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'We're living on £10 a day': What deprivation means to Norwich families

PUBLISHED: 11:47 13 June 2019 | UPDATED: 08:22 14 June 2019

Brian Green, branch secretary of the Unite Community branch in Norfolk. Photo: Lauren Cope

Brian Green, branch secretary of the Unite Community branch in Norfolk. Photo: Lauren Cope

Archant

Many of the gardens along Clarkson Road are well maintained, cars line the kerbs and parents chat happily on street corners.

Clarkson Road in Norwich. Photo: Lauren CopeClarkson Road in Norwich. Photo: Lauren Cope

But this area of Earlham is, according to the latest government figures, the most deprived place in Norwich and among the most deprived areas in the country.

And behind some of the front doors are stories of hardship, many of them hidden.

Grandfather Daniel Mark*, 54, says struggling to make ends meet is just part of life.

"I wear layers and blankets in winter because putting the heating on isn't an option," he says. "I try to eat things that don't need cooking so I don't have to worry about that."

Tales of deprivation are common in Norwich.

Figures from End Child Poverty - released in May - show that 37.8pc of children in Norwich South, 9,327 in total, are in poverty, with another 6,334 - 32.4pc - in Norwich North.

In 2016, Norwich was ranked as the second worst local authority in England for social mobility, a measure of how someone's life chances are improved. A year later the city had improved slightly, up to 294 out of 324 councils.

And the human impact is huge.

Men in some areas, including Bowthorpe and Thorpe Hamlet, are expected to live up to five years less than those in Nelson or Eaton.

For women, the gap can differ by up to seven years - an average life expectancy in Bowthorpe is 77, compared to 85 in Eaton.

According to 2015 figures - which are due to be updated this summer - one fifth of Norwich is considered among the 10pc most deprived areas in the country, with almost half among the most deprived 20pc.

And with children's centres closing, benefit sanctions rife, homelessness and Universal Credit incoming, many fear poverty's grip on the most vulnerable is tightening.

'We hear horror stories'

The lunches at the holiday hunger club in Mile Cross. Photo: Lauren CopeThe lunches at the holiday hunger club in Mile Cross. Photo: Lauren Cope

Brian Green has seen it first hand. Branch secretary of the Norfolk Unite Community, he helps run holiday hunger clubs in Mile Cross for struggling families during school holidays.

At Mile Cross Primary, 33pc of children are eligible for free school meals, compared to a national primary average of 13.7pc.

"We are already running at almost double what we were last year," Mr Green says. "We averaged about 30 meals a day then, and now we're nearer 50."

During their outing in this year's Easter break, they gave out their 1,000th lunch box in just a year.

Two of the main factors pushing people into poverty, he says, are Universal Credit (UC) and benefit sanctions, where benefits are reduced or stopped if claimants don't follow government rules.

Figures show that from October 2012 to October 2018, the Norwich Jobcentre Plus office issued 9,758 sanctions, the second highest in East Anglia, and the 21st highest of the 761 centres around the country.

"We hear horror stories about UC," he says. "We advocated for two women who, when having their period, couldn't leave the house because they couldn't afford tampons during a sanction."

Some of the food at the holiday hunger club in Mile Cross. Photo: Lauren CopeSome of the food at the holiday hunger club in Mile Cross. Photo: Lauren Cope

MORE: Norfolk foodbanks and charities step in to fill families' holiday hunger gap

UC was designed to simplify the benefits system by bringing several benefits into one payment. But charities and MPs have blamed delays to payments for pushing people into rent arrears and using food banks.

"But this has been hidden away from ordinary people, because it's easier to demonise people as shirkers, or undeserving."

Unite - which has a motto of 'not charity, but solidarity' - has two demands: Extend school meals into the holidays, or, should that not be possible, increase benefits to reflect the holiday hardship.

Jessica Colley first discovered the club during last year's Christmas break, shortly after moving to the area.

Life expectancy between poor and rich parts of Norwich differ by up to seven years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYLife expectancy between poor and rich parts of Norwich differ by up to seven years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Mile Cross mum, 43, is in a similar boat to many parents - while school meals help out during term time, finding the money to buy extra ingredients and food during the holidays can become a strain.

"I find it difficult to provide three meals a day for the three of us," she says. "We usually have a late breakfast and an early dinner, to miss a meal.

"I'll go round Lidl and see something 30pc off, and if it's two fishcakes the kids will have those and I'll either have leftovers or toast, or in the past it has been nothing sometimes.

"It can be about surviving on £10 a day. I don't do a weekly shop anymore because if I throw something away I feel bad about it."

Her children's previous school had offered food bank vouchers, which she says was difficult.

"You feel like you can manage, you should be able to manage, and that you'll be taking it away from someone else. But sometimes you have to accept the help."

She is now hoping to embark on a career - one which fits around school times - and is facing the arrival of Universal Credit.

