“Deptford’s poverty is not really visible on the surface”

With the recent news that the Evelyn 190 Centre will close its doors on 31st July 2019 as Lewisham Council will no longer be funding the centre, it is a timely moment to publish the story of the centre: how it came into being, how it operates and what it does, and above all, how essential its services are. If you want the centre to continue operating, please sign the petition.

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I recently spoke to Maureen Vitler, a local contemporary artist, member of the ministry group at St Nicholas Church in Deptford and member of the Management Committee for the Evelyn 190 Advice Centre – a community-based advice centre that offers assistance and advocacy to people who have difficulties with debt, housing, employment and welfare benefits. Maureen came to Deptford in 1967, when she trained as a teacher at the Rachel MacMillan School. Ever since then, she has been involved in looking after people in need and has become an invaluable member of the local community.  Through her involvement with the parish of St Nicholas and St Luke’s, Maureen and others such as Reverend Fr. Jack Lucas played an important role in setting up the Evelyn 190 Centre in 1979.

“It was set up as a community centre with just one community worker at the time”, Maureen tells me. “Initially, there were a boxing club and various other community groups, and we as a church supported them by giving them a building for use at much lower rent than they would have got anywhere else. This was part of our tithing – our giving to the community because we as a church wanted to help. Eventually, as more people were coming in asking for help, the community centre changed its role to an advice centre with more staff available to meet demand. There are so many people, even from our own congregation, that have needed the centre’s support because they can’t cope with the things that are put before them such as the difficulties when losing your job for example. So, this centre is really needed in the area and we have been growing all those years.”

When the community centre came into being in 1979, St Luke’s church (on 190 Evelyn Street) was divided into three sections: the front section as the worship area, the middle section for church halls and the back as the community centre. When the community centre was changed to the advice centre, an extra floor and stairs were put in to make more rooms for individual counselling or other similar situations. Sadly, due to the building now crumbling and having become too dangerous to occupy (and too expensive for the church to repair), the centre has been planning to move and is looking for premises.

Over the years, the management committee have managed to get funding from different bodies, and they also got a kitemark – a trusted symbol for safe and reliable services. Today, apart from small funds here and there, their main funder is Lewisham Council and over the last years, with councils suffering governmental budget cuts, the funding for the 190 Centre has been reduced at each round of funding (every 3 years), with a reduction of 25% in 2016. With fewer funds available and more demand as more and more people find themselves in difficulties, the centre and its staff find it harder and harder to do what they want to do: help people in need.

I ask Maureen about the sorts of things that people come for help and how the centre assists them. “Recently, there have been a lot of people on disability benefits that needed help. With the new regime and the introduction of Universal Credit, disabled people have had to go through a whole lot of new medicals and exams to see if they were still eligible for their benefits. Some of them were told they weren’t even though their disability hadn’t changed, and their benefits were stopped. As our centre has also offered advocacy and representation in court – not many do this as it’s very time-consuming – we went to court with them to challenge these decisions of not being eligible and some have won their court case. Or the staff might be seeing someone who’s in arrears with their rent and needs help to sort this out and also the debt they have accumulated. They get advice on how to pay their debt, how to get through to the council to get a reduction in council tax or rent and other things. There are a lot of hidden processes that a lot of people don’t know about and can’t sort out themselves.”

When I ask whether demand has increased in the last decade, Maureen agrees without hesitation. The last couple of years and the implementation of Universal Credit have put a particular strain on the centre, firstly because people don’t really understand how Universal Credit works, secondly because people’s benefits have been reduced, leaving less money to pay higher rents, and thirdly because a lot of people haven’t (yet) got the wherewithal to budget for a whole month due to having been paid weekly for years, resulting in people running out of money half way through the month and building up rent arrears and debt. As such, there have been more evictions and cases of homelessness. Another reason for the extra strain is the changes to the way the 190 Centre now delivers its services, dictated by Lewisham Council who introduced a centralised telephone hub with clients having to call first before they can speak to somebody face-to-face. The idea behind the hub was to make the system fairer by providing access for more people, but in actual fact it has put extra strain on staff and extra distress on service users, most of whom are already very vulnerable. Where in the past people could come straight into the centre getting immediate face-to-face attention – some immediate advice and an appointment, something which can provide immediate comfort in distressing situations – they now have to phone the Central Advice Line to make an appointment with either the Evelyn 190 Centre of other centres that offer similar services and are funded by Lewisham Council. This means they often have to wait 3 to 4 weeks before they actually get to speak to somebody face-to-face. Maureen explains:

