Social Justice

Will Poulter: 'To not be able to access food is just unthinkably unfair'

Acting star Will Poulter is determined to use his position to speak up for people who've been hit by increasing inequality in the UK.

Will Poulter talks to Aneita Lewis about what it's like to get by on insufficient money.

Will Poulter talks to Aneita Lewis about what it's like to get by when facing financial insecurity. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer

We’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. Increasing numbers of people cannot cope. And rising numbers of people have had enough. Hollywood celebrity – and star of The Revenant and the superb Midsommar – Will Poulter is among the latter. Ahead of taking his place in the Marvel universe, as Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy 3, he’s decided to use his influence to take a stand against rampant unfairness by supporting charity Turn2us.

Turn2us helps people in financial hardship to gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and support services. They’ve seen demand for their services rocket in recent years. In the last year, they awarded £3.6 million in grants. They help more than two million people a year find out what benefits they’re eligible for.

Through his involvement with Turn2us, Poulter has made friends with Aneita Lewis. Lewis is a 49-year-old single mother from London, and has experienced financial hardship herself. Her story shows just how easily someone can find themselves in that situation, even when working a full-time job. She found help from Turn2us and now advises the charity from her own lived experience.

In conversation for The Big Issue, Will Poulter and Aneita Lewis got together in Turn2us’s London office, to examine what it really means to try and survive on insufficient money. And how much it means when someone steps in to help. Along the way they compared their very different life experiences and explored the mental health challenges they’ve shared.

Aneita Lewis and Will Poulter discussed the mental health challenges they've both faced. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer
Aneita Lewis and Will Poulter discussed the mental health challenges they’ve both faced. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer

Will Poulter

We first met about a month ago…

Aneita Lewis

I got an email and was asked if I wanted to come in and speak with Will and share my lived experience. Of course, I took that opportunity. I thought there was going to be a group of us here to meet you. I was really shocked when I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the only one here. That’s cool. I can handle that.’ That’s when we met, and I shared what I’ve been through.

Will Poulter

Which I was really grateful for, obviously. I’ve had an opportunity to meet with a few people at Turn2us. But getting the opportunity to sit down with Aneita, as a lived expert, educated me on a lot of things that I didn’t know. And we had a laugh too.

Aneita Lewis and Will Poulter became friends after meeting through Turn2us. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer

Aneita Lewis

I worked for the NHS for 16 years, as an administrator. I was working in mental health and absolutely loved working there. But I was bullied out of my job. My face just didn’t fit anymore. My doctor signed me off because I was going through a lot of stress. My father had died from cancer. I had problems with my house, and I needed to move into temporary accommodation. And being a single parent and working full time. Everything just came on top of me. I decided I didn’t want to go back to that that job, so I started looking for some other work.

I started working in a primary school, but that was part time. I’d done a couple of benefit calculators and from them it told me that I would be okay. So I made the move, took the part time job, but then my tax credits were cut and I was told I’d already received my year’s entitlement. All of a sudden, I couldn’t manage all the bills I was paying. I was only earning just under £400 a month. It got to the point where I didn’t want to read letters coming in because I just thought that’s just going to add more and more stress.

I went and saw an advisor and she advised me to take a debt relief order out. Afterwards when I thought about, she really rushed me through that. With all the stress and everything I didn’t really think it through. To this day, I’m still affected by that. My credit score is completely rubbish. If I want to get anything on credit, I can’t. Or I find it difficult, because then it’s places that charge very, very high interest.  

It got to the point where I was struggling to buy food. One of the teachers in the school got me a voucher to send me to a food bank. And that’s the first time in my life that I had been to a food bank. That broke my heart. I had to go in the evening, I took my daughter with me, she had no clue, she was just happy that they were feeding her biscuits and juice. I was getting given all of this food and to put it in my trolley to drag it all home because I couldn’t afford the bus to get home.

Aneita Lewis now works with Turn2us as a coproduction partner
Aneita Lewis now works with Turn2us as a coproduction partner. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer

I’m trying to think of the words, the emotions I felt. I mean, obviously I felt sad. I felt like a failure as a mother. I didn’t want to go to like family or friends because they’ve got their own bills. I’m the type of person that likes to do things on my own. It’s not easy to ask for help. Because as soon as you ask, that’s it. It’s almost like then you’re admitting to yourself: somewhere along the line I have failed, even though it wasn’t my fault.

Eventually, I got a full-time job in a secondary school, and that helped much more because I’m now on a full-time wage. I started to get myself back on my feet. But then I needed things for the home, and I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to pay it outright. And I couldn’t get credit. And that’s when I became involved really with Turn2us because I applied for a grant, got a grant and I was really shocked at the amount that they gave me. It really helped me out. I could buy these things that I needed for my home.

Will Poulter

It’s totally wrong that someone like Aneita, who’s working every hour that God sends, is forced into a position where basic things are unaffordable. After you’ve paid your housing bills, your council tax, your utility bills, to not be able to access food is just unthinkably unfair. It’s a story that points to how many people are trying their absolute best in the face of a really, really unfair scenario.

Speaking to Aneita emphasised just how vastly different my lived experience has been. Benefits in a lot of people’s eyes are misunderstood as something that’s like a sort of added luxury or extra that people are getting that other people aren’t. Well, no, what benefits actually are is a means of compensation that is trying – and actually failing, currently – to account for the unfairness that people arrive in, the place of disadvantage that people find themselves in.

I don’t know what it’s like to go without food. I am very fortunate in that I was born into a very different set of circumstances. And I think it’s about people being realistic about that and acknowledging their privilege. And also understanding that lots of people are not so fortunate. Lots of people have to work a great deal harder against a much harder set of circumstances. More and more people are being forced into poverty, 14.4 million adults as it currently stands, 3.6 million children, in the UK. Those figures are really, really shameful to be quite frank.

Will Poulter is a high profile supporter of Turn2us. Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer

I wanted to support Turn2us, firstly, because they’re trying to help people who are more than deserving of help, and they’re trying to address unfairness and inequality. I think that is just a really honourable, righteous cause. Secondly, my family all work in the health sector. So, like Aneita, a lot of my family members work in the NHS. And a lot of my family members, myself included, have struggled with our mental health. You can’t talk about the stress and the emotional impact of financial insecurity, without considering its overlap with mental health. It’s reported that half of people who are in problem debt have also been diagnosed with a mental health issue.

I was diagnosed in my teens with depression, and generalised anxiety disorder, and also OCD. Still got them, unfortunately. But, you know, I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to receive therapy and treatment for that. It’s an ongoing journey, and something that fortunately, I have familial support around.

Even in my relatively privileged position, having not faced financial insecurity, not having that same lived experience, I struggle with my mental health. I can only imagine how much harder I would have found the challenge of managing my mental health if I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. Or, like Aneita, if I was working every hour that was available to me, and I was still unable to get those basics for my home.

So many service users are reliant on Turn2us because, systematically, people are being failed. And the government are not doing enough to support people.

If you are worried about your financial situation, you can find out more about Turn2us at turn2us.org.uk

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