Unlocking poverty when you’re on £34 a fortnight

What traps people in food poverty? What can unlock it?

York is famous for its history and beauty. Each year, millions of tourists visit the city, and in March The Sunday Times named it the best place to live in the country.

Many in the city, however, tell more complicated stories. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of rough sleepers rose by 1,450%, from 2 to 29 – the fourth steepest increase in England. Since opening five years ago, the city’s Trussell Trust foodbank has fed around 18,000 people. And although York has less poverty than some areas, the rich-poor divide at school level is particularly stark.


So what and where are the answers? What is helping to unlock poverty, so people can realise their potential more fully? What is working at the very local level, to help to create a compassionate and just society? And what more needs to be done?

Surviving on £34 a fortnight

Each Thursday lunchtime, a group of local residents gather in the old Fossway pub in Huntington Road. These days, it’s the Riverside Centre run by Living Word Church, and each week it hosts a free community meal and a get-together.

Bev Smith (pictured at the top of this article), says: “A friend brought me one week, and I started coming back. At Christmas I was really struggling and I spoke to the church here and got help with food. Then I asked if I could help, and I now help out here in the kitchen.


“I changed to Universal Credit in September. It’s working for me now that I’m back at work, but when I was off work with a broken ankle and depression, they stopped my ESA and working tax credits and I struggled. I’ve had to use the food banks more than three times.

“If it wasn’t for the food banks I don’t know what I would have done to get food for my children. Pete, one of the staff here, wrote to the DWP to try to appeal against my situation but it didn’t change. I was on £167 a fortnight but then they took my working tax credits off me and I went down to £34 a fortnight for seven months. I’m still in rent arrears now. It was about £1,600 but it’s down to £500 now.

“They said I had had a big payment previously, then they took more off me saying I had not been entitled to it. They said I had had over-payments for two years. I’m trying to get back the deficits and everyone here has been really helpful. I had to come to the food bank every week for a while and also to other charities. I come here to get food for myself and my kids, and I also help here. My younger kids usually get free school meals, so places like this help in the holidays as well.

“I started working again in January, in a shop, and I’m better off now I’m working, but I’ve still got £500 rent arrears. I’m in a four-bedroom house as I’ve four kids, but two have left home so I pay the bedroom tax now on two rooms. I would be lost without this place.”

Screenshot from 2018-04-11 09-50-19

One of the newer diners at Cafe Extra is Colin, who came across it a few weeks ago, and who credits the church and God with helping him get back on track.

He says: “I’m from Hammersmith in London but I’ve lived in York for 12 years. I was recently in prison for six weeks, and when I came out I was homeless for a short time, but I believe the Lord helped me get into Peasholme [a local accommodation and resettlement programme]. I came here to this church and they said a prayer for me about getting somewhere, and the next day I got a place at Peasholme, straight after coming here.

“It was just chance. I rode past on my bike one Wednesday and came in, and since then everything has been getting better. Everything is fitting together, all the pieces in the puzzle, and things are working out better. Since that prayer a month ago, everything has been better.

“I was not homeless for long. I was sofa-surfing at different houses and stuff like that. When you are on the streets, you meet people as you go along. Sometimes you meet the wrong people; sometimes the right people. I have a few things to sort out but my key worker is helping me get a lot of support.

“I am on Universal Credit now and that’s just what the Government makes it. I got a hardship loan but have to pay that back. Universal Credit is not enough, and I think it’s worse than the older system. For a single man, I get £315 a month before deductions, but then after fines and council tax and £40 a month at Peasholme, I’m left with hardly anything. It’s not much at all.

“There needs to be more money for people who are in poverty because it’s just not enough. People are not getting enough at all. It’s even worse in London and Manchester than it is here.

“I came to York for work initially and have stayed. I’m at Peasholme and have six months to go before I start bidding for a flat, but I have no furniture and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think there are charities that can help you get furniture.

“This place is amazing. They really try to help here and I try to be here every Thursday.”

Hope at the hub

On the other side of the city, Chapefields Community Hub has been meeting every Thursday morning for the past 11 months, offering benefit, debt and budgeting advice, free computer access, information about local events and activities, and crafts and activities for locals. The garden is also receiving a makeover, and the kettle’s always on for those who just want a cuppa and a chat.

It’s good just meeting people who have been in the same situation.

Mel Lincoln, one of the regulars, says: “I’ve been coming here to the hub for quite a while now. They do craft things and it takes your mind off your problems, and we have coffee, toast and biscuits and soup now as well. It’s good just meeting people who have been in the same situation. There’s sometimes fruit and veg to take away as well. The council are helping with this hub but I think Citizens’ Advice have helped more than anything.”

