John’s turn to write the blog. Today it’s his turn to open his “Surprise” brown envelope. First real life surprise was the heating was set to come on for 1 hour in the morning and the boiler failed to start! Fortunately I was able to solve the problem!
We both know that we are not really experiencing the same problems or worries that a care leaver would have. While we are trying to make the challenge as realistic as possible we can see the end in sight and we have many advantages that they don’t have. I do actually feel genuine concern about the brown envelope though. I am very low on money and have no reserves to cope with a sanction. It feels much more real than I would expect.
Surprise though, it is actually good news. Interesting feelings again. In my real life £5 is fairly inconsequential, I’ve often found an unexpected fiver in my trouser pockets. While it feels good to find it’s not really a game changer. This £5 does actually feel like it is and we spend quite a while discussing what we will spend it on!
Our luxury probably isn’t what a care leaver would choose but the point is we can afford a “luxury” item and it feels good. We can buy fresh milk as we are low (the UHT was beckoning and I hate the taste) and maybe some fresh fish!
These forms are the ones I filled in at Shildon Alive today. They were really helpful and let me collect a few things that would let us use what we already have to make enough meals to last the three days until Monday and pay the bus fare to get to the Job Centre. It means that the only cash I have in my purse is 65p so I won’t be going mad at the shops!! It’s a horrible feeling knowing that if anything goes wrong you don’t have the money in your purse to put it right – and that you’ve no way of getting more. I can see why people spiral down into depression if they have to live like this for very long – it must become soul destroying very quickly.
I really don’t know how people manage if they can’t cook and don’t have a slow cooker and a freezer and know how to use them. One thing I’m determined to do once this is all over (for me any way) is put together a booklet giving all best tips on how to feed yourself to stay healthy from all the people I know at Shildon Alive who are giving me the benefit of their experience to help me manage. I think everyone who does the care leavers’ challenge should feed back to DCC’s Corporate Parenting committee what they have learned. For a start, it’s much easier for two people to manage together than one person alone.
Just opened my brown envelope – it says I have to go to the Job Centre to sign on today. I have to deduct £4.50 to cover the cost of a bus fare there and back. As John has said on his facebook page, this leaves me with 65p for three days, including the weekend. I would have to go in real life otherwise I would be sanctioned and lose my benefits. I live about 8 miles from the nearest Job Centre which highlights just how unfair the system is to these young people – if they live close enough they can walk and not spend the money – but for most people this would simply be too far and take too much time to walk – 16 miles there and back.
The same applies to shopping – you can only carry just so much at one go. and long distances make it difficult to pop into the shops at the right time to buy up the reduced price food, which you can get in places like Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s every day. I’m not allowed to carry much at a time anyway as I had major surgery in January – lots of people trying to survive on benefits must be in the same situation and can’t afford the luxury of a car, which I do have.
Losing £4.50 means I will be going down to the food bank again today to see if I am eligible for a food parcel. I will have to find a way to reduce my spending on food next week – otherwise I won’t be able to afford the electricity and heating or use up some of the money I’ve set aside for the water rates and TV license. I can see just how easy it would be to end up using all that money up and then not having enough money left to pay the bills.
The other problem I’m becoming aware of is what a challenge it is if you live in a house that is damp and badly insulated. I don’t – I live in a stone built house with well insulated thick stone floors, well fitted wooden windows and loads of insulation so it retains the heat for a long time once the heating is put off. A lot of people on benefits – including care leavers – live in properties that are damp and not well insulated or have ill fitting windows. Their homes need a lot more heating to make them bearable and quickly get really cold when the heating is off. This doesn’t do much for their health prospects – this winter has seen some really nasty bugs going around which affect lungs and sinuses for ages. I’ve had it but live in a nice warm house.
Shildon has two food banks – one at Shildon Alive (project run from St John’s Church) and one at the Salvation Army citadel. Luckily for us, I know that Shildon Alive collects two lots of fresh food once a week – from Tesco’s at Newton Aycliffe and Morrison’s in Bishop Auckland. The food is used in a variety of ways. Some is sent out with the food parcels (for 7524 meals last year) and some is sent down to Jubilee Fields Community Centre to be distributed from there. Some is used for a cooking project and fruit is given out through the two local pharmacies. Surplus fruit, veg and bread is placed outside the Shildon Alive Hub (you can see the inside in the pictures) and people can come along and collect what they need. I was there at 10.00 and you can see what I collected in the two bottom pictures. This gives you an idea of the kind of thing you can get there – there’s other things too – but we took the melon, potatoes and pineapple back as we didn’t really need them. They don’t normally get pineapples. We owe companies like Tesco’s and Morrison’s a really big ‘thank you’ for their help.
