Cambridge Road Estate: Life under lockdown and Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on inequality in Britain.

It has disproportionately affected the poorest people and Black and Asian communities.

Even though the Government still says you should work from home, many people from these backgrounds can’t because they are working on the front line in the health and care system, on the transport network, or in retail.

Many live in overcrowded housing with their parents and grandparents.

And so the virus spreads.

The Cambridge Road Estate in Norbiton, South West London, is one of the most deprived areas of the country, and has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Some residents have been furloughed, but many people have lost their incomes completely this year, usually relying on zero hours contracts or temporary jobs in the hospitality sector.

Even moving on to Universal Credit has caused its own difficulties, as they have to wait for five weeks for their first payment.

That’s five weeks without money to pay for food.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).

Jill Preston, 63, has been living on the Cambridge Road Estate in Norbiton, South West London, for 21 years.

She is the Chair of the Cambridge Road Estates Community Group (CREst), a charity that exists to look after the health and wellbeing of the estate’s residents.

A year ago today it started its own food bank to help vulnerable residents access food and essentials as national lockdown came into force.

“It kind of happened by accident,” says Jill.

The charity always ran a Tuesday group at the community centre in Piper Hall to feed the homeless and vulnerable a warm sit-down meal.

It would often give out a few tins from a pantry to those who needed a little extra help.

But when the pandemic hit, and other food banks across the borough shut down, people suddenly started approaching the charity for food.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE) with helper Suzanne Seyghal.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE) with helper Suzanne Seyghal.

Jill and her team quickly set about creating food packages to respond to the need.  

Whereas before they’d only have two or three people a week who needed help with food, they were suddenly helping hundreds.

Even now the group is giving out on average 97 boxes a week, which covers 193 adults and 97 children.

Things tailed off around September last year, but when the November lockdown came into force, immediately it went back up again.

With the third lockdown, things got even worse.

“I mean three or four weeks ago we had to have marshals outside, particularly with the snow,” said Jill.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).

“We had gazebos up and all sorts because people would be queuing for an hour to get food. It was horrendous.”

Jill says many of the guests at the foodbank have their only conversation of the week with her.

“It’s hard because you’ve got queues of people, but if it wasn’t for you they wouldn’t talk to somebody.

“It’s quite hard. Sometimes one of us has to walk out and take a swallow. Because it is heartbreaking. Particularly for the older people,” she said. 

It’s made all the more difficult because of the amount of changes going on in the area.

In March, 2020, as the country went into lockdown, residents voted in a ballot to demolish and rebuild the estate.

The regeneration will see 2,170 new homes built on the site, including at least 114 additional council homes, but the scheme has not been without controversy, and has been made all the more confusing for residents unable to take part in further consultations due to social distancing measures.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).Emma Sayers collecting her weekly food donated allowance.

Piper Hall food bank feature with coordinator Jill Preston (Blue jumper/clear visor PPE).Emma Sayers collecting her weekly food donated allowance.

“It really isn’t ideal,” says Jill.

“I’m dealing with the food bank and Tuesday group and a regeneration. There’s no officers on the estate, they all work from home, so things like repairs and people with lifts breaking down or TV aerials being out.

“They’re all phoning me because they can never get hold of the contact centre. So you’re forever chasing up repairs and whatever.”

As the pandemic drags out, residents have been getting more and more fed up.

“I think the mental health of people had deteriorated a huge amount,” says Jill.

“We see it. The loneliness. I mean amongst our Tuesday group crowd there have been something like five deaths, three of which were suicide. And that’s without the ones that we don’t know about,” she said.

“It seems as if everybody now is just fed up with it. This is not funny anymore. Our local vicar died of Covid very early on. And we’ve had several other deaths since. It’s hit people hard.”

But she stresses that there is hope in the community.

A CGI of what the Cambridge Road Estate will look life after regeneration

A CGI of what the Cambridge Road Estate will look life after regeneration

CREst has been working on the estate for 20 years, and organises fun days and galas for residents in normal times.

They are trusted local figures on the estate, who have only grown in number over the last year as more volunteers from the nearby Sunflower Residents Association have also joined.

Even queuing for food helps can actually be quite a social event, says Jill.

“Because people are waiting in line and all getting to talk to each other. Particularly if it was nice weather on a Tuesday they would have music playing.”

She says some people worry about coming forward for help, not wanting to embarrass themselves for very little.

“A lot don’t realise how much food they get. They think they are going to humiliate themselves for two tins of beans and a tin of soup,” says Jill.

In fact an individual will usually get a box of cereal, a litre of UHT milk, a bottle of squash, pasta, tinned tomatoes, pasta sauce, tinned meat, rice pudding, custard, tinned fruit, tinned vegetables, biscuits, jam and crisps.

Fresh fruit and veg is also donated through partner organisations, as well as shampoo and soap, and even fresh fish and minced beef.

And it’s importance to local people cannot be overstated.

Ben outside Piper Hall. Credit: CREst.

Ben outside Piper Hall. Credit: CREst.

One man who attended the food bank this week, called Ben, said coming to the Tuesday Lunch Club and the food bank gives him some structure.

“I know the people here, and I trust them. The volunteers are lovely, and I come to see them as much as anything. All I need is something to eat and a cup of coffee.

“If it wasn’t for the guys at Piper Hall, I would need to shoplift for food – that’s the truth. The pandemic made everything that bit harder. I’m struggling getting by. Places like this help me get my life together.”

Guest Sema outside Piper Hall. Credit: CREst

Guest Sema outside Piper Hall. Credit: CREst

Another guest, Sema, says she always used to come to the Tuesday Lunch Club and also had to start coming to the foodbank at the start of the pandemic.

“I came to get some extra help. I have two kids who are nearly 15 and 18. It’s just the three of us at home, but they eat a lot!

“Everyone can be in the situation where they need help. Things change so fast, and you really never know what will happen with work or in your life.”

To donate to CREst and to find out more about their work, visit: https://www.justgiving.com/crecg

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