The financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a huge surge in members of the community turning to food banks or seeking other help in providing meals for their families, a leading charity has warned.
Paperweight — which was founded ten years ago as a communal citizens advice bureau on legal, financial and benefit issues — has also warned of the scale of indebtedness when the crisis eases.
Growing numbers are struggling to arrange mortgage holidays with banks. And in the rental sector there has been a rise in those unable to cover weekly payments because the rental allowance in some boroughs does not meet the amount landlords are charging.
Meanwhile, more and more people are having to grapple with a benefits system they have had no experience of in the past.
Bayla Perrin, the charity’s chief executive, told the JC there has been an alarming rise in cases where people do not have enough money on a day-to-day basis: “What is going on here is very much what is going on in the wider community. It is not just about food banks — it is about people who haven’t got money to function.”
“There is no financial immunity within the community at all,” according to Emma Roache, the charity’s operations manager. “Yes, there are some wealthy people who are very comfortable — but there are also people who really are struggling day-to-day.”
One mother of five, a shop worker who had contracted Covid-19, contacted the charity after three weeks off work receiving only statutory sick pay.
With monthly bills to settle and the need to provide meals for her children, she began to panic when she learned that the government’s voucher system had not yet enabled her to claim food from stores.
Self-isolation also meant she was unable to leave the house to shop. After contacting the charity as a last resort, a case worker found a local food bank that was able to deliver food and other necessities for her family, including kosher chicken and challah for Shabbat.
The caseworker also helped her to review her household expenditure, especially around general utilities, and negotiated the closure of long running contracts which were disadvantageous.
The woman, who has asked not to be named, said this week: “Paperweight gave me not only a way out but also the inner belief that I would be able to manage not only through the current crisis, but toward a more stable and secure future for my children.
“I never thought I would need help in this way but the financial strain resulting from Covid-19 pushed me into frightening and unfamiliar circumstances.”
The charity, which occupies small offices in north west London and relies on the assistance of 150 volunteer caseworkers, many with experience of working in the legal profession, says it is “just about” able to accommodate all the confidential consultations needed as a result of the current crisis.
Short-term government support has provided some relief — but Benjamin Conway, who founded Paperweight with Ms Perrin 10 years ago, said lockdown was proving too hard for many: “When the brown envelopes come through the door you don’t look at them. If people are suffering also from bereavement or from mental health issues — it makes the admin at home that much harder to deal with.”
The charity says it expects the next year to be as bad, with an increase in the number of people either out of work or struggling to pay back debts and as a result suffering from mental health problems and other conditions.
Paperweight says it recently helped one married father-of-two who had held a patchwork of jobs which provided for his family, one of whom is severely autistic. Covid-19 has demolished his career.
He told the charity that tensions at home, with both children now around all day and one requiring minute-by-minute supervision, were now — with the added spectre of debt — at an all-time high.
Desperately worried about his mortgage, he called the charity to say he needed a mortgage holiday but had been held on the phone for 90 minutes to his provider before being cut off.
Paperweight intervened on his behalf. The caseworker also discovered, after using Department of Work and Pension tools, that the man and his family were entitled to further benefits.
His bank was satisfied with the finance plan arranged by the caseworker and spoke directly with the man to approve it.
The charity warns that coming out of lockdown will bring significant new challenges. Businesses which continue to be constrained by social distancing measures will quickly exhaust loan facilities and be forced to make staff redundant. Many will cease to operate, resulting in even further job losses for their suppliers as well.
Those that have been able to manage their operations during the lockdown with a smaller team, whilst furloughing others, will cut their workforce.
When the credit card payment and mortgage holidays come to an end, the reality of unsustainable loans will hit hard.
The charity was recently praised for its work by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and is one of the community’s most frugal charities. With a budget of under £100,000 it delivers guidance on legal, financial and benefit issues that would otherwise cost around £2.5 million a year.
“Up until now we have made ends meet but the fallout from Covid-19 has put much greater demands on us and Paperweight now needs help,” said Ms Perrin.
“We’re not a charity that can furlough anyone. In fact, in order to respond to the growth in demand for our services, we have to increase our management team by a couple of people. It’s not a large additional budget — £50,000 — but if we can’t, we may have to start turning people away, which will undoubtedly lead to a worsening of their situation.”