Cllr Emma Corlett at Norwich Mosque as they held a remembrance and solidarity event for the victims of the New Zealand shootings. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodCllr Emma Corlett at Norwich Mosque as they held a remembrance and solidarity event for the victims of the New Zealand shootings. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

"It fills me with dread," she says. "I know what other people have gone through with it. I know that when the bills all come at once it's hard as it is."

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) described UC as a "force for good", which more than 1.8m people were receiving successfully.

They said people can access advance payments from day one, and secure "additional support through budgeting advice".

MORE: Fears over Universal Credit roll out in Norwich

'I sat there petrified'

The popular People's Palace Café on Suffolk Square. Photo: Denise BradleyThe popular People's Palace Café on Suffolk Square. Photo: Denise Bradley

Vital groups like the holiday hunger club are found all over Norwich.

In Town Close, Karen Davis, a Norwich city councillor, said the community rallied around new faces in the area, donating items to help furnish new homes.

Charity shops and takeaways help where they can, while Suffolk Square's People's Palace Café is taken over by the Sunday Social each week, offering a free meal and chance to talk.

Emma Corlett, inset left, a Norfolk county councillor said the area was immensely proud - if she see someone she has previously helped, neither acknowledge it - but pointed to a stubborn issue with doorstep lenders and loan sharks.

"In the early stages they make it sound as friendly as possible," she says. "They find out as much as they can about them and their families, then they start using that information against them down the line."

Living in the area is Duncan Evans*, who has just won a two-year battle with the DWP after having his benefits cut.

Despite having kidney failure and living with diabetes, he has been declared fit to work on multiple occasions.

And during his latest fight to win back his benefits - both Employment and Support Allowance and personal independence payments - he was left for months surviving on the bare minimum, borrowing money from his elderly mother, relying on the food bank and facing eviction.

Supported by neighbours, local councillors and MP Clive Lewis, he wrote a letter to the government in relation to his ESA, which was reinstated in the last few weeks. And in April this year he won a PIP tribunal.

"I sat there petrified," he says. "I thought I'm going to be so hard up. I owe my mum £600, but without even talking to me the [tribunal judge] said he didn't even need to talk to me, that I should have the money and said it shouldn't have come to this."

He had been left £1,200 in rent arrears, with letters threatening eviction.

Despite a letter from a medical professional, he said case workers had used the fact that he was well-dressed and showered as evidence that he was fit to work - and that he was able to feed his cat.

"If you've got kidney disease you can't see it. People think you're fine. I was living off about £70 a week at times. I was having to sell things, anything I could find. I nearly had to get rid of the cat. I felt like giving up. It felt like that's what they wanted me to do."

He says he was on the verge of panic attacks while waiting for a decision.

Duncan Evans has spoken out about his experience with the DWP. Photo: Lauren CopeDuncan Evans has spoken out about his experience with the DWP. Photo: Lauren Cope

"I used to get so depressed and tearful. There is such a small gap between being alright and really not being alright. But now the pressure has lifted, and I can buy food."

When asked about Mr Evans' case, a DWP spokesperson said decisions for ESA and PIP were based on "all the information that's available to us at the time", including evidence from a claimant's GP or medical specialist.

"In most successful appeals, decisions are overturned because people have submitted more oral or written evidence," they said.

'Without the food bank I would have died'

For many in desperate situations, food banks are the obvious place to turn.

Having been in and out of prison for the last few years, with months at a time spent living on the streets, Nigel is in a difficult cycle.

Norwich foodbank project manager Hannah Worsley. Photo: Nick ButcherNorwich foodbank project manager Hannah Worsley. Photo: Nick Butcher

We meet him at the Norwich Central Baptist Church on Duke Street, a distribution centre for the city's food bank, which he had been referred to by his probation officer.

"You are released from prison with nothing," he says. "You are homeless, you have no money and you are in a vicious cycle.

"Everyone you speak to passes you onto someone else, and everyone assumes you have access to the internet.

"You just can't get anywhere. I was released with nowhere to go in January, in that weather."

Now in hostels, he had returned to the food bank after a court fine was taken from his Universal Credit (UC) package in one lump sum, rather than on a payment programme, taking away more than a third of his monthly funds.

At the food bank, he was given a parcel, as well as a bus voucher to get home and a cup of coffee and biscuits.

"If it wasn't for the food bank I'd be forced into shop lifting," he says. "And be back in that cycle, which is exactly the cycle I'm trying to escape."

Norwich foodbank distribution centre. Photo: Lauren CopeNorwich foodbank distribution centre. Photo: Lauren Cope

From April 2018 to March this year, almost 10,000 emergency three-day food parcels were handed out in Norwich. Of those, 3,394 went to children.

Hannah Worsley, project manager for Norwich food bank, says the arrival of UC had led to an increase in how often they were helping people.

Generally, people should only use three food bank vouchers in six months, with the initiative set up to offer short-term support in a crisis.

"People have nothing in that period [before the first benefit arrives]," she says. "Many people don't have a support network either. So many people ring us to say they can't get to the food bank centre, because they don't have anyone."

