Written by Zakiya Patel
With little social housing and a lot of hidden poverty, Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived boroughs in London. People who have 2-3 jobs are still unable to cover the cost of food owing to high cost of living in the world's capital.
Councillor Karen Bellamy is one of the hardest working Councillor in the borough, who had set up food banks and other centres for people to donate to just to save families from starvation. She has spent much of her time bringing education into families whose language may not be English and creating a community where people look out for each other. For these reasons, Grassroot Diplomat presented Councillor Bellamy with the Policy Driver Award for tackling food poverty in the 2015 awards ceremony.
Having worked as a community activist for 20 years, Councillor Bellamy reiterates the importance of acknowledging local problems, insisting for representatives to have a real understanding of the issues on the ground instead of their serving their own interests up the political career ladder.
“It is easy for poverty to go unnoticed in areas with a mix of people with different incomes”, the Councillor notes after winning the award. “By this I mean that in many areas you have very middle class, middle income people living next to people that live in houses of multiple occupation so from the roadside everything looks fine...we must end the stigma around people being singled out for not having much money.”
With £64 million cut from the Council budget, Councillor Bellamy had to come up with creative solutions that could plug the poverty gap within her constituency which included the establishment of local food hubs and the Dolly Parton imagination library, which offers free books to poorer families. By using the bonds she had created within the community, she was able to recognise that it was those in low paid or insecure employment who were hit particularly hard by welfare cuts and economic downturns.
“So long as we have zero hour contracts and very low wages,” she says, “this issue will continue particularly in London and areas where rents are very high. We also have the issue of cuts to in-work benefits. Most of the people using food banks are the working poor. The saddest things about the issue to me are baby banks where people that are in work are so stretched financially that they have to access them.”
Councillor Bellamy also points out the need to tackle how the media labels and stereotypes this group of people. “The media would have you believe that everyone going to food banks are out of work and looking for a handout. [They] are labelling people as scroungers and benefit cheats [when] the main earner loses their job and can’t find another easily. Their world is turned upside down [but] the media almost never gives the whole story.”
The fundamental truth is that in-work benefits can only exist in a society which believes, or chooses to ignore the fact that employers are able to pay wages well below the poverty line.
“It is a matter of routine that the media pitch one part of society against another. For example, benefits for the elderly against benefits for the disabled; benefits for single parent families against unemployment benefits. The old adage of divide and rule still holds very true today.”
Since winning the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award, Councillor Bellamy has clear goals in encouraging other councillors to gain real grassroots experience by working with the voluntary sector and expanding outside of their minimum numbers of hours. Councillor Bellamy is a clearly an outspoken voice for the grassroots and her experience working with local residents is a source of inspiration for all.