“To them, I’m driving the van and wearing the badge of The Enemy.” Stu Hennigan in Leeds. Image: Joel Goodman for Prospect

“The idea of children in this country starving seems absurd”

When the pandemic hit, Stu Hennigan volunteered to distribute food to the poorest households in Leeds. Here is his raw, honest account of the scandalous deprivation he witnessed
June 16, 2022

Before the pandemic struck, Stu Hennigan was working as a librarian in Leeds. His job, which included community outreach, took him all over the city, to every one of its 35 libraries, as well as schools, nurseries, community centres and food banks. He was aware of the poverty in the city—he had previously run projects in some of the city’s most deprived areas, including Seacroft and Harehills. But in March 2020, when libraries closed and Stu pivoted from lending books to delivering food parcels in a van, he was unprepared for what he saw.

Leeds City Council originally set up a helpline and distribution centre when Covid-19 hit, to provide food for people self-isolating or unable to get to the shops. But within a few weeks, Stu and the other drivers noticed that they were travelling to the same parts of the city, catering to a different demographic than the one the helpline had originally been set up for. Word had spread among the lowest-income households in the city that help was available with food—and many of them desperately needed it.

When he began driving the van, Stu—who studied English at university and has been writing since his early teens—started documenting how the pandemic was affecting Leeds. Quickly, he found himself writing a different story, about the conditions of some of the 170,000 people living in poverty in the city, which eventually became his new book, Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic.

Stu, who is 43, was born in north Yorkshire to a working-class family: his father fixed cars at a garage and his mother worked part-time in a bank. As a teenager, he gave a copy of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to his grandparents—they were mill workers from large families who struggled to afford food and lived in cramped housing—as he thought that it reflected the way they lived. Stu finds it slightly surreal that Ghost Signs has been compared to Orwell’s book.

Now he is bitterly angry about how little things have changed nearly a century later. The recipients of the council’s food packages often lived in properties with mould, broken windows and no carpets. Many were suffering with drug and alcohol issues and mental health problems without the support they needed. Stu was most shocked by the number of families with babies and young children who were relying on free food.

While the book was written over nine weeks in spring 2020, the cost-of-living crisis will only exacerbate the challenges faced by the people Stu met. He fears for them as energy costs spiral and inflation soars. As he writes, according to Leeds Food Aid Network, 20,514 people used food banks in Leeds in 2014; by 2019, this had rocketed to 33,645. In 2021-2022 the Trussell Trust distributed over 156,000 food parcels in Yorkshire and Humberside and nationally it provided 14 per cent more packages to people in need than in 2019-2020.

Ghost Signs is a snapshot taken in one city of a problem that is replicated across the country. These extracts from the book—which Stu wrote in the form of a journal—tell the stories of the people he met on his deliveries across Leeds. All names have been changed and identities disguised.

Saturday 18th April

I’m dog-tired this morning, having had a rough night and been up with the kids since half past six so my wife could have a lie in; in between getting them breakfast and trying to get myself organised for work—which basically consists of drinking as much coffee as I can—I knock up a swift half-gallon of thick veg soup for them to eat over the weekend. I’m curious as to what the day may bring.

When I get to the Food Distribution Centre, Sharon informs me that I’ll have to start using a Leeds City Council van for the drops because her bosses are adamant that no one should be doing this job in their own car. I’m not fussed—it’s not like I haven’t driven a van before. In any case, one thing I’ve learned from driving around the city is that years of austerity have left the roads in a horrific state, with potholes a couple of inches deep in places. I’m worried about battering the tyres, suspension and shock absorbers on the van I’m getting.

The drops are in Armley, the first two on the same estate. When I get there I’m met with a tableau of smashed TVs, trashed cars, houses with plastic sheets for windows and boarded-up front doors. There are people sitting in gardens, giving me the evil eye. At the top end of the street, two lads who can’t be older than 20 are openly selling drugs out of their car. They sit tapping at their phones, eyes down; periodically, people walk past and there’s a brief touch of hands through the open window as the deals are done. I park the van and get out.

Immediately a man comes bursting out of the front door of the house I’m parked outside, shirt off, arms and legs pumping. He’s about 15 years younger than me, in his mid-20s, lean washboard stomach, biceps like cricket balls. He has a wild look in his eye. “Alright, what the fuck do you want, yer fuckin’ cunt?” he snarls from over the fence. I wasn’t expecting that, and my heart starts pounding, palms sweating, instant shakes as the adrenaline kicks in.

