At the moment, Josephine* spends much of her day scrolling through social media, searching for any help that she can find. Whether it be from food banks, charities, church groups or other community organisations, if she comes across someone who can feed her son Thomas* then she reaches out and gets in touch.
“There was one I saw two days ago,” she says. “I sent them an email and they got back to me this morning saying they are going to send me a £40 Tesco voucher. That’s all I can rely on now.”
Josephine arrived in the UK as a student from Nigeria 14 years ago, renewed her student visa and then received a post-study work permit. But her application to remain in the UK on a longer term basis was refused in 2015 with no right of appeal. All her attempts to reapply since have failed, meaning she is classified as an undocumented migrant and at risk of deportation.
Thomas is too, despite being six years old and only ever knowing life in this country. Before the pandemic, they could rely on free school meals to ensure he would not go hungry, but now schools are closed and their status means he does not qualify for the government’s substitute voucher scheme.
They are one of thousands of families now relying on food banks to cope during the coronavirus pandemic. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank provider, saw a 122 per cent increase in food parcels given out to children during the last two weeks of March 2020 compared to the same period last year.
After the Hackney Migrant Centre alerted Thomas’s school to the family’s circumstances, they gathered up all the food they could find and made sure it got to Josephine yesterday. “Bread, milk, juice,” she says. “A lot of biscuits, which I know my son is going to like! They gave some books that he can read as well.”
Even so, Thursday morning’s breakfast was still just a bit of bread. The family are sometimes forced to skip meals and Thomas is beginning to understand the situation. “He even says he’s not eating as much as he normally does. Sometimes he wakes up very late, doesn’t have his breakfast until like 11 or 12.”
Food banks are the family’s main source of sustenance and organisations like the Greenwich Migrant Hub and South London Refugee Association have also helped with advice, vouchers and one-off payments. Generous friends have provided bits of financial support too, but they are also struggling for money during the lockdown.
All in all, Josephine is tasked with surviving off £100-a-month. Some of that goes on her phone contract. It has to, she explains, because it is her lifeline to access more food and more support. “I keep getting emails from people, charities and organisations, so I need to keep the phone running.”
And if food insecurity was not enough to contend with, she is also tasked with trying to find a new place to live. When one friend came round to drop off food for her and her son at their rented flat in Thamesmead, Greenwich recently, her landlady took exception and told her no visitors were allowed.
“A few weeks later, her own daughter who does not live with us came to visit for the week,” Josephine recalls. “She was entertaining friends in the house and smoking weed.” An argument followed. “Both the mum and the daughter were screaming at me. The daughter almost slapped my face and was calling me all sorts of names right in front of my son … I actually had to get my GP to put me on antidepressants and tablets. I was really depressed, I was scared.”
Thomas is frightened too. He runs away when he sees the landlady, who has told social workers that she wants the family to leave by 15 May. “I could get help with rehousing, but because I haven’t put any application in with the Home Office, I could be deported after Covid-19,” she explains. “At the moment I’m just like ‘f***’, because I don’t know what to do.”
It raises the question of what support there would be for those in Josephine and Thomas’s situation in these unprecedented times if food banks did not exist, and if charities and communities had not built the most basic of safety nets. It’s a question she does not like to dwell on.
“I started thinking about this and it got me worried,” she says. “It’s really tough because if I didn’t have the support I was getting now I don’t know how I would survive. I really don’t know.”
* Names changed
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