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As Universal Credit rolls out across the country, over the coming months we are checking in regularly with a foodbank in an area which is currently transitioning to UC to see if there is any noticeable impact on the number of families with children using their services. We are hearing the first-hand experiences of one of the foodbank’s members of staff.

Generosity takes many forms

13 December 2018

It’s our final conversation of the year and Linda is reflecting on an unusually busy period. They’re normally rushed off their feet at this time of year, but with people transitioning to UC waiting up to seven weeks for money, things are starting to take their toll.

“Last week a lady with three kids came in to see us,” Linda explains. “She’s worked her whole life but has been made redundant just before Christmas.”

“I bumped into her at the bus stop and she was sobbing her heart out. She was shaking. I comforted her, and she said that she’d been overwhelmed by how nice people were to her, by the fact no one judged her.”

For Linda, it’s all about how you treat people. She sees people so concerned about filling in forms, signing the right documents, getting the kids to school, so that, aside from the food, one of the most important things they can give their clients is time to talk.

“People are panic stricken. They have heard the rumours about the delays. And 5-7 weeks to wait for a claim to be processed is an impossible amount of time. Especially over Christmas.”

Even though UC aims to simplify benefits, there is resentment that everyone has to make a new claim. “They’re asking why they have to do this if it’s not them making this choice. The feeling is, if it’s the Government making me do it, why am I having to wait?”

For many people the prospect of making a claim online can cause anxiety.

“People are worried if they do it wrong it will be sent back, and that will delay things further.”

“You set up an account and you have to check it on a daily basis to see if there’s an update. They have to log in. People don’t have credit so they have to go to the library which can be an additional travel cost.”

And it’s these hidden costs that can be crippling. Last week Linda met a woman visiting her distribution centre who had to spend £4.50 on the bus fare to get there. She was saving that money for her son’s school bus – so he had to walk.

There’s no doubt in Linda’s mind that UC is adding to the demand.

“Even our centres which are usually quieter are seeing more clients,” she says. “We’ve come to an agreement that we will support people for the duration of their claim wait, rather than the 3 voucher limit we normally work to.”

This added demand puts pressure on everyone, volunteers and clients alike. And there is worry about how people are going to cope in the New Year.

“People forget us after Christmas, it’s something we have to work at from a comms perspective. There is fabulous generosity at Christmas but we need it throughout the year.”

And that generosity takes many forms. From the volunteers who staff the centres to former clients.

“At the same session I met the lady at the bus stop, we had another client we’d seen three weeks earlier come back in to visit us. She’d found a job and wanted to make a donation of £5.”

“For many people a fiver isn’t a lot. It’s a magazine or a cup of coffee and we don’t think about it. But for the people who use our foodbank it can be the difference between being able to access our services or not.”

We’ll be speaking to Linda again in the New Year.

More blog posts from our series on Universal Credit

Previous post: 30 November 2018 – Three days that carry us through

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