How to unlock poverty in Sheffield

5 people in one neighbourhood share their experiences

Food aid providers all over the country have reported increased demand in recent years, as more and more people have found themselves trapped in poverty.

Many organisations are doing amazing work to help as many people as possible, but we need to redesign our economy so that people can stay out of poverty in the first place.

The Vine Sheffield hosts a FoodCycle lunch every Wednesday. There, regulars told us how rising living costs, the benefits freeze and a lack of full-time jobs had trapped them in poverty.

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1) Hossain

I am from Iran but am a UK citizen. I came here in the 1970s and studied to masters level at the University of Sheffield. I was working here and went back for family reasons in 2000. I was then working as a university lecturer in Tehran but had to leave in March 2017 for political reasons.

Because I know Sheffield, I came back here after a few weeks in London.

I get £73.10 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance and it all goes. I pay £14 of that in top-up rent on my council flat, I pay £14 a week for the cheapest weekly bus pass so I can get into the city from Totley, where I live.

I pay £5 a week on electricity and £5 a week on gas, £8 a week for my phone, and £5 to £6 a week for my TV licence. Then after the council tax comes off, I have just £10 a week for clothes, food, and doing anything at all.

Somebody told me about this place. This is the only place I come. I do some small shopping for bread and milk but the food bank say they can only help if you have been referred.

I only eat two small meals each day, that’s all, so places like this are very important. It’s a friendly environment but also if there is something going wrong, they try to help you, and other organisations that can help come in to give advice about council tax, or things like that.

I go to the Jobcentre and my work coach is very kind and nice but they don’t give you any help to find a job. I have to show her all I have done for the past week to look for work but when you do that all the time and do not get anywhere, it’s frustrating. They want to be seen to be doing their job.

There is a lot more the Government could do. I think they see everyone as being in one category, but there are a lot of people like me trying to get work and do things and it’s very frustrating.

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2) Michael

I worked, but did not have enough National Insurance contributions for the full pension. They say pensioners are better off now but not me. I finished work then went part time and don’t get everything.

I get about £120 a week and if I didn’t come to places like this I would be scraping the barrel. I come here every week and go to two other free meals each week as well. So I have three free meals a week.

Most mornings I skip breakfast and have something around 12 o’clock. I could get a free breakfast once a week as well, at St Andrew’s Church, but it’s a bus trip away and my free bus pass can’t be used before 9.30am, and that’s too late to get me there.

I am 76. I was in coal mining and have got some disabilities and asthma and things like that, but they always turn you down for any extra money. I worked in the pit at Beighton for 15 years and after the strike in 1984/85 we were closed, and ever since then all I have known is poverty, because since then all I could get is part time jobs.

I had a part time job in a post office and general shop, working 21 hours a week. The owner used to give me any left-over bread and other food.

I think the Government need to bring our pensions up. If I got about £150 or £160, it would still be difficult but not as bad as this. I’m careful with my money. I only go out once a month, to the dogs, and have only one pint. Sometimes you can apply online and get a free ticket for another night.

My family are 13 miles away but it’s three bus-rides and they don’t really connect up and they’re not in a position to help me either. When my eldest sister died, they sorted out her freezer and gave it and some of the food to me, and when my niece’s mother-in-law died, they gave me some of the food that had been in her freezer as well, so I had bits in the house.

For other meals, I’m scraping by. I had a referral once for the food bank, but felt embarrassed going to my doctor for another referral. I heard about this place through word of mouth. This place is very important.

I think the Government need to show more compassion to poor people and people on the streets. They have got riches beyond our dreams but there is poverty in Sheffield and people turn a blind eye. People just won’t see it. It would be really bad for the community if places like this were not here.

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3) Peter

I was born disabled and had calipers for three years when I was born. I have always had problems with my feet and had operations to straighten them. I’m registered disabled.

They started with these assessments for ESA and PIP, always one thing or another. I was without my PIP for three and a half years. I went for an assessment then a tribunal.

They asked me all sorts of questions, then they said ‘sorry, you’re not entitled to PIP’. I asked if they were expecting me to go on JSA and they said no, I wasn’t fit for work, and I should apply for a disabled bus pass and I am on ESA instead.

CAB told me to reapply and I went for another assessment and I have got some PIP back, but still not the mobility allowance and I missed out on between £85 and £90 for those three and a half years. I think the Government owe me £4,000 for the past three and a half years.