Some of the bread has gone into the freezer – it will help make our budget go further next week. The baking apples went into a home made crumble for two days and the tomatoes went into a chilli for tonight and tomorrow night. The biggest worry I have is I don’t really know how much it costs to use the oven – I’m going to find out – but we tried to make using it worthwhile by cooking extra baked potatoes to fry and we’ve put a few meals into the freezer as well. I’m finding out quite quickly just how important it is to have a freezer if you want to save money – and I bet most care leavers don’t have access to one.
This whole thing is making me think all the time about how to save money – how to be careful of every penny I’m spending. I hate my hair – it’s thin and gets greasy and I wash it every day. But today I didn’t wash it as I’m trying to save money by having really short showers – I only have a tiny bit of shampoo as I’m using up some free samples at the moment. I have also worn the same t-shirt today that I wore yesterday as it smells OK – I’m trying to cut down the washing as much as possible as the budget says 60p every time you use the washing machine, assuming you have one. I think after a few weeks of watching every penny I would be getting really fed up and increasingly worried about something going wrong as there is no spare cash in the budget to cover it – and you have to eat a balanced diet if you want to stay healthy.
Both days we had the usual porridge for breakfast. Tuesday I had business to do as mayor of Shildon and a County Councillor – and had to go to Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon. Luckily I don’t have to cover the costs of anything I do for ‘work’ or I definitely wouldn’t be able to manage at all. But I couldn’t really do what I usually do – just sit down with a friend and have a cup of coffee – at £2.60 a go it was just too expensive. It must be really difficult not to do things that most people take for granted – buy a coffee, or even a simple bar of chocolate without worrying about it. You get a brown envelope when you take up the care leavers’ challenge – mine is dated Friday of this week – and you don’t know what’s in it. But my bet is I’m going to be sanctioned and find myself suddenly short of whatever money I have left to last me over the weekend.
Dinner was supposed to be a lovely corned beef hash – one of my favourite childhood meals, coming as I do from Liverpool – but it wasn’t very good!!! (Not John’s fault). He bought some cheap corned beef and it was too greasy to cook with properly. A friend of mine (on benefits) told me today that cheap corned beef needs to be in the fridge (out of the tin) for at least 24 hours before you use it – and then it isn’t any good for cooking. I was really surprised. The pudding was much better – banana custard. We had to have the same meal the next day though as we had made enough corned beef hash for two meals and couldn’t afford not to eat it.
Friends are being lovely, even offering to pay for a meal out for us at the local Rotary Club we attend – but we turned this down – but I’m sure it must make it really difficult to have anything like a normal social life.
Luckily John and I both like porridge so that was breakfast taken care of. But the budget wouldn’t cover the extra healthy bits we usually have in it, like fruit and seeds. We missed out on lunch (not deliberately – it just happened that way) and then had a vegetable curry for tea – with half of the cheap nans to fill us up. The rice came from our lovely local food bank. We cooked in the slow cooker we have as we were really worried about the cost of actually cooking if we used our oven – there’s only £10.00 each in the budget for electricity!! But the ingredients only cost 78p for each person.
It hit me pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to have long, hot baths or put the kettle on whenever I wanted to – or have the central heating on more than 3 hours a day – many of the care leavers have prepayment meters, so when the electricity runs out that’s it for them.
Just before Christmas, a young care leaver and her support worker came to the full council meeting and laid down a challenge. They asked as many County Councillors as possible to try to live on £57.90 a week just like they have to. I used to work as a residential social worker and a teacher at Aycliffe Young People’s Centre, so I thought I ought to respond to the challenge. My partner, John, has agreed to do it as well – he thought it would only work this way as he does the shopping and the cooking!! We started on Monday this week and it isn’t easy – you have to set aside money for heating, cooking, water and the TV license and it costs £4.50 every time you need to go anywhere – the cost of a return bus fare. You get a list of food etc. you are allowed to put in your cupboard to start you off – not much though – and then after that it is up to you to make the best of it.
John did a shop at Aldi and Tesco – looking for bargains like these nan – but what hit us immediately is you need to know how to cook to eat cheaply. And you need to be able to get to the shops to take advantage of cut price deals – and that’s not easy if you need to get a bus.