Mel went on to Universal Credit last July but now receives £335 a month, which is £160 less each month than when she received child tax credits.


She says: “I got a £400 loan and now that’s being taken off as well. I have had to use the food bank four times in a month now.

“I don’t think the Government realise how much you need to live on. I get £335 a month for me and two kids and my partner. My kids are seven and five, and the seven-year-old eats like a horse. We have to pay £83 a month rent from that £335 and all my bills and outgoings are about £700, including food and clothes for the kids, and gas and electric and everything else.

“The day I went on to Universal Credit, I was having to get my youngest son’s uniform for school and it was so hard, so difficult. I am getting support now from Citizens’ Advice. They helped get me a one-off payment and because I have hearing and back problems, and mental health issues, they tried to help me get some PIP, but I didn’t get it.

“I’m on the job search with Universal Credit. It’s hard, because you have to say what you’ve looked for and do it online but I have dyslexia and it’s really hard for me, so I am now doing computer courses.

“I think the Government should be doing more. They seem to do more for other countries than for here. There’s a lot of money goes into York but not to here.

“What should change? There should be more money and more support. What annoys me is when you are trying to work but not getting enough support and help. We are in debt with our water, council rent, council tax, and get less Council Tax Support since my partner moved in.”

Constrained by stigma

In the city-centre, Kitchen For Everyone York runs free meals on Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings, for anyone in need but particularly for people who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless.

Joe, who has been going for a few weeks, says: “I am looking to get back into hospitality or office work. I’ve done office administration before and kitchen work, and I need to find something sustainable. There is a lot of hospitality work here in York but you need to get enough hours. I’m looking for something with good prospects and 30 hours a week. One or two jobs come up, but not a great abundance.

“The benefit changes rightly push people to work more, but when you get part time work they seem to want full-time straight away and I felt always pressured to look for more. I had a part-time kitchen job at a pub, 20 hours a week, and I felt I should hold down that job then try to increase the hours, as it was a good job and a good company, but the Job Centre said I should be looking for more hours, so I took a full-time job elsewhere and that didn’t last.

“I’m on Universal Credit and it’s going okay at the moment, but only because I’m back living with my parents so I’m under a bit less pressure with bills, but it’s still pretty hand to mouth, so I come here on Sundays. It’s a great facility to have in York, and well worth coming.

“I had a flat but then would have been homeless, but I moved back in with my parents. It’s hard because if you were to go to a job interview and say you are homeless or in homeless accommodation, I think you’re less likely to get a job. You rely on getting a sympathetic employer.

“I went for an interview at a hotel and think I impressed, but I didn’t get it and I believe my accommodation issue was a major factor. There needs to be more input from the Government into putting people into accommodation of their own and to help them back into the labour market. I don’t think they’ve seen that as a priority.”

The bigger picture

Bev, Colin, Mel and Joe represent just three stories, from only two projects in York. Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing many more stories from around the city, and inviting local people to tell their stories for themselves.

Bev, Colin, Mel and Joe raise several issues that will resonate with many others around the country, and which echo the eight stories we heard recently in Sheffield. Bev talks about being swept into poverty by the complex and turbulent benefits system. Mel also had to use the food bank after benefit changes. Repeatedly, around the country, Welfare delays, changes or errors are one of the biggest contributors to food bank need. Recent research, focused on Glasgow, found that: The relationship between recent welfare reforms and food bank use identified in the study is particularly striking, with those impacted by the reforms being more than twice as likely to have used a food bank as other people in deprived areas.”

Nobody wants this to be the case. The benefits system should be a safety net or a lifeline for people who suddenly find themselves swept into difficulty. If people find a broken benefits system is making their problems even worse, then something needs to change.

Bev talks also of the extra difficulty of feeding children during the school holidays, one of the priority areas of the End Hunger UK campaign, with which we are involved.

In addition to benefit problems, errors and delays, the freeze on working-age benefits in recent years means people on already low incomes have become worse off in real terms. Last October, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation projected that an extra 470,000 people would be in poverty by 2020 if the freeze continues, but demonstrated that if benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance kept pace with inflation, then 380,000 people could escape the rising tide. Without political action, people such as Colin, on very low incomes, will continue to struggle to make ends meet.

The End Hunger Campaign sets out nine ways that Government policies and our economy could be redesigned, to loosen the grip of hunger and poverty. All of those suggestions are based on the real experiences of people like Bev, Colin and Joe. Please take a few moments to look at those nine ideas, to contact local groups working to alleviate poverty in your area, and to speak to your MP to ask them to help end hunger.


  • Colin and Joe are pseudonyms


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