Also, when I went to the tribunal they put me straight to a third-tier tribunal, not a first or second tier one – so I had no right of appeal afterwards. I have been up the creek for years. I am 53 and the system worked okay for me until about five years ago.

I have worked in the past. I used to be a chef, and a cabinet maker, and my mate had me doing some joinery work. I worked until the problems with my feet got worse, and I have also had two DVTs, even though I’ve never been on an aeroplane.

The impact for me was shocking. I was stunned. For someone to make a decision like that, especially when they said I was not fit for work. I started coming here and to food banks when that happened. I was gobsmacked.

I got my PIP back a few months ago and am getting there slowly but surely now, but I still need to work with CAB to see about my mobility allowance.

I found FoodCycle just by passing. I saw the board outside and it comes in handy. Being on my own, this gives a bit of social time as well.

I have no fridge, no freezer and no gas or electricity. I just live off places like this, or off cold food like tinned ham. I stock up on some bits and live on sandwiches and stuff like that. Sometimes, I can go to a café, and I come here.

I would like more people to understand what it’s like for people walking into the Jobcentre on ESA and PIP.

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4) Louise

I have been coming here for a while. I live near here, in Hillsbrough, and I come here. It’s a nice atmosphere, friendly and part of the community. It’s all part of trying to survive, and I’ve learnt some lovely vegetarian recipes here that I can try as well.

The support this place has given me has been really helpful. You can have a chat and don’t feel like you are on your own.

I am on Jobseeker’s Allowance, £73.10 a week, and it does not come anywhere near enough. I am looking for a job that is what I need but I struggle with computers as they were only really introducing them when I left school, and when you look for work it’s minimum wage and zero hours contracts.

I’ve been to the food bank a few times and they are really helpful. They gave me some great support and I could not thank them enough for being there. If the Government gave just a bit more of a reasonable amount I think I could manage.

I like to think people should not have to live like this, and that there should be no zero hours contracts but proper contracts and a proper system that can help you work, and then people would not be at the point of worrying about what they were going to do.

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5) Glen

I was buying food and it was over-expensive at supermarkets, so I wanted cheaper places. I found out through friends about some free places. I live in Rotherham and a few people said they came into Sheffield, and I came here.

I am on Jobseeker’s Allowance but some people have had to move to Universal Credit and I hear that can take six to eight weeks and they’re left in the dark. It’s coming here in November. They should be able to speed that process up, they should make it a maximum of four weeks.

I get £73.10 a week and if I watch everything I’m spending and go to free places for food like this, I can just do it. If this was not here it would be much more of a struggle because bus fares have gone up, everything has gone up, but your money doesn’t go up. If they’re putting everything else up, they should put our money up.

It’s a couple of years since I had a full-time job. I’ve just had part time jobs here and there. I need a full-time job.

I think we need more places like this to open to help people. If you’re not in the city, it’s a struggle to get transport to places. Ideally we will not need these places but there are so many people going for any jobs at the moment, it’s hard to get full time work, and part time just isn’t enough.

The Jobcentre don’t give you much help. They tell you what to do to comply with the rules but not how to get work, and if you miss any job searching they’re on your back.

With Universal Credit, they need to make it so that when you make a new claim, it’s more rapid. They ought to get it down to four weeks for a new claim to be processed. People need money on a constant basis, but they say you’ll get it when it comes. People who’ve been at work two weeks ago suddenly need to use food banks.

  • ‘Michael’ and ‘Louise’ are pseudonyms.

The bigger picture

First-hand accounts like these help us all understand the causes of food poverty, grasp the human impact it has, and identify potential solutions.

These five people raise issues that will ring true for many others across the country, and identify concerns that others in Sheffield have also voiced.

Take the benefit problems cited by Peter. Research shows that, more often than anything else, it is benefit problems or delays that cause people to need a food bank.

The freeze on benefits also means that people on already low incomes have become worse off in real terms. Louise, Glen, Peter and Hossain all say how hard it is to unlock poverty on such a low income. In 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.

Michael calls for more compassion. That’s what we’d love to see – a more compassionate and just society, in which everybody has access to good food and nobody need go to bed hungry. Through the End Hunger UK campaign, we hope to realise that vision. Please take a look at the campaign proposals here, see how you can get involved, and help create a society where everyone has access to good food, and where nobody need go to bed hungry.

Thank you to Hossain, Michael, Peter, Louise and Glen for sharing their stories, and for FoodCycle and Lucy at The Vine for inviting us along.

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