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The worst of times

When we got together in January for our Trustee Strategy day, it was good to spend time taking stock of the work we are doing at The Food Chain and reflect on the circumstances that bring people to us for the support they need.

I have been the CEO of The Food Chain for 6 years now, and during that time I have witnessed a steady decline in the health and social circumstances of the people living with HIV in London that we support.

There is no doubt that the impact of welfare reforms and cuts in public spending is translating into people becoming unwell, destitute and desperate.

The people referred to us are not able to live long, healthy lives with HIV.   

Every day we work with people who are unwell and who have a wide range of associated complex needs – notably housing issues, enduring poverty and managing depression or other mental health issues. And people are not statistics. They live real lives and we have supported some in the last year who did not make it out of crisis but died prematurely because of their HIV diagnosis.

A key issue for us in the last couple of years has been how to effectively support people who are facing truly desperate circumstances. In theory, we sign post people on to other support services to get help with issues such as immigration status, benefits advice and housing. In practice we also offer whatever practical help we can with any of these issues and others, within our scope and capacity, and sometimes beyond. For example, we have referred people to homelessness services, helped people make applications for freedom passes or similar services, acquired white goods and sometimes delivered these to people’s homes, provided sleeping bags and arranged access to the shower facilities for our homeless service users.  In other words, we do whatever it is possible for us to do to offer help in relation to needs that are not only to do with food and nutrition.

We are one of only a few HIV support charities left in London that support people over a few months and get to know about individual circumstances and needs. We often have longer term relationships too, as many service users make the transition in to becoming Food Chain volunteers.

We hear anecdotally from our service users that they have less and less access to the support they need from other HIV charities as the squeeze on services is taking hold across the board. Everyone is struggling with funding.

We often hear that The Food Chain is either the only or the best place they come to where they feel they can get help (or at least the place where they can talk about all their needs and get some kind of response even though we can’t solve all the problems).

This is the harsh reality of life in London if you are not living well with HIV. People in this position are increasingly invisible to the wider world. In a time and place where it is entirely possible to live a long healthy life with HIV there is clearly something very wrong when people are not able to. 

In our new strategy for 2019-22 this crisis must be our priority.

It is essential for us to continue to respond to people’s needs, both in terms of food and nutrition support and their wider circumstances. We must do all we can to provide for the needs of this silent minority of people. 

We know that our services can assist people in taking some steps towards a healthier, longer life with HIV. We can and will re-double our efforts to go on meeting this need.