a time lag between me asking him a question and him responding.
The first thing he told me was that he was OK, but sad that he didn’t see his 11-year-old daughter often enough, as she was in foster care. He was in care when he was younger and didn’t want the same thing for her, he said, but he and his ex-partner were both long-term drug addicts with alcohol problems, so social services had placed her in a foster home.
Can Paul really be blamed for the ‘choices’ he is or isn’t making now?
Paul explained how he was on a three-month sanction for failing to turn up to an appointment at a private sector welfare-to-work company in Middlesbrough. I asked why he’d been sanctioned, and he said to me: “I couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed.” I was a bit taken aback, as I’d never actually had anyone openly say that to me before. Paul had been given free bus tickets, so he would attend his appointments from then on. He told me he wanted to be a chef when he got sorted, but there weren’t any jobs going. He was getting a hardship allowance of £69 per fortnight. Paul told me he was bored. The main thing he does with his time is play on his Xbox 360, day in, day out. The only problem is, he keeps taking it to a retail pawnbroking company on the High Street. He bought it from there for £69. He sells it back for £50, then buys it back when he can afford it for £66.
He does this regularly and says, “It’s alright at the time cos you get the money, but it’s when you go to buy it back.” He plans on removing the ID strip at the back, as that way, the pawnbrokers won’t accept it and it will stop him from being in this cycle: “I’ve lost too many things to them”, he told me.
Paul showed me some photos of his dog and his daughter, on his battered old Nokia mobile phone (not an iPhone 6) and his eyes lit up a little. His dog, Benny, was a bull mastiff/pit-bulltype breed; he got him as a rescue dog, just skin and bone. Paul told me how his previous owner, a drug addict, had left him in the house all day, alone, and Benny had been eating the stuffing from the sofa because he was so hungry. Paul proudly told me how he had fed Benny up and got him back to full health by buying bags of cheap pasta to mix in with a 10 kilogram bag of dog food from Wilko for £5, adding tins of vegetables for vitamins. I joked that he was looking after Benny better than he was looking after himself and he simply said “He’s my best friend”.
We sat talking for just under an hour, before he filled his empty rucksack up with the tins from the heaving carrier bags. I helped him to hoist the rucksack onto his shoulders, and worried that his undernourished frame couldn’t quite take the weight of the food that he had to carry home, some three miles on foot.
I struggled with deciding whether to include Paul in the book at first, as I knew that on the face of it he fitted into many of the stereotypes surrounding foodbank (mis)use. He spent what little money he had on drugs, alcohol and his dog. He got sanctioned because he “couldn’t be arsed to get out of bed”. But Paul doesn’t have an easy life. He wasn’t exactly enjoying a lavish lifestyle on benefits. He was bored, but had no realistic job prospects. He thought his history of being in and out of jail over a period of 20 years didn’t help with that. He missed his daughter, but was aware that he would never have her back living with him again.
“Food is a basic human right that shouldn’t be denied”
Paul was brought up in care after being abused when he was little, and no longer had any family in the area. He was lonely, and in a rut. One of the reasons why Paul struggled to get out of bed in the morning was due to his mental health problems and tiredness, which were worsened by the heroin he has been taking for over half of his life.
I wanted to tell Paul’s story because, on the surface, it would be all too easy for him to be branded with the ‘undeserving’ label so favoured by many politicians. Food is a basic human right that shouldn’t be denied to someone just because they take drugs, smoke or drink alcohol. Paul’s story shows how he does not fit into the stereotype of someone ‘living it up’ on benefits. He has had a difficult life from a very early age, filled with abuse, drug misuse, mental health issues and countless periods in prison. Can Paul really be blamed for the ‘choices’ he is or isn’t making now? What Paul needs is support, not further condemnation from politicians, the media and elsewhere.
It was not very often that people came to the foodbank as regularly as Paul did. The agency he was working with knew he was on a three-month sanction and was trying to help him through that. Paul said to me, “If it wasn’t for the foodbank, I’d have to go on the rob. Not from people like you or nowt, but shoplifting, from Asda or summat.” But Paul didn’t want to do that, as he wanted to stay out of prison. He hadn’t been in jail for three years, and he wanted it to stay that way.
One Friday afternoon, some few months before speaking to Paul, I was in the Sainsbury’s a couple of miles away from the foodbank. Just as I entered the shop, two security guards accosted a man leaving with a big carrier bag, and said “You haven’t paid for those”. The man, who looked in his 40s, didn’t try to protest, he just handed over the black carrier bag. The security guard pulled out a block of cheap, luminous orange Cheddar cheese, ‘Basics’ sausages and a 24-pack of Walker’s crisps and led the man away, head down, no resistance – not a word. In October 2014, Ian Mulholland of Darlington, 10 miles away from Stockton-on-Tees, was in court. After having his benefits sanctioned and spending nine weeks with nothing to live on, the 43-year-old had stolen some meat from the local Sainsbury’s and was sentenced to six weeks in prison. Are people so ashamed to use a foodbank that they would rather steal to feed themselves?
“How can this be right or just in a civilised society?”
Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty said: ‘A theft worth £12.60 means the taxpayer will spend over two grand to keep Mulholland behind bars.’ But why is our focus on ‘fraudulent’ behaviour always aimed at those at bottom of the income chain? The Guardian reported the case of a barrister who avoided paying thousands of pounds in rail fares for more than two and a half years but was spared prison. Yet someone who steals £12.60 worth of meat is imprisoned for six weeks. How can this be right or just in a civilised society?
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