Lockdown Legends: Rebekah Gibson, Foodbank and Debt Advice centre manager in Oasis Hub Waterloo

The Oasis Hub Waterloo, a network of community hubs that is part of the Trussell Trust, provides holistic community services including a small city farm, youth work, children's work, partnerships with local hospitals and schools, food banks and debt advice.

Speaking on Yahoo video series Up Close And Socially Distant, Foodbank and Debt Advice centre manager, Rebekah Gibson talks to host Kate Thornton about how lockdown has changed her work and what her greatest fears are for those families that are already struggling.

Are you seeing a huge increase in demand for your services?

Rebekah: In the food bank, we've seen referrals go up hugely in the last few weeks since this crisis has been unfolding. Before this crisis, we would have been feeding an average of 180 people a week, which is still a huge number, but since the crisis has started, we're now feeding on average 700 people every week. It's been kind of a really sad reality that we've just seen the need for our service grow and grow.

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We've also seen over the last few months particularly a huge increase in children come into our food bank. Some people are really struggling to access those vouchers which have been put in place of free school meals. Prior to that, over the last few years, we've seen a steady increase in the number of people who are struggling through the school holidays as school meals are removed, which is a vital service that parents just then struggle to afford to replace those meals.

The kind of short-term impact of things not being on the supermarket shelves had a real big impact. People were coming to us saying, ‘There's only the most expensive brands left on the shelves and we can't afford to buy those’.

Equally, there are people who have been laid off work, not been able to access the furlough scheme, have been waiting for benefit payments to kick in, often left for many weeks with absolutely no income and no savings to fall back on - so people who would have been getting by on their wages previously, then absolutely just plunged into crisis.

You also help with debt management – how has the lockdown impacted on that?

At the moment, actually, we're helping a large number of people. We're managing just over £500k worth of personal debt in Waterloo.

We have actually seen a bit of a pause in uptake of referrals, because for lots of people, evictions are on hold, local counsel debts are on hold for recovery of those for many people as well - but what we're expecting is a huge influx, a huge wave of referrals to hit as soon as some of those measures are removed and people suddenly have built up huge amounts of debt over this time and are suddenly being asked to pay it all back.

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We're really concerned that we're going to see a huge increase in need in the coming months.

Emotionally, how are those you support coping?

The impact is certainly being felt very harshly. We're having lots of difficult conversations with people just in absolutely heart-breaking situations, where they have no certainty about where their next meal is going to come from, where their next amount of money's going to come from, how they're going to pay their rent and bills, worrying about amounting levels of debt, and just really struggling in the face of all the uncertainty that's going on at the moment. I think people are really going to continue to struggle for some time. 

Universal credit is available to those who need it – but that doesn’t kick in immediately. How are those people dealing with the wait?

When they first apply for universal credit, [they] have to wait five weeks from the date of application until their first payment as a minimum. That is something that is built into the structure of the system, as it were, so if you've been working a job where you get paid weekly, for example, you could have had your last wage payment many, many weeks ago and be surviving on no income.

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Your choice is either to take out an advance, which you then have to pay back over quite a short period of time and may leave you short for several months while you pay that back, or to be left with no income at all.

That's when we see many people arrive at the door of our food bank, where they're in that crucial time where they have absolutely no income and nowhere else to turn to.

What do you think needs to change structurally in this country so that we can tackle poverty long-term?

In order to tackle poverty long-term, we really need to see some key policy changes, lots of those are around support for the most vulnerable.

People who do need to access the benefits system, making that a process where they don't have to wait five weeks for a first payment, where the payments they do receive are enough that they can afford the essentials. Particularly at a time like that, it's become very apparent that people can't access very easily always the support that they need.

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We see huge issues around lack of affordable housing. Also, people in poorly paid work, or zero-hour contracts that are not paying them a proper living wage. Those are just a few things that I think we need to work really hard on to make sure that people can have a roof over their heads - a decent wage and a benefits system that will support them if they find themselves in a time of difficulty.

To anyone who is worried about their financial situation, what would you say to them, especially to those people who’ve never accessed a service like yours before?

We often find that people, before they come to a food bank, wait until a point where they're really struggling and really desperate. We supported somebody a couple of weeks ago who had gone without any food for nearly two weeks because he was too afraid and too embarrassed to ask for help. He didn't know where to turn, so he was at a point of absolute desperate need.

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I would really say we don't want anyone to be in a situation where that is what is happening to you. If you need help, please do reach out to your local food bank, to your local advice services, and ask for help. It's certainly not an individual failure. There is nothing wrong with needing to ask for help. 

There’s debt advice provision around the country and most of those services have adapted to provide online and remote advice, so the help is very much still out there and available for people who are struggling.

Equally, if you are in a position where you are able to help, please do. Get in touch with your local food bank and find out how you can best support them in your area.

To find out more the work Rebekah does visit Oasis UK. To donate £5 or more to help protect children and families against Holiday Hunger, text PLATEUP to 70085

 

Up Close And Socially Distant is hosted by Kate Thornton and features weekly video catch-ups with people who are all doing whatever they can to help those around them get through lockdown.

This week Kate speaks to presenter and broadcaster Vick Hope about her work helping refugees in her local area, nationwide and overseas, to Oasis food bank and debt advice centre manager Rebekah Gibson, and to BBC Radio One DJ Arielle Free on how she’s been helping families shake off the stresses of lockdown and home-schooling by hosting Kid’s Kitchen Raves.