It's April now which means The First Base Agency has stepped into our fourteenth year. The beginning of a new year is always a good time to sit back for a moment to do some reflecting. Pretty Zen, right? Well, being here at all is no mean feat. The years since the financial crash have been particularly cruel for the voluntary sector. Many small charities have gone the same way as any number of High Street shops. When I look back all the way to 2003 when we first opened our doors, it is sobering indeed to see just how many small charities have folded. Being alive and kicking is something to celebrate I guess, though there seems little sign of life getting much easier.
If you have received the link to this blog via an e mail, it is more than likely you are one of the many people who supported one of our online fundraising campaigns in the last year. I think updates are in order.
We launched our first campaign in the autumn and it was very much a frantic plea for help. When I hit the 'Publish' button and sent our virtual begging letter out into the world, The First Base Agency was set on a course to completely crash and burn in January. Well, the every existence of this blog shows we managed to make it. The Just Giving page raised just over £13500 whilst a further £7000 came in separately. It means we will see another 100 emergency food parcels head out of the door this week. And next week. And the week after.
Next winter feels ominous. Thus far the devaluation of the pound since the Brexit vote has been contained. But not for long. The big supermarkets can only stamp their feet and screw their suppliers for so long. In the end Maggie Thatcher's great truism will once again be proved right: you can't buck the markets. A weaker currency means dearer food. And if you live in a country where 60% of all food is imported, a weaker currency means much dearer food.
So what does this mean in practice? Let's say a guy on the dole gets by on keeping body and soul together on £4 a day's worth of groceries. £28 a week, right? By next winter his food bill will be up by 15% - £4.40 a week. So £4.40 doesn't seem so very much if you are gainfully employed and pulling in a reasonable salary. But if you are getting by of £60 a week or so of dole money, £4.40 is a big deal. It means you lose 15% of your disposable income. Seven days of food costs the same as eight days of food. It is all part of the seemingly endless drip, drip of constant poverty. It is just another push in the back in the direction of the cliff edge. It means we will more than likely to be busier than ever.
How are things looking for First Base now? Not bad as things stand. We have several funding applications pending and we are optimistic one or two might come good. If things go to plan, there will be no need for us to be once again holding a frantic begging bowl come the Autumn. Here's hoping....
This was our 'HELP!!!!!!' page
In December we launched our second funding campaign. This time the goal was to raise enough money to provide some heat and light to a client who had been sanctioned for three months and was facing 90 days of cold and dark. We changed his name to Donald and wondered if there were 80 people willing to chip in a couple of quid each.
We crossed our fingers for £160.
We received almost £8000.
To say the response knocked us into next week would be a pretty major understatement. Obviously we were able to get Donald sorted out and then we established the 'Donald Fund'. This is now available to anyone in our area who has either had their benefits sanctioned or have been left completely penniless as a result of some kind of paperwork cock up. Once a client is sent along to us by Citizens Advice, we check out their paperwork to make sure they meet the criteria of the Donald Fund. If a person is looking down the barrel of a 30 day benefit sanction, we will pay £3.50 a day - £105 - onto the meter. And before you ask, no we don't hand over any cash. We go along with the client to a paypoint and thereby we make sure every penny goes exactly where it is supposed to go.
In the first four months of the Donald Fund we have helped out 27 individuals and families to the tune of £1427 – an average of £357 a month. One very ill lady comes to mind as an example of how the Donald Fund can make like the 7th Cavalry. She was in her seventies and her health was dire. An admin cock up meant her benefit payments had dried up for two weeks and all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't do a thing about it. When I arrived at her house I found her wearing three coats and a woolly hat. She was camped out in the living room under every blanket she owned. The night before had seen the temperature fall to minus five. I guess the DWP would have said it was only a couple of weeks for goodness sake. Well two weeks can be an awfully long time when you are old and ill.
She was absolutely adamant £20 would be more than enough. I did my level best to argue otherwise but she was having none of it. I'll tell you what, she might have been quite old and very ill but she could still put her foot down. So twenty quid it was! She promised to call if there were any more delays.
There was no call. £20 was enough to see her through. Without the £20 of warmth care of the Donald Fund, the only solution would have been an ambulance and a week in hospital. Utter madness, but there is little sanity to be found in the Government's austerity programme.
