Homelessness and hunger in boomtown Croydon

By - Wednesday 12th October, 2016

Croydon Foodbank’s founder, Fatima Koroma, talks to Liz Sheppard-Jones about changing times and new challenges

Croydon, as you may have heard, is now the area of the United Kingdom with the fastest growing economy. The place is newly fashionable, celebrated for its street art and culture, a tech hub of growing repute, and a shrine to foodie-dom which is imminently home to London’s second Boxpark, to be based around entertainment and eating out.

It is greatly to Croydon’s credit that amidst all the glitz, there are numerous examples of genuine grassroots action. Croydon Tech City would, of course, fall into this category. But it doesn’t get its fingers or knees nearly as grubby as projects such as Croydon Saffron Central (the saffron farm on Park Lane), Bee Haven, or the community gardeners of Lend and Tend, planting crops on the roof of a town centre car park. And there’s much, much more.

As a general rule, though, cool and comfortably-off remain co-habitees. Fashionable lifestyles require disposable income: money in people’s pockets to spend after they’ve met London’s exceptionally high housing and living costs.

The towers light up, the tech incubators throb. How are the foodbanks?

As the number of ‘disposables’ around the place rises (a disposable being what a southern, urban millennial becomes when she grows up), disrespect for the Cronx is dated. Redundant. A sign that you don’t keep up with a pretty zesty zeitgeist. Difficult to believe just a few years ago, but today, hating on Croydon is uncool. With investment pouring in, the lights beginning to shine in the mint-new towers as their occupants set up home and the tech incubators throbbing with tomorrow’s innovations-in-embryo, this is a place with its eyes on the prize.

So it’s worth asking how the foodbank’s doing.

Croydon Foodbank’s director and founder, Fatima Koroma, was first interviewed for the Citizen in February 2014.

“The reality is”, she said at that time, “that people are living in poverty and sometimes have no choice but to use foodbanks. The need for assistance is great; when you have carers telling you the struggle that their clients are going through, or mothers crying about what they are experiencing, you can’t turn them away”..

“Most of my clients are not better off and still visit foodbanks”

Fatima Koroma. Photo by Tom Black, used with permission.

She described our borough then as “a microcosm of a worsening national picture”. Food poverty had been on the rise for a number of years with foodbank usage increasing more than tenfold under the three Labour administrations between 1997 and 2010, then accelerating sharply under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government.

Croydon Foodbank still extends across Croydon and forms a network including Purley Food Hub, a church group; Nightwatch, a charity supporting homeless people; the Shrubland Trust, a counselling and advice service; and Salvation Army branches in central Croydon and New Addington. So how does Fatima Koroma see things today?

“We are neither better nor worse”, she states. “People are still facing challenges for the same reasons. A few years ago austerity kicked in, marginalising certain groups and having very drastic effects. Now, in autumn 2016, we’ve voted for Brexit and uncertainty therefore continues: we don’t know what challenges this will bring. Most of my clients are not better off and still visit food banks”.

What other changes has she seen during this time? “Those in poverty now have to tackle the introduction of Universal Credit, and the new restrictions and sanctions that this brings. Various austerity measures have continued to hit the poorest. There’s been the move from statutory assistance to people relying on an under-funded voluntary and community system. I see a lot of upset clients who have worked, then been made redundant, and now can’t understand why they can’t get assistance, seeing as they have paid into the system.” She pauses before adding, inevitably: “we see fewer new EU clients now. There’s also less assistance available for non-EU migrants, and many more people with alcohol and drugs dependencies. Most of the challenges are not initiated by local government, but a reflection of what’s happening nationally”.

How many new referrals to Croydon Foodbank does she see? “In 2016, we see on average twenty referrals per day. Since Christmas 2015, there have been around 2,400 of them. When you lose old clients, you get new ones, and we prevent those most affected by poverty from going further into crisis. Also foodbanks have been headline news: more people are aware of their existence than a few years ago”.

“Brexit has been a catalyst for bigots, but Croydon has a resilient community”

Is it still just emergency food that the food bank provides? “No, it isn’t. Many clients now also access other points of assistance through us. We have had to develop our services, to cater for the multiplicity of need. We don’t see ourselves as ‘just’ a food bank any more. With the support of Croydon Voluntary Action, we are now in partnership with other organisations to develop the Croydon Health and Employment Partnership, which helps people back into employment. We wanted to offer a more holistic service and help people to pull themselves out of poverty and not have to access foodbanks”.

Has Croydon’s economic boom made things easier for her clients, or given them a greater sense of marginalisation? “The economic boom factor is a good thing. I would like to see more people accessing these new opportunities. This is why I want to be part of facilitating this for some of the more marginalised sectors of our community. The talk is of widening inclusion in social and digital aspects of life”.

Is ‘boomtown Croydon’ is more divided now than it was in 2014? “Brexit has been a catalyst for bigots to allow their opinions and negative attitudes to rule out logical thinking. However, Croydon has a resilient community, and we have more in common than what divides us. For me, the words ‘no one left behind’ in the Croydon Fairness and Opportunity report earlier this year stand out, because they speak of opportunity. Many need support and assistance to access these opportunities; this is the new challenge that we now face”.

A pall of blame can fall upon those who have not managed so successfully

Money, as Cyndi Lauper sang, changes everything. It’s changing Croydon, bringing new risks alongside the evident benefits. One risk is that subtly, its possession erodes empathy, shifting a sense of common interest and casting a pall of blame upon those who have failed to manage their lives so successfully.

But no one chooses to have nothing, or to depend on charity for the basics of survival. For the wellbeing of all present and future Croydonians, those who climb the bright, shiny towers of fortune should consider the streets where their long shadows fall.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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