“I’ve got a food parcel for next door, if she’s in,” I choke out.

“Ah, yer dropped fuckin’ lucky there, pal. I were gonna give yer a proper one then, I was.” He’s laughing, but I don’t think he’s talking about a friendly handshake. I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here, but I still have to do the drop, so I heave the food out of the van and carry it up to the door. The man is standing on his doorstep, chest out, arms folded, watching me with a sardonic curl of the lip. I’m tempted to dump the food and scarper; I’ve already decided that if this woman doesn’t open the door quickly, I’m going to leave the parcels on the doorstep so I can make a quick escape.

 It turns out she’s there, though. She is so thin that if she turned sideways, you’d probably lose sight of her. I suspect that she has a drug dependency—she’s got track marks all over her arms. When I hand her the bags she croaks a toothless thanks and I turn to leave, feeling the eyes of the man next door burning into my back, my body tensed and ready to turn round and lamp him one if he jumps me from behind. I wouldn’t fancy my chances in a fight against him though—he’d have me for breakfast.

Back in the relative safety of the van, I’m sweating buckets and feeling more than a bit panicky. The last few minutes are something I’d never have expected, but upsetting as it was, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned. Some of the people in the estates see the council livery and automatically think I’m there to chase unpaid rent, evict them, or any number of other unpleasant things. To them, I’m driving the van and wearing the badge of The Enemy; that’s all they see. The man’s reaction is about as extreme as it will get during my time doing the job, but it’s not the only time I’ll feel threatened.

Sunday 26th April

I don’t recognise the next address, which is somewhere towards the top of Bramley. It turns out to be a sheltered housing complex with signs all over the doors warning about the virus and the dangers of letting visitors in. The flat is at the end of a long, dark corridor with a low ceiling that smells of fag smoke and cheap bleach, the kind you put down the toilet rather than the usual hospital disinfectant smell. She’s a friendly woman in her early 50s with a deep suntan and a Leeds accent as broad as her smile, wearing a spaghetti strap top and some baggy jeans. At the top of her right arm is a huge purple bruise; fist-sized. I find myself wondering how she came by it.

“Thank you so much love, you’ve no idea how much this means to me.” I smile and tell her to give the helpline a call when she needs some more food. “Them people on that helpline, they’re saints, they are, love,” she tells me. “They’ve sorted me out someone to talk to and everything.” I say nothing and nod, inviting her to continue. “I don’t like being on my own you see, love. I’ve got a lot going on, you know?” She taps her temple with her index finger. “I’ve just come out of the hospital.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“It’s alright, love. I tried to kill myself again, is all. I took another overdose. I’ll be OK though as long as I’ve someone to talk to.” She looks so lonely when she says it that I want to give her a massive hug, to stay to talk to her for half an hour myself. Obviously I can’t, and I have to leave, but she’s on my mind for the rest of the day.

I notice a few homeless people as I pass through Headingley today. There have been more and more over the last couple of years, since the police got their orders to start kicking them out of the town centre. They hang around in the atrium of the old Lounge Cinema, which closed in 2005 and has been empty ever since. They seem to like it in Headingley because the students are a bit of a soft touch.

It’s fitting that I see them today; many of the homeless in Leeds have been put up in a hotel somewhere in town, but no one seems to know where it is. As it happens, I’m about to find out; my first drop of the afternoon takes me there. I go in and speak to security who fetch me a support worker. It seems like a great opportunity to have the homeless under one roof. There are lots of services here, and it’s to be hoped that they can help.

The support worker is my age, all fag breath and tattoos with a massive mop of curly blonde hair and a wicked laugh. She brings out a young lad of about 20, pitifully underweight and with self-harm scars all over his arms—a mixture of deep red cuts and purple scar tissue. “Come on, Sean,” she’s laughing, “have a look at this stuff that Stu’s brought you from t’foodbank, eh? What do you think of all this, then?” She sounds like a mother talking to a young child, but there’s no condescension in her tone. He looks mortified, mumbles his thanks into his shoes, face so red that beads of sweat start to form on his forehead. “Looks like you’ll have to be mekkin’ a roast for me today then, Sean, eh?” She’s trying to jolly him along.

article body image Image: Joel Goodman

Image: Joel Goodman

“Well, enjoy,” I say and leave them to it, with her still trying to perk him up. He so wants to please her, lifts his head to try to look her in the eye but his whole body moves like his bones are made of lead and at the last minute he fails to meet her gaze. I don’t quite catch the last thing she says to him as I turn to wave over my shoulder, but she laughs again, then from the corner of my eye I see him give her the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.

