In October 2021 the Government announced the Household Support Fund, a £500m fund for people in England who were likely to suffer food or fuel poverty over the winter.
In Birmingham, the City Council decided to distribute its share of the money directly to households in need. To do this, they chose ten voluntary sector organisations – one in each constituency – to administer the funds. In light of our existing role as Early Help and Neighbourhood Network Lead, Gateway Family Services was chosen to cover the Edgbaston constituency.
So, in the week after Christmas 2021, we put together the Household Support Fund Admin Team. For three months, they took calls from members of the public, most of whom had been referred to the scheme by support workers at other organisations.
Before they left, we caught up with the team to find out how they got on.
Hi everyone! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your role?
Aruna Aslam says, “we answered the phone and tried to help people get the fund by completing the application form for them. Our role was quite simple but we were speaking to different people every day and listening to their stories.
“When we asked, ‘could you briefly explain what you need the money for?’ people did open up their hearts. So part of our job was to listen to what they were saying, to be compassionate, and to tell them it’s going to be OK.
“Some people had lost loved ones due to covid – I spoke to a few clients who had suffered great losses. But you just encourage them and tell them, you know, ‘hopefully we can help you a little bit’. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
Did you encounter any difficulties or obstacles during the process?
Bodrul Hussain says, “we sometimes had to tell someone that they couldn’t apply to our fund, because we only covered the Edgbaston constituency and they didn’t live in our area. We would always pass them on to the right organisation for their area, but it sometimes took a bit of explaining and they often didn’t want to hear it. Sometimes, particularly at the peak of the funding programme, it took people a while to get through, so they didn’t want to hear about further delays.
“And some people tried to apply twice, due to misunderstandings. They’d already applied successfully, but tried again because sometimes support workers misunderstood and told people they could apply more than once. So we would have to tell them ‘no’ and explain how it worked.”
Louisa Martin says, “I think a lot of time, if people became rude or angry, it wasn’t because they were horrible people, it was because they needed something. The desperation takes over. I talked to someone who hadn’t eaten for four days. They are not angry with you; they are angry with the situation.
“But I think the hardest part (of the work) was also the most rewarding part, because then you knew the individual with a child living in temporary accommodation could now afford to buy food for a week, and could afford to eat.”
I imagine all of you must have stories like that. Are there other examples you remember?
“I spoke to a lady one day,” Aruna recalls. “She was the first client I dealt with that morning. I did the application and she said that she had three children and no money. She kept telling me she would try to return the money at the end of the month, saying she just wanted to get this week’s food for the children. So I explained that once she had got the payment she didn’t have to pay it back.
“You know, when I said that to her, she was so overwhelmed. I will never forget; she said, ‘you don’t realis e what you’ve just said to me. You actually do something that you can’t imagine. I can’t control myself,’ and she was crying on the other end of the phone. It’s moments like this and people like this that make you feel it’s worth it. It’s little things like this that make a real difference.”
Bodrul adds, “A lady told me she’s living in rented property and the condition of the property is really poor. It was one bedroom, and she had to live with her 16-year-old son, struggling for food and rent. When I filled in the application form, I had to tell her that it was not guaranteed, and I had done everything I could, but she was really nice. She thanked me and said, ‘even if I don’t get it, you have tried. I went to other people, and they didn’t help me, so I am grateful to you for taking the time to fill out the application for me.’ And later she emailed me back to thank me again, as she had got the money she was really in need of, and used it to buy food and clothes for her son.
“I feel like I didn’t do much. I just sat in the office and filled out an application form. But people benefited. To them, that was a lot. It really made a difference.”
Isn’t it mind-blowing when you listen to stories like these?
Louisa says, “it changes your perspective, I think. You hear things and you realise these things happen and people are suffering. It’s really clicked, hearing from people who are living in poverty in England in 2022. It’s really real.
“We knew people needed this funding but the reality was like a slap in the face. We filled out 960 referrals – and we are just one of ten areas in Birmingham. If you put that into perspective for the entire UK, it’s mind-blowing.”
Aruna adds, “we went to the food bank to set up surgeries. We met people and realised that this funding was opening our eyes as well. We appreciate things a lot more now. We are blessed but people are struggling. Poverty in England is real. There were reports that people were applying for the funding just because they could. But no, we’ve seen the real people. They applied because they needed it.”
Thank you all for your hard work which really made a difference! And thank you for sharing your stories, it was great to learn more about the work you all do.