With its Norman tower and churchyard, St Dunstan’s Anglican Church stands in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood – entire streets filled with social housing. We are in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most contrasting districts: to the south, in the new financial center of Canary Wharf, and to the west, on the city side, billions of pounds are handled daily.
But in the heart of what was once called the East End, the port area, an ancestral place of migration, the poverty rate is among the highest in the UK: 39% of residents are considered poor, i.e. with incomes below 60% of the country’s median income, which was £2,560 (€2,950) a month in April.
This autumn Friday is the day of Food Bank, the “food bank”, in St. Dunstan. One part of the church is completely overflowing with food, six volunteers are busy. “Three family baskets, two individual baskets of meat! », announces Sarah Smith, the employee responsible for the bank. Register in hand, she lists the first names of the recipients: Aisha, Asma, Shifaa… All parade in a continuous flow.
Less than 8,500 euros per year
Most are British mothers of Bangladeshi descent, like one third of the population of Tower Hamlets. They believe that only their husbands work and that they have to take care of the children because it would be too expensive to look after them, as public support only applies to children aged 3 and 4. Therefore, it is necessary to collect free baskets.
“Many of those who come look sad, stressed. Tensions rise with fear of not being able to pay the bills”, says Gregory Allen, one of the volunteers, a young retiree who has worked for the city for a long time. Alison Jones, another regular at the site, in charge of parent relations at nearby Marion-Richardson Elementary School, brought the leftovers from a parent-teacher breakfast.
In his company, almost 40% of the children have the right to free school meals (free hot meals at school) because they live in households earning less than £7,400 (€8,500) a year, the eligibility ceiling. Impossible to live decently on so little in London. Even in Tower Hamlets, where renting a two-bedroom flat costs no less than £2,000 (€2,300) a month.
Weakened by ten years of austerity
When Sarah Smith launched her “bank” in 2017, she first saw single men coming. Then came the families. Its register now has 560 names. The needs are such that this gentle and patient woman, even from the neighborhood, is worried about a drop in donations. “People were generous during the Covid epidemic, but they are also affected by the crisis. Sometimes you can’t give for more than one or two meals. »
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