Secret group offers cash and hope to poverty-stricken strangers
The anonymous benefactors from the Biscuit Fund have given out £25,000 in donations to 300 hard-up people since 2013 – Jane is one of them
It was July two years ago, when she was down to her last bit of food, that Jane got the call. "We see you're struggling and we want to help you," an anonymous voice explained. The offer of help came from a member of the Biscuit Fund – a secret group of strangers united by their desire to help those most affected by poverty across the country.
Desperate to find money and crippled by an outstanding council tax supplement bill, Jane – who was unemployed at the time – considered selling her television for a small bit of cash. She had already gone through her home selling everything she thought people would buy. “It wasn’t worth anything,” she says. “I would have got a fiver for it, but a fiver is a couple of days’ food for me and my daughter.”
Ben, who lives in London with his wife and two children, is one of the founders of the Biscuit fund, named so because of the thousands of pounds government ministers spent on biscuits while making cuts to to the NHS. He says he is not hard-up but also is "no stranger to poverty". The fund, launched two years ago, is backed by a band of like-minded people from all walks of life, he explains, with members putting spare cash into the pot and scouring online sources for people they think are in the direst need.
Food is a constant concern for Jane, who lives in a semi-detached former council house, now owned by social landlords, on an estate in Tameside, Greater Manchester, with her eight-year-old daughter. The single mum of four – her two eldest have moved out and a 16-year-old daughter splits her time between both parents – explains how she hid the extent of her poverty due to a deep sense of shame. “It's the actual shame of being poor anyway,” she says. “And it’s the shame of being on – I hate the word – benefits. It’s the shame of having society look down on you.”
The fund provided her with £200, telling her she could spend it on whatever she liked. She spent it on food and topping up her electric and gas metres. She bought bread, fruit, vegetables, tinned and frozen food. She treated her daughter to strawberries. "The Biscuit Fund really helped me, if it wasn't for them I wouldn’t have eaten."
Jane describes how the temporary euphoria soon settled back into a daily anxiety: “I know that there will probably be another time when I won’t have any money for any food so I’m extra frugal now.”
She eats one meal a day – usually when her daughter sits down to eat after finishing school. Does her daughter notice she’s only eating a single meal per day? “It’s normality for her,” she says. “Sometimes she says: 'Mummy you should eat more,’ and I say: ‘I don’t eat as much so you can eat more.’ That’s the reality of it all.”
“You exist, it’s an existence. Your whole life becomes focused on waking up, finding food, making your money stretch as far as it can do, not having basic things that people take for granted.”
Her frustration and anger at the stigmatisation of the poor is a recurrent theme in our conversation: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t go out … we don’t buy fancy things.”
She is keen to stress though that she doesn’t judge those that do resort to vices as a strategy for coping. “I never, ever would judge anyone,” she insists. Passionate about giving those in poverty a voice and also politically active, Jane who is now self-employed, and she often tries to get others to fully comprehend her position by explaining they are only a few payslips away from falling into a similar situation.
She said: "You could have your house or your car taken away through illness, disability or being made redundant. Anyone could be in exactly the same position and that's exactly my point."
The fund estimates it had helped up to 300 people by May this year and given out around £25,000 in donations since it first started in early 2013. Apart from contributions from its group of anonymous members, the fund has also attracted outside interest with those that want to help by giving what they can.
The people the fund chooses to help are considered on a case by case basis, with the assistance they receive determined by where the money will benefit them most, be it groceries or £30 towards a gas bill. The amounts might not be large, Ben notes – just enough to “keep afloat and give them hope”.
• Names have been changed at the request of the Biscuit Fund to protect anonymity
The above article by Ami Sedghi first published on theguardian.com in Jul, 2015.