“The staff now cannot give appointments at the 190 Centre as they used to – they have to send clients away and refer them to the Advice Line. They are also not allowed to give advice on the phone – they can only take clients’ details, assess their needs and make an appointment. This is an issue because we are dealing with very vulnerable people, some of whom are elderly, have mental health issues or have English as a second language. For them, having to make a phone call is really scary and they would really benefit from face-to-face contact. Our staff now have to spend at least 2 days a week just answering phone calls – time they used to be able to spend on actually helping people. Casework (e.g. going to court, preparing the materials for court, etc.) is extremely time-consuming and with the changing regulations and the number of cases on the increase, the staff are overwhelmed with the workload. On top of that, due to the funding cuts, we’ve had to cut a 5-day week to a 4-day week as we can’t afford to pay our staff for 5 days a week (and one member of staff had to go), leaving only 2 days a week to deal with casework. But this is exactly what clients need the most as they are unable to represent themselves; these are poorer people that haven’t got the wherewithal to do it themselves. And all the pending cuts to our centres and welfare benefits – it’s all interlinked. Life for poor people is becoming really difficult and if getting help is difficult too, then you can imagine the distress this is causing. Our staff, who really want to help the people calling up with an urgent issue, can only take their information, pass it on and make an appointment, which may not even take place with the same person they have dealt with before. And then there is all the online stuff which is another no-go area for a lot of older people, and those who do know how have to go to the library because they don’t have their own computers. All this is adding more stress to people who are already in difficult situations and our staff are under a lot of pressure; it’s difficult for them to not be able to help as much as they would like!”

Maureen thinks that the implementation of Universal Credit is also linked with increased demand for food banks, saying that a lot more people who could have managed themselves in the past are now using food banks. It’s endless with the poverty we have in the area and it all links up: poverty, education, food banks, housing…” I ask Maureen what she thinks the biggest problem is in Deptford. She says that Deptford’s poverty is not really visible on the surface. “We have all the new dapper buildings bought by foreign investors, who leave them empty or charge really high rents, so you don’t see the poverty. It’s only when someone tells you or you are in contact with people on the ground, when you get down to the nitty-gritty underneath that you see the poverty amongst some of the people. I think a big problem is that poor people lose any self-worth when they see all that wealth around them that isn’t for them and because they’ve got no self-worth they’ve got nothing to live for in a sense. In the past, even though people were poor money-wise when I first came here, they had a sense of ‘this is our place’ and a ‘we can do it’ attitude; that’s gone now amongst a lot of the people.  At the time, there weren’t any what you would call rich people – some had more than others and others were more poverty-stricken but on the whole, there weren’t any outrageously rich people. Now, even with the so-called affordable housing – where they’ve had to build it, it’s right on the edge, separated from the others, creating a visible class divide between those who can afford nice places and those that can’t. Sometimes it reminds me of India where the rich and the poor live side by side.”

DSC_0307Maureen standing in the labyrinth in St Nick’s churchyard. According to her, the meditative and spiritual nature of following the path in a labyrinth can help troubled souls see clarity.

Bringing the conversation back to the 190 Centre, I ask Maureen if she could tell me about a couple of cases that are paradigmatic of the kinds of issues that people approach the centre with. Maureen thinks for a moment before she tells me this: “I know a woman who has been on sickness benefits for a long time. She’s recently had an operation and now the DWP say she’s fit to work, so she’s been sent an e-mail asking her to fill in an online form to sign on and look for work. Now, she is reasonably computer-literate but it took her days to fill it in (as it would have taken me and I’m also reasonably literate) and then she had to go to Bellingham to sign on. We used to have a Job Centre in Deptford but that’s gone, then the one in Lewisham went as well and now people have to go to Bellingham. So, you’re out of work, you’ve got no money and yet you’re expected to get somewhere a long way away to sign on. It’s privileged people making decisions about what poorer people can and can’t do. For them it’s only a £3 return bus ticket but some people can’t afford that. We’re at a point in our society where we’re not taking people as whole human beings with individual circumstances; they’re just a number or a name. Another case was a young woman with her 4-year old child who had been evicted from their rented flat. She had been paying rent to a landlord who was subletting and not paying his rent, and so she was evicted in the end. The council couldn’t help her, at least not immediately, and so she was left on the streets with a child and nowhere to go. Our vicar housed them for a while until she found a place for the mother and child to rent.”

