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How the cuts stole Christmas

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Misted with condensation, the Hub @75 is sandwiched between a fried chicken shop and a pharmacy on a small high street in west London’s White City. The shop fronts make up the ground floor of a redbrick low-rise block of flats nestled in the area’s warren of council estates, modern developments and rows of houses, reported New Statesman (UK).

Rain slaps down on the pavement as multiple people walk in and out of the Hub – it’s a foodbank drop-in, so visitors enter for everything from a chat over a cup of tea to an emergency parcel of food that will feed them and their family for the next three days.

The centre is run by the Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank charity, and open six days a week. This wet afternoon, people sip soup or eat slices of cake at the smattering of tables in the brightly-lit, cramped front room as the six volunteers give advice and put boxes of donations together.

Other visitors sit at a bank of computers along the back wall. There are IT and employment workshops here as well as law and housing advice, cookery classes and board game and knitting afternoons.

The number of people who come in is rising, as it is across the country according to the anti-poverty charity Trussell Trust’s foodbank network. This financial year, the Hub has given the equivalent of 66,000 meals to 6,650 recipients – up from 6,050 last financial year.

But you don’t need stats to see this is an overstretched operation. In the office behind the main room, no surface is left empty – the manager’s desk, cabinets and fold-out chairs host a portable hob, bottles of vegetable oil, crumpled stacked boxes of Scrabble, Draughts and other games, clear plastic boxes filled with honey, mince pies, more cooking oil, and three boxes contain sewing machines. An enormous printer towers over proceedings in the back left corner.

Daphine Aikens, who founded this charity in 2010, is sitting at the desk, fielding constant texts and questions from volunteers who pop their heads round the door. She wears tortoiseshell glasses and a stripy scarf over her grey jumper. A hat and gloves dry out on the radiator opposite. December sees people coming in for warmth as well as food.

“We used to be very much more of a crisis service – you’d see somebody two or three times,” she tells me, looking up data about visitors on the desktop.

“Whereas now, it’s like we’ve seen you coming in for ten weeks. Because actually they’ve got no money coming in, and no other way of surviving without three days’ worth of food coming in from the food bank.”

Cutting Christmas
Nursing a cup of tea at a table by the window, Maurice Ephraim is in today because he’s homeless. He slept on the steps of a nearby housing block last night. The 63-year-old was evicted from his flat eight years ago, and has stayed with friends; sofa-surfed and slept rough ever since – remaining in this borough, where he has always lived, near his mother and ten children.

“The government is not doing enough to help homeless people,” he says. “They’re making all these houses, but not for us. What’re we getting out of it? It doesn’t make me very happy.”

Regeneration in this part of the capital has been patchy, with a 2009 study by the LSE finding White City to be one of the “most deprived areas of the whole country”.

Part of the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, pockets like this are often overshadowed by the wealth of neighbouring areas (affluent Holland Park is just two stops away on the Central Line). Locals like Ephraim, who worked as a machine operator for 36 years, are overlooked.

Ephraim is on pre-Universal Credit benefits, but finds the money “does not stretch as far” as it used to with “prices going up every time, and they do not come down, they stay up”. He will have Christmas dinner this year at the town hall, which hosts lunch for residents over 60. “Christmas isn’t the same anymore,” he tells me. “It’s like an ordinary day, to be honest.”

Searching through job listings on a computer in the corner, 48-year-old Ian has been unemployed for a year. He was a shift engineer in the hotel industry and wants to get back into work; he is now on Universal Credit – the new benefits system that is being rolled out nationally. “The first thing I did [when I lost my job] was sign on, on the Monday,” he tells me. “The frustration I had is you’ve got to wait.”

Ian waited nine weeks for his benefits to come in. “It’s frustrating, it held everything back – rent, and then I had to get food vouchers for the food here,” he tells me. He has a son in his twenties and will be spending Christmas with family – but it feels different this year, without money. “Christmas is only one day,” he sighs, turning back to the screen.

Universally challenged
Aikens says “a lot” of the reason why she has so many more clients than last year is to do with the “long wait for Universal Credit”.

With an initial six-week inbuilt delay to payments, revised down to five weeks starting next year, people who rely on benefits are being left in the lurch for long stretches – and have no money to eat. Foodbanks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout have seen a 16.85 per cent increase in referrals (more than double the national average), the Trussell Trust calculates.

Advance payments, which are upfront loans that you pay back via a reduction in your monthly benefits, are available under Universal Credit if you can’t get through the waiting period. But many are still left uninformed by the Jobcentre that this back-up support is available.

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