Poverty and the pandemic – 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
Our Crisis Response Story -
In the Words of our Volunteers!
When the Coronavirus struck in Newham, we knew that demand for our foodbank, which has been running weekly since 2013, would rise. We also realised that the most vulnerable in our community were going to need extra help. So we quickly set up a hub to enable us to get emergency relief packs of food and essentials to people stuck at home through illness or shielding.
Over the first nine weeks of lockdown, we estimate that we provided more than 10,000 days’ worth of supplies to over 2,000 people through our hub and our foodbank. And from the very start, our amazing team of volunteers have been right at the heart of everything we’ve achieved!
At Bonny Downs, we’re very fortunate to have a large and loyal team of volunteers who have once again stepped up to the plate during this crisis.
We also put out an appeal for new volunteers to help us pack and distribute relief packs during the Coronavirus crisis and have been overwhelmed by the generosity of time given by local people.
We’ve always known what a fantastically supportive community we have in Newham, but this crisis has really proven it again. So, to mark Volunteers’ Week, we asked some of our volunteer team to help us tell the story of our work in their own words.
Paddy is a longstanding foodbank volunteer, who has given a huge amount of time and energy to the project. “I like to help others, it’s my way of saying thank you to the community that helped me when I needed it”, he says.
Jon describes his reason for volunteering as follows: “We should pull together as a community... it’s satisfying knowing you’re helping others… It’s all about the Great British spirit!”
And Md Mizanoor has been volunteering at our hub. “I found it hard to see people dying during the covid-19 outbreak and funerals taking place under many restrictions”, he explains. “I had experienced isolation myself pre-Covid. Counselling helped me get better and taught me to seek rewards in being the best person I can be.”
Meeting real needs
Liam is one of our volunteers in charge of making sure deliveries run smoothly and mapping the delivery routes. “You get a sense of doing something when everything else is out of control”, he says. “I’ve been disappointed that the level of need is so high, and our government hasn’t met that need.”
Pat is one of our packers and he says his role really brings the need home to him. “You can picture the people you’re packing for... for the families, the over 70s that can’t get out, you think of what they’d like.”
Vic, a volunteer driver, told us about one of her highlights: “During my second shift as a volunteer driver, I delivered a food parcel to an elderly couple. They were so delighted at receiving it. Seeing the relief and gratitude on their faces was humbling. There's huge job satisfaction to be had in contributing your own time and effort to help the local community, even in a small way.”
Joss has been volunteering as a befriender, making weekly phone calls to elders to help them cope with the isolation and loneliness they are facing in lockdown. She says, “I really enjoy hearing the client’s mood lift throughout the befriending call.”
And Lisa has been helping out with the children and families team as part of her role. “I was particularly moved and inspired by the children’s support team who, pre-Easter were packing hundreds of craft packs to be delivered to children stuck in isolation”, she explains. “I was part of the delivery team and it was inspiring seeing the children’s faces light up at all that glitter – or it may have been the Easter eggs!”
A great team spirit
One of the things that we often our volunteers talk about is the great team spirit that has developed as different people from across the community come together to work for the common good.
Joss captures the atmosphere at our hub well: “The team keeps so cheerful and works so hard to get stuff together on time”, she says. “It’s been wonderful seeing them pulling together supporting the community. It’s very heartwarming. It’s very special indeed!”
Peter agrees, “I’m grateful to come here and work with a nice bunch of people, I feel comfortable here”, and during a time of such challenge, it’s encouraging to hear the sound of laughter sometimes and see new friendships being struck.
Sheila, one of our volunteer packers, says “We’ve had a laugh and a joke and it’s a really nice atmosphere there…I enjoy meeting new people, they are all so friendly make you feel welcome. I’ve made a lot of new friends and really enjoy it”.
Tara is one of our delivery drivers and she says “Volunteering here creates a real structure in the week for me. It good to still be able to meet new people.”
Pat, another of our regular packers, agrees: “It gives me something to look forward to each week and means I can see people (safe distancing of course...) whose company I enjoy. We have a right old laugh too and I’ve made new friends I never would have known!”
And Lisa says she’s been really inspired by how everyone works together so effectively. “The way the team co-ordinates and delivers so many food orders, and how the kitchen team delivers hot cooked meals alongside the groceries, is incredibly organised. It is a well-run machine and so vital for the Newham community!”
Happy Volunteers’ Week!
When will the need for our emergency crisis support end? At the moment, we simply don’t know. Demand has been higher than we ever imagined, is continuing longer than we expected when we first set up our hub, and has actually risen again significantly in recent weeks.
But with such a generous, committed and hardworking team of volunteers, we know that we can keep going and continue to make a real difference to the lives of our neighbours in need.
Indeed, with with such a lovely bunch of volunteers and fantastic team spirit, even the dark and difficult days seem brighter than they otherwise would. As Md Mizanoor puts it, “Fear fades away while volunteering.”
So Happy Volunteers’ Week to our amazing team. Thank you so much for your work. We couldn’t do any of this without you!