Hopefully as every month rolls by we are proving the Donald Fund is an efficient way to meet moments of genuine crisis. Our hope is to make applications to various sources of funding to keep topping the fund up. Hopefully we will be successful in this. I will keep you posted.
Our next appeal was to try and save a lovely Nigerian family from being thrown out onto the streets in the weeks before Christmas. Once again we changed their names, this time to Florence, the mum, Abigail, her 19 year old daughter and Thomas, her 10 year old son. Our goal was to collect enough cash to cover their rent for three months and once again the response of the public was truly amazing.
We generated enough to keep a roof over the family's heads for a year. So how are things looking now? Cautiously optimistic. The up front fees for the family to apply for 'leave to remain' in the UK are horrendous. £3000, Which of course might as well be £300,000 for a family who receive no benefits and are not allowed to do any paid work. Luckily they have been able to apply for a fee waiver so long as they can prove they are absolutely destitute. We had to write a letter on their behalf confirming we were keeping the family in food and power as well as covering the rent. However the £3000 was not the only problem. They also had to pay a non negotiable £500 each NHS fee. Luckily we had enough in the pot to cover this for them.
Florence showed me the form they had filled in for the 'destitution' waver of the £3000 application fees. At the top of the form were the letters ECHR. As in European Convention on Human Rights. As in the very thing Winston Churchill put in place as the smoke of the Second World War cleared. As in the thing the Brexiteers just can't wait to scrap as soon as they can. It looks like Florence and her family might just be in the nick of time. Without the protection of ECHR, they would not have stood a chance. I guess they would have already had a three o clock in the morning wake up call from a bunch of Home Office goons. Right now they would be locked away in a detention centre waiting to be deported.
And the rent? Well we have fingers crossed. The Home Office is hardly a well oiled machine right now. Any number of EU citizens are frantically applying for permanent 'leave to remain' in the UK which is stretching the system to breaking point. If every EU citizen currently living here were to make an application, it would take the Home Office 142 years to clear the backlog. This basically means the fate of this lovely family still hangs in the balance. There seems little doubt they will indeed be granted leave to remain under the rules as they stand. Basically Thomas was born here and he has been here for over seven years. As a ten year old, the ECHR guarantees his right to have a mother in his life which means the Home Office is not allowed to deport Florence. At some point Thomas will have the opportunity to ask a judge if can also have his sister Abigail in his life and we can only hope the judge acts like a decent human being and grants his wish.
Abigail is doing all she can to put together a portfolio to prove she is a worthy member of the community. The fact she has a place at university waiting for her to train to become a midwife is not guaranteed to be enough. She is now one of our volunteers and she spends a day a week with us. She also helps out our local MSP Joan McAlpine on Thursday afternoons. She has also more or less completed her training to become a Citizens Advice adviser. Surely even the most ardent Brexiteer would grudgingly admit this is a young lady who has what it takes to be a thoroughly worthy citizen. Then again....!
Our last fundraiser was for Clark's Little Ark, an animal sanctuary up in the old coal mining village of Sanquhar. A couple of weeks ago we were able to present them with a cheque for £2000 which will be enough to keep the animals fed for another 12 months. One or two people have wondered why on earth we have been raising cash for an animal sanctuary. The answer is pretty simple. Clark's Little Ark is every bit as much a sanctuary for people as it is for animals. Struggling families get the chance to give the kids a free day out. Support workers have a place to take clients with disabilities or learning difficulties. Young tearaways can leave the classroom for a while to drain away their anger. Local 'dafties' get to serve out their community service hours doing something which makes them feel like worthwhile human beings.
Clark's Little Ark issue 200 of our food parcels a year. For First Base, they are the perfect satellite collection point. Nobody gets judged. Nobody is made to feel uneasy. Nobody is gossiped about.
It has been a great pleasure to have been able to help them out. Thankfully our fundraiser generated a reasonable amount of local publicity and with a following wind things look promising for the future.
If you are one of the hundreds of people out there who supported one or more of our recent fundraising efforts, I hope you are pleased to see your generosity has made a genuine difference. First Base is still alive and kicking. Every week people at rock bottom get their lights switched back on. Florence and her family are sleeping in a bedroom, not a doorway and the animals at Clark's Little Ark will continue to be fed and watered for the foreseeable future. Not a single penny has been spent on on a fancy head office with the right kind of London postcode and the paint continues to flake off our walls.
Once again, thanks for your support. We will continue to strive to be worth it.