In Lakenham, the New Hope Christian Centre is a community hub, acting as a food bank distribution centre, running a day centre and holding groups for parents. Of the parents of children they support, a quarter are unable to read and write.

Among those who use the centre is Lee Miles, who visits with his wife and baby son, one of the couple's three children.

He works part time and his wife was made redundant in October while pregnant, significantly limiting their income - but leaving them just about the threshold for extra help or benefits.

They've now had two food bank vouchers, but visit the café to get out and meet others.

Mr Miles said: "My wife felt really embarrassed about it. She thought we didn't need to go to a food bank, that there had to be people who would benefit more than us. She waited in the car when we first came to see what it was like before we realised how nice it is."

He said the pair had previously earned well, giving them breathing room to enjoy holidays, or trips to local attractions. But it was a different picture now.

"After bills are out there's nothing left," he says. "We've also had to pay late charges if we've not been able to pay something so it's forever playing catch up. Once you miss something it's a spiral.

"We have both been in well-paid jobs, and for a while I was working two jobs, going out at 8am, finishing at 4pm and then starting again at 6pm. But at the moment we are in a dip and we needed help."

Steve Field is behind the counter at the church, making people hot drinks and chatting to visitors.

But his involvement began some time ago as a food bank user, desperate and having not eaten for four days.

One of the Norwich Foodbank's distribution centres, based at the New Hope Christian Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYOne of the Norwich Foodbank's distribution centres, based at the New Hope Christian Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

"I was in a very bad place," he says. "I lost my wife, she died of cancer. For 25 years I looked after her.

"I turned to alcohol, I turned to drugs, to block it all out. I'd run out of money, I hadn't eaten for four days. I was too proud to ask for help, but someone told me to go to the food bank."

He says the centre had later offered him work cleaning, and that he had found comfort through religion.

"I haven't looked back since, but without the food bank I would have died. Simple as that. There's so many people in that position."

Next year, the Norwich food bank will mark its 10th anniversary. And while Ms Worsley says its core services had remained the same, she said it now provided a more rounded service, including holiday clubs and, most recently, gas and electric vouchers, launched after people said they were unable to cook the food provided.

She adds that they see people from all walks of life, including many who had just started work, or just lost their jobs.

Steve Field, who helps out at the New Hope Christian Centre in Lakenham. Photo: Lauren CopeSteve Field, who helps out at the New Hope Christian Centre in Lakenham. Photo: Lauren Cope

'Some people are hanging on by a thread'

With services stretched, it often falls to charities and community groups to help those in a crisis.

Suzi Heybourne, chief executive of the Magdalene Group, which works with women at risk of sexual exploitation, says the women they supported were often severely deprived of opportunities to change their situation.

Take Tracey, for example.

She was first groomed into sex working when she was 14, having been trafficked by an older man who she believed was her boyfriend.

He would drive her to an area and wait in a pub until she had earned enough money to buy three bags of heroin. She could not call until she had, and she too became addicted to Class A drugs.

A history of childhood trauma, sexual abuse and violence left her trapped in a cycle she could not escape.

Arriving in Norfolk years later aged 21, she was by that point deeply mistrustful of services, and labelled as someone with challenging behaviour. Opportunities for change and empathy for her situation were in short supply.

After another episode of domestic violence, she found herself homeless again. She slept in a car throughout winter, sometimes a tent, occasionally sofa surfing or, if she earned enough money, a B&B.

Her health declined, and she suffered badly from chronic asthma and bronchitis.

She took steps towards change, including a close relationship with Norwich's Doorway Project - part of the Magdalene Group - where she was given warmth, support and listened to.

But the barriers were overwhelming - missed appointments saw her fall off the radar, and frustration at the system left her misunderstood.

By 2019, Tracey was 32 and in hospital, where she had regular meals and a roof over her head. But it was too late.

Her health deteriorated, and in March she died. No friends and family were by her bedside, with her comfort coming from charities and agencies that had supported her.

Suzi Heybourne, chief executive of the Magdalene Group. Photo: Denise BradleySuzi Heybourne, chief executive of the Magdalene Group. Photo: Denise Bradley

"People live in their trauma and to step out of it is a very vulnerable place to be," Ms Heybourne says.

"Sometimes you just have to help people with the little things - taking them to the dentist because they have a toothache, for example. It's not always straight to 'you're homeless, let's help'. For women with chaos in their lives, what might seem like a small barrier becomes significant. Some people are hanging on by a thread."

She says women reluctant to engage with services often faced a culture of blame, rather than a position of empathy, and that many were dealing with several, complex problems.

"The women just become more and more hidden. They survive, through any means."

- On Saturday, we'll be looking at what is being done to tackle deprivation, including the work of the Norwich Opportunity Area.

- What are your experiences with deprivation in Norwich? Email lauren.cope@archant.co.uk

Benefit reform Universal Credit has been blamed for pushing people to food banks. Picture: Neil DidsburyBenefit reform Universal Credit has been blamed for pushing people to food banks. Picture: Neil Didsbury

*Name changed upon request.

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