Saturday 2nd May

The final drop of the morning is right behind the mosque. It says in my notes that these people need baby products too, which can be troublesome because we very rarely have any, and when we do it’s usually not the specific things that people need. All I have in the van are two bags of nappies, plus a few packs of wet wipes. The house is made of damp red bricks and has a tiny yard. A makeshift washing line made of red household twine has been strung up, with some toddler clothes and some tiny baby grows hanging from it too.

It’s devastating to think of a household with a baby needing assistance with food, but as I know from my visits to the food bank, it’s not uncommon at all. According to Luke Pollard when he was shadow minister for environment, food and rural affairs,“this is not a crisis of food supply, it is a crisis of poverty. People simply do not have enough money to buy the food they need.”

They’re a very young couple as it turns out. They can’t be older than 20, and I wonder how old they must have been when they had their first child. The lad is so thin he’s barely there, skin as pale as his tracksuit, face shaded by a baseball cap, although unlike most of the other boys you see on the estates, he isn’t wearing a hood. He’s trying to seem impassive, but he looks shattered, bewildered, as if life has taken him completely by surprise and he has no idea how he’s ended up where he is.

“Y’alright, bud.” I give him a nod. “Morning, pal.” A small voice. He’s trying to look confident, hands in pockets, chest out, but really he’s shy. He can’t stop looking at the food bags either, eyes swinging back and forth between them. Behind the hard veneer, there’s still something of the vulnerable little boy he’s unable to hide.

The mum looks completely exhausted but tries her best to greet me with a big smile. Her face is pale and panda-eyed, the pink top she’s wearing spattered with white patches where the baby has either spat up or puked on her. She’s wearing a bit of make-up but it looks hastily applied—the bright red lipstick not quite straight, mascara clumping on her eyelashes in big black gobs. “Thank you so, so much for this,” she keeps saying, “I don’t know what we’d do without it.” There’s a lump in my throat; I swallow hard.

“Are these nappies any good?”

“Let’s have a look. Brilliant, size four, you’re a total lifesaver, these are perfect.”

 I hand the bags over, feeling the supplies to be pitifully inadequate. There are about 20 nappies and a couple of fresh packs of wipes, probably enough to last a week at most. I feel so sorry for these kids that it physically hurts, and if I had any more food in the back of the van I would give them every last bag of it. The mum even waves as the van’s driving away. The sight of it in the side mirror breaks me in half.

The next drop is at an address in Middleton, which the sat nav doesn’t recognise. I don’t know Middleton very well, so I give the number on the job sheet a call before I set off. “I just want to check your address,” I say to the woman on the end of the phone.

“D’yer know Miggie, do yer?” she drawls.

“No. That’s why I’m calling. I can’t find you in my sat nav.”

“Sat nav? Fuckin’ useless, love, yer won’t find us with one of them. D’yer know where them white houses are down by Asda?” I don’t, but I know where Asda is so I decide to head in that general direction and see if I can wing it from there.

It turns out to be a monumental pain in the arse. I end up driving up and down Middleton ring road for half an hour, getting more and more pissed off by the minute. In the end I find it, more by accident than design, only to discover that the street has bollards halfway down it and I’m at the wrong end. Cursing a blue streak, I head back onto the main road.

When I eventually arrive, the bloke who comes out is in his 50s, Leeds United tattoos on his arms, workman’s hands and a deep smoker’s voice; a proper Loiner (a native of Leeds). I make a joke about what a pain the house was to find.

“No one can ever find us here, kidder. Which bit of Leeds are yer from?”

I tell him, and it turns out he works for a company about half a mile away from my house, on the same industrial estate where my son has his drum lessons. He says some of the lads are going back to work next week and he’s hoping he’ll join them the week after, but he’s not been paid while he’s been off and they’ve run out of food. He seems embarrassed to take the bags, but I tell him that’s what we’re here for. It’s obvious that whatever the initial remit of the service, we’re now here to feed whoever needs us in the city and I’m totally on board with that.

The final drop of the day is near Cemetery Road in Holbeck, an apt name when you see the state of many of the residents. The drop is on a row of big old terrace houses, all of which seem to be split into flats; one on each floor, including the basement. In the edition of The Road to Wigan Pier I read, there is a plate featuring a picture of the outside of a house, shot from a low angle so you can see the top of the cellar window, barely poking up above street level. The caption simply says: “Poplar: the basement is lived in,” as if that’s sufficiently awful to speak for itself. All the basements here are inhabited too, and it strikes me as odd that so little has changed in the near century since that book was written, with slum housing, unemployment and crippling poverty still rife. In some ways we live in a completely different world, but the age-old problem of wealth inequality is not going away.