With demand constantly increasing, services provided by places like St Nicholas Church and the 190 Evelyn Centre are essential, providing a much-needed safety net from potential homelessness. However, with funding constantly decreasing, resulting in heightened anxiety levels every 3 years when a new funding bid is due that decides whether the centre can continue to exist, the poor will find it increasingly harder to get the help they need and deserve. For more information on the Evelyn 190 Centre, please visit: http://www.evelyn190centre.org.uk/ For more information on St Nicholas Church, please visit: https://www.stnicholaschurchdeptford.org/.

St Nicholas Church Yard, tended to by Maureen and others. 

 

“If I’d known they were going to demolish this, I wouldn’t have invested in this business!”

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Last month I spoke with Ali, the business owner of Mez Mangal, a Turkish restaurant on 379 New Cross Road. When I came in, he was behind the counter preparing for lunch business. The food there is lovely and freshly prepared to order in the restaurant (For more information on the restaurant, please visit mezmangal.com or facebook.com/Mezmangal).  I’d met Ali a year earlier just after opening this new restaurant. At the time, he was full of hope, energy and enthusiasm. Last month I met a changed man: stressed, suffering from depression and without hope.

Ali once owned a café in Covent Garden and after a few years of doing jobs here and there, he wanted to own his own business again. He wanted to have a secure future for his wife and children and was happy to invest in this. He took over a 7-year lease on this council property just over a year ago, costing him £100,000. He then spent a fortune on refurbishing and decorating the beautiful and large restaurant, and as it takes time to create a customer base, he has also been without a wage for the past year. Sadly, business isn’t going well yet for Mez Mangal – Ali isn’t getting the number of customers he needs to earn a wage and he has recently had to take out a loan to pay some of the bills. He shows me his bank balance – he’s massively in debt. One might think this is a simple story of a new business not having taken off yet. However, there is more to it than that.

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Just over a year ago, when Ali was planning his hopeful future, other residents and shopkeepers already knew that there are plans to demolish 379 New Cross Road along with the other buildings on New Cross Parade and the shops on Clifton Rise, as well as the 4 council blocks on Achilles Street to redevelop the area. The Achilles Street Stop and Listen Campaign had already been launched to stop the redevelopment plans with information posted on their blog: achillesstreetstopandlisten.files.wordpress.com. Please see planning proposal from 2016 here: achillesstreetstopandlisten.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/05-11-16-achilles-street-consultation-boards-small-file-size.pdf

According to Ali, he wasn’t given any information about these plans when signing the lease. He even paid a solicitor to check whether the council had plans for demolition and redevelopment. Ali tells me he was told he could safely invest in 379 New Cross Road. He has since been made aware of the redevelopment plans by the Campaign group and is very worried about his future: “If I lose this business, I will lose everything! I have put my life into this business, I’m in huge debt and I have no idea what’s happening in the future!” Ali feels cheated: “Since I’ve been here, there has been no information from the council whatsoever. The only information I have is from the campaign group. This is wrong! I have put my children’s future into this business! In total, with the lease, the refurbishment and the loss of wages I have spent about £300,000, and that for a business that might be demolished some time I don’t know when. If the council want to give me £300,000 okay, I’ll go and start again. But who is going to compensate me for my stress? If I’d known they were going to demolish this, I wouldn’t have invested in this business!”

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Since Ali has found out about the uncertainty of his future, he has suffered badly from stress, depression and at times suicidal thoughts. He can’t concentrate on his work and has been unable to sleep because he is so worried about what’s going to happen. On top of that, his worry and stress over the last year have ended in divorce after 18 years of marriage. “I am losing everything. I have lost money, I have lost hope and now I have lost my family because they can’t cope with me being stressed all the time! What am I supposed to do – go and kill myself? I am not joking, I have thought about it. Who’s going to compensate me for all this? I feel cheated, without hope and without a future. I think I should take the council to court.”

Ali needs to know what’s going to happen so that he can move on with his life. He needs to know whether 379 New Cross Road will be demolished and, if so, when; he needs to know whether the council will compensate him financially and, if so, how much; he needs to know whether there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel so that he might have hope again. In the planning proposal (link above), the council has said that in previous consultations, business owners requested more information and time scales. The council also said that feedback is extremely important to them. So why, then, hasn’t Ali had any information from the council in the last year and a half about the plans to demolish his business? The council also promises to “provide financial and practical assistance to all affected businesses” (in planning proposal 2016, link above) but will they pay off the debt Ali has accumulated due to not being told about these plans? And as he says, how can he ever be compensated for the stress and personal upheaval he has suffered? And the final question that needs answering, if all this information was already available in November 2016, why wasn’t Ali informed about this when signing the lease in 2017, when investing his whole life into this business?

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