“Since July, I’ve struggled to live off Universal Credit. I lost my job after an injury to my back. Since then I have had to rely on Universal Credit. It was suddenly reduced by £80 a month but they didn’t tell me why. During lockdown I’ve found it hard.”
Khadra is a 40-year-old single mother with three children. She lives in a flat in a high rise block in Barton Hill. Her story is typical of what the staff at the Bristol Somali Resource Centre (BSRC) based at Barton Hill Settlement are having to deal with more and more since the start of the second lockdown.
The team of four permanent staff there have been working hard during the pandemic to help people from their own community and other minorities in Bristol. Usually, they help people with all sorts of things, from benefits and housing, immigration and jobs.
But this role has changed since March. They are now seeing an increase in people in dire need of basic necessities and also more people suffering from a range of mental health problems exacerbated by the pandemic.
As a result they have set up a task force to deliver food to people who are finding it hard to survive on Universal Credit. They have also employed an extra person as a mental health counsellor.
Before Khadra’s injury she was working as a care assistant in a care home, but her employer has not paid her any sick pay nor has she got any extra benefits for her condition. She was working for six months but on a zero hours contract.
Saed Ali, one of the key workers at BSRC, has come across this many times before: “Companies using zero hours contracts are exploiting people. When workers are fit they are OK, but if their condition changes they are entitled to nothing.”
Khadra doesn’t speak English, which makes it more difficult for her to communicate with the relevant authorities. This is why she has had to use BSRC.
BSRC have now established that Khadra’s Universal Credit deductions were being taken for rent arrears but through a combination of language difficulties and poor mental health, Khadra had not been able to establish this.
It’s particularly hard to get through to anyone about Universal Credit because people are working at home, says Saed. “Often you are on hold for up to 40 minutes and sometimes after a certain amount of time they just cut you off.”
“This has been the worst part of lockdown – not being able to communicate with either the Department for Work and Pensions or council and to show her paperwork. She is missing some sort of entitlement to benefits because of her back injury.”
As a result, the task force set up by BSRC has been delivering food parcels to her. “The food that the task force was bringing some days was all we had to survive off,” Khadra says,
Lockdown life for those without a home
Originally from Somaliland, 60-year-old Mohamod has been in the UK for 12 years but hasn’t been able to work throughout this time because he’s an asylum seeker.
He has been refused ‘leave to remain’ status, which would ensure his right to live in the UK as an immigrant. He originally arrived on a six-month visit so that he could attend the funeral of his son but then didn’t return home after.
“I survive from the charity of the people at BSRC and also other people in the local community who put me up and feed me,” Mohamod says.
“During the most recent lockdown the British Red Cross have given me temporary payments of £30 per week and Tesco food vouchers.”
Luckily he was given a room in the Holiday Inn during the first lockdown but this ended after restrictions were lifted. He then found himself homeless.
“During the latest lockdown I have been staying with a friend. He works nights so when he goes to work I can use his bed. I have lived in more than 200 houses over the last 12 years.”
On several occasions, Mohamod has had nowhere to stay and sometimes has had to sleep in bus stops. Lockdown has been hard, he says, but he accepts it saying it is something “written by God”.
BSRC has continued to provide Mohamod with basic provisions like food deliveries and money during the second lockdown. They have also helped him apply for legal aid in the process to get leave to remain status.
Mohamod says he is eternally grateful. “After leaving the Holiday Inn it was like going from paradise to hell but BSRC helped me once again. Just in the last week they have given me money to live off without which I couldn’t survive.”
“I want to go to Ethiopia to see my family but only if I get ‘leave to remain’ status. The Home Office say they might deport me to Somaliland or Mogadishu, but in Mogadishu now people are being killed every day by al-Shabaab (a miltiant Islamist group).”
It has been years since he last saw his wife and children. He also suffers from insomnia as a result of anxiety.
Mohamod gets free food from a restaurant on Stapleton Road – now takeaway because of lockdown. If it wasn’t for this and BSRC’s help he would have to resort to small time crime like shoplifting to survive, he admits.
Lockdown life for those with substandard housing
Halima is a single mother living in rented accommodation in Whitehall, who has also found lockdown a difficult time. Her problems existed before, but the pandemic has made matters worse.
Her poor living conditions are made worse because Halima has had to spend more time at home recently because her children have been self-isolating after a positive case at their school.
When this happens this has meant she is also unable to work because she has to care for her children instead. In the past she would visit friends but now she can’t, which has adversely affected her mental health.
“My daughter’s asthma is getting worse because of the damp condition of the house. We are living in a small house with six people: myself and my five children. We have two bedrooms and it’s in a very bad state. It has been like this since 2018.”
A sewage pipe that goes through the corridor has broken and is leaking. There is also a leak coming from the toilet in the flat above, and some of her appliances are not working.
“There is a bad smell and it’s not healthy,” she says. “The private landlord is aware of this but said the pipe can’t be fixed because it requires heavy work that goes under the house.” The matter has now been taken up by the council who are expected to force the landlord to make repairs.
“Lockdown has been tough but the community at BSRC have been helpful by bringing food and also checking that I am getting the right benefits.”
“I work 16 hours a week as a care assistant in someone’s home, but normally I can only do this as long as my children are at school.”
When asked if Universal Credit is enough to live off, she replies: “It has been a struggle sometimes to afford to feed all six of us. I haven’t got any choice but we are surviving.”
“I’m worried because the children are all at school and sometimes students at the school have tested positive. I think I am also at risk from catching Covid when I go to work.”
“I tend to stay in bed quite a lot at the moment because of the way the condition of the house is affecting us all and our emotional wellbeing. Sometimes I feel helpless because our situation doesn’t seem to change but I accept it. It’s God’s will.”
As someone who has witnessed the hardship endured by many Somalis over this and the previous lockdown, is Saed hopeful for the future?
“Covid coupled with lockdown indiscriminately hit everyone, and unless drastic measures are put in place, the condition of those that have been most affected will get worse,” he says.
“I have hope that additional funds could be assigned to set up some sort of emergency task force to help people in our community. It would be nice to see some recognition of the needs of the people that we encounter every day.”
Whether Saed’s wishes come true remains to be seen, but in the meantime BSRC will continue its community work as Bristol moves from lockdown into Tier 3 restrictions this week.