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Why Julie Jaye Charles Wants To Set Up A Food Bank For BME Disabled People

July 15, 2015

She explained all in an interview in today’s Guardian.

Julie Jaye Charles was so deluged by disabled people asking her charity for referrals to food banks earlier this year, that the head of the Equalities National Council (ENC) decided to set one up herself.

“People come to us for a letter to go to food banks so I thought what we’d like is to set up a food bank and let the community run it,” she explains.

With disabled people disproportionately affected by many of the cuts and benefit reforms that are reportedly driving people to food banks, Charles says she wanted to take some action. And she is no stranger to setting up unlikely organisations. In 1996, she founded the ENC from her living room in east London. Close on 20 years later, it is still the only national black and minority ethnic (BME) user-led disabled charity and Charles has won a lifetime achievement award for her outstanding contributions to promoting equality and diversity from the Excellence in Diversity Awards.

In an effort to raise funds to get the food bank up and running, she has sent letters to the sponsors of the awards. However, if the food bank effort is a fresh focal point it is far from the lone challenge she and the ENC now face. The charity, which is the only black and minority ethnic (BME) user-led disabled people’s organisation in the country, is struggling to secure funding. Charles says it needs £250,000 a year to be able to continue offering its support, which includes advice and mentoring across England and Wales in areas spanning health, welfare advice, social care, education, housing and employment. It also helps former prisoners reintegrate into communities after release.

Like many other organisations working on the frontline in poorer communities the ENC is grappling with ongoing cuts and increased demand for services at a time when grants are harder than ever to come by. While it specialises in BME communities, the charity’s remit has widened over the years to incorporate other groups and demand is coming from all quarters. Before austerity measures were implemented by the coalition government it wasn’t easy, she remarks, but there were more resources around.

“I would say that before 2010 we certainly had better chances of funding.” Now, with no finance forthcoming from the local authority, she says that accessing funds has become a nightmare. “We filled in about 35 [grant] applications last year and one came through … for £1,000.”

In the past few years it is not just that the volume of inquiries for assistance has risen but that they have become more complex, she adds. “Going back six years, someone would be coming with one issue and one form, for example, finding it difficult to pay rent. When [people] come to us [now], not only do they want an ESA [employment support allowance] form, they may want a letter to go to the food bank. They may also need our support because they have no fixed abode.”

As someone who has lupus and osteoarthritis as well as bipolar disorder, Charles has personal as well as professional insights into the difficulties faced by people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. She tells one story of when she was first diagnosed in the mid-90s while a young mother and struggling with the council to have her home adapted. “I had to fight for that, and on one occasion a social worker told me it would be cheaper ‘to put your children in care than for you to actually get a direct payment [from the council.]’”

In almost two decades at the ENC, Charles has helped to put a spotlight on the circumstances of the UK’s more than one million BME disabled people. Through partnerships with bigger charities such as Scope, she published research drawing attention to additional obstacles faced by many disabled people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds including access to services in areas such as mental health, which pushed the issue up the policy agenda. The same research also highlighted that while disabled people generally are more likely to live in poverty, this is even more so for those from ethnic minorities. Charles has also advised numerous government departments and ministers on disability and health issues.

One of her most recent actions was to put herself forward as a potential Labour candidate in the general election to challenge the main architect of welfare reform, Iain Duncan Smith (she lives in his constituency and says on a personal level “he’s a very nice man”). “I wanted to challenge him to show him that a disabled person can be professional, can work, does have knowledge but [that] we do also need the support.” Charles failed to get the nomination but says she wouldn’t think twice about trying again to bolster disabled people’s voices in parliament.

The new minister for disabled people wants to meet her, she says. “While that’s great, I’ve met with every other disabled [people’s] minister and they all speak the same language,” she explains.

Charles is particularly scathing about what she says is Labour’s lack of action in not directly objecting to cuts affecting disabled people and not making their rights a centrepiece of its pre-election activity. “I think that Labour made a huge mistake and they know it themselves. They lost a lot of votes. [The party] certainly wasn’t talking about disabled people.”

She believes the loss of the Disability Rights Commission (when it was absorbed into the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission in 2007) was a major blow to disabled people’s advocacy nationally. As a result, there hasn’t been a coherent response to austerity policies. Instead, smaller groups have been left to take up the slack. “What we have now are individual campaigners and activists who come together in their thousands, across the country to say to us what you [the government] are doing to us is wrong.”

Charles says she is fearful that the reforms and cuts under way in welfare and benefits may be impossible to reverse. Of last week’s budget, she says: “I don’t understand whether they truly understand how it’s not just going to affect disabled people but families already on low incomes and those who really are suffering now without food and [facing] homelessness.”

Yet she insists that it won’t stop her from finding ways to mitigate the effects. She wants to establish an independent disability commission to hold policymakers to account on the impact of cuts. “I’m not giving up. How can an award-winning organisation not be funded,” she asks. “It doesn’t make sense. Is it because we are a BME organisation or is it because we are a disability organisation? Or both?”

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