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They try to help but now need help themselves

by
26 June 2015

Government cuts mean that church volunteers who care for the poor are buckling under the strain, says Catherine Pickford

"Hello, is that the church?" Of all the opening lines on the vicarage telephone, this one always moves me. Whatever is about to pass between us, in the eyes of this person, I represent The Church, Christ's hands and feet on earth in every time and place. These days, the calls are getting more frequent and more desperate, and many of the team of people called "the Church" are slipping into poverty themselves.

The man on the phone sounds barely out of his teens, and my heart sinks as I hear his story. Mark became homeless this morning when his friend threw him out of the house where he had been "sofa surfing", after not being able to pay the rent on his flat. He has spent the day being bounced between different housing offices, but there are no emergency beds available.

It is 4 p.m. on Friday, and he is getting desperate. I am his last resort. I phone Night Stop, a wonderful organisation that recruits volunteers to accommodate homeless young people for a night or two. They have a couple who can put Mark up, and offer him a warm bed and a hot meal, at least for tonight.

Stories like Mark's are an increasingly familiar part of my work. Benefit cuts often push the vulnerable over the edge into homelessness, which puts an intolerable strain on the limited amount of emergency accommodation in the city. These days, unless you are elderly or a child, if you lose your home it is likely that you will sleep on the streets.

Mark's experience is also an example of the gradual tipping of the balance of responsibility for the vulnerable away from statutory organisations and towards volunteers. In the provision of emergency food, support for young people, children in need, and much more, volunteers are plugging the gaps left by councils which can no longer afford to provide much needed services.

The budget of Newcastle City Council, for example, has been cut by one third. We have already lost our play centres and youth workers, and more cuts are to come. In our parish, 41 per cent of children were living in poverty already, before the cuts began. Benefit sanctions, the "bedroom tax", and extra council-tax bills are pushing families, even working ones, into hunger.

 

ALL the main political parties have praised those who give of their time voluntarily to help the country through this period of austerity, and there is nothing wrong with society's relying on volunteers who can afford not to be paid. But there is a real injustice when people who desperately need money work for nothing in posts that are becoming an integral part of government strategy.

For example, when people are given sanctions that result in dramatic decreases to their benefits, the Job Centre staff direct them to the foodbank. The church-based foodbank in Benwell, where I was Team Rector until last month, feