The food-bank family: Highgate residents in crisis and the community project easing the pain

Linda Treherne is stirring an enormous pot of soup while nearby, her daughter bends down to hand an elderly lady a steaming roast dinner.

So far, so traditional Sunday roast, but it isn’t Sunday and this isn’t a normal family scene.

Today Mrs Treherne and her daughter, Michelle West are serving home cooked lunches at the Highgate Newtown Community Centre for people in their community who can’t afford to make their own.

Mrs Treherne says: “We’ve been doing 50p lunches and bags of soup and bread for our vulnerable people because they’re on their own, they haven’t got anyone else.”

A 62-year-old mother and grandmother from the Whittington Estate, Linda has watched the community around her buckle under financial strain.

Now, helped by her family and centre director, Andrew Sanalitro, she serves weekly 50p lunches and makes up food parcels with donations from food waste charity Fare Share.

A small and growing population of Highgate residents are paying the price for economic stagnation and swingeing benefits cuts leaving them without money for basic life essentials - like food.

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Mrs Treherne’s 40-year-old daughter, Linda, who also lives on the Whittington Estate, says: “There’s a lack of benefits, lateness of benefits, increase in rent, increase in food prices, electric, gas, just a general increase in everything.

“Highgate Newtown has one of the highest rates in Camden of single parents and people on their own who just can’t afford to clothe and feed their kids.”

And she is worried that things will only get worse.

The impact of the Welfare Reform Act, which will see financial support cut to families across London by April, is already being felt in many areas of Camden.

By the end of December 2012, the last families had been taken off the old, higher rate of local housing allowance which helps private renters.

Local residents in a two bedroom home have seen their benefits capped at £290 - despite the fact that average Camden rents for two-bed properties are £450.

Residents in social housing will also suffer.

There are more than 23,000 council properties in Camden and many residents are expected to be hit by reductions to council tax and a total benefit cap, which will see benefits capped at £600 a month and any housing benefits over this amount removed all-together.

At a public meeting last week to educate the community about benefit changes, Highgate Councillor Sally Gimson (Labour) expressed her concern over the cuts, calling for the community to find “practical things to do to help each other”.

One person in need of this help is 82-year-old Kitty Geertsma.

The Highgate resident is a regular at Highgate Newtown Community Centre and can be found on Thursdays deep in conversation with her friends.

She says: “Everything is going up. My rent went up £10 a week last April and if they’re going to do that again I don’t know what I’ll do.

“I need to see if I can get benefits. I’ve never been on benefits before but now it’s different.”

In the kitchen, Mrs Treherne bustles around with a roll of cling-film, chatting to her daughter and teenage granddaughter.

A self-styled “trouble-shooter”, she came to the community centre in 1996 to help boost trade in the cafe and started running the food bank in 2012, following a suggestion from Mr Sanalitro.

By Christmas 2012, she was serving 50 people a week for lunch and had given out 16 more food parcels than the previous month.

But Mrs Treherne thinks that far more people need help but are too ashamed and embarrassed to confess.

She says: “The stigma is awful, because I know some of them, so they don’t want to come in and ask.

“We had one girl over Christmas who came in for food for herself and the kids. She was so upset and embarrassed because she wanted to give something back that she begged me to let her do the washing up.”

Mid-story she is forced to stop, choked up with emotion she turns to stir another steaming pot.

Her daughter comes over and agrees that while the recession is on everyone’s lips, for many, pride and the shame of their situation prevents them from seeking help.

She too is forced to turn away after giving a loaf of bread and bag of soup to a new lady.

Swallowing emotion, she says: “She’s on her own and she’s proud - it chokes me up because it’s the least we can do.”

By 2pm, lunch at the centre is drawing to a close. For today, service is over but this is probably the only cafe in Highgate wishing it was less popular.