Sunday 10th May

There’s a drop in Burmantofts and it turns out to be a real heartbreaker. I can’t park near the address, so I ditch the van and set off to investigate. I head past a row of houses, up a couple of dirty steps and find a two-storey building filled with little flats. It must be in here. I go inside and climb the stairs, trying to follow the numbering sequence. I’m feeling a little nervous; I’m not keen on the vibe of this place—dark, claustrophobic, edgy—and there’s no way to make a rapid getaway if anything untoward happens.

When I find the flat it is, in a word, fucked. The door has been kicked in and boarded so many times there isn’t much of it left. The plaster around it is in an atrocious state where it’s been cracked and shaken by blows to the timber; it looks like someone’s taken hold of the frame and tried to rip the whole thing out of the wall. I knock, and a timid voice calls from within. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Stu from Leeds City Council. I’ve got your food parcel for you.”

The door opens slowly to reveal a woman probably in her 30s, wearing leopard-print leggings and a baggy t-shirt, pipe-cleaner arms covered with a mixture of deep, fresh cuts, dried blood, angry scars and track marks. The leggings should be tight, but she’s so thin they’re slipping down her waist. She sees me and bursts into tears. “Thank Christ you’re here, love, I’m absolutely starving. I haven’t eaten for days.”

article body image

Image: Joel Goodman

She bends over double and starts crying into her hands—huge, body-shaking sobs—and it’s difficult to stop myself from stepping forward and giving her a hug. I’ve got a lump in my throat, tears welling, and I excuse myself, telling her I need to get the food from the van. I stand outside for a minute and take a few deep breaths, trying to compose myself. When I go back in with the parcels, she’s closed the door. I knock again. “Who is it?” I tell her and the door opens. Behind her, I can’t see the floor for rubbish—dirty clothes, broken dishes, a couple of crusty plates, empty plastic water bottles, junk mail spread out all over. “Oh, it’s you, thank you so much for coming back…” I pop the bags down on the floor and she launches into a spiel about how terrible it is for everyone who’s living through this war—and I know it’s a nuclear one, she says—and how angels like me have restored her faith in humanity and given her a completely new outlook on life. I’ve no idea what she’s talking about but she’s so sincere that I can tell she believes every word she’s saying.

Friday 22nd May

The next address is on a hill at the top end of the estate. There are loads of tiny flats here arranged like terraces but on different levels, joined together by narrow stairways. There are shopping trolleys full of junk everywhere, litter and fag ends, lots of whippits (small canisters of nitrous oxide used as a recreational drug) too. Two older ladies on the top level near where I’m parked are speaking to some people down below. I walk down the stairs and start looking round, knowing this might take a while. One of them calls down, “Ey, yer need some help, love? It’s ’ard to find places round ’ere.” I tell her which number I’m after and she points with her fag. “Follow that fence round the corner and down, love, yer’ll see it then.”

I go down two more lots of steps. I find the flat quickly with the woman’s directions and knock on the door. For a while there’s no answer, then a little girl of about six opens it, smiles cheekily for a second then shuts it in my face. After a few more seconds her mum comes out, face hard and tense.

“Hi. It’s Stu from Leeds City Council. I’ve got your food parcels for you.”

 “Oh! Ta love.” Instant smile.

When I make my way back down to get the parcels, there’s a woman in the stairwell with two kids, a boy and a girl of about 10 and eight. She gets them to move out of my way, shooing them affectionately with her smoking hand. “Sorry love,” she says. “If I’d known you were coming I’d’ve carried one for you.”

 When I get back upstairs, the little girl who shut the door on me earlier notices the bags.

“Is that FOOD?” she asks. I nod. “ALL of it?” I nod again.

“For US?” She points to herself, eyes wide. “YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!” She starts dancing and twirling around, clapping her hands like I’m
Father Christmas giving her the gift she’s always wanted.

I visit this address again three weeks later, the little girl is over the moon to see me, while her mum greets me with a broad smile and calls me by my first name, even though I’ve forgotten to wear my badge. The idea of children in this country starving seems absurd, and yet I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I can’t stop thinking about them—the little girl at the last drop in particular—for the rest of the day.

Ghost Signs is out now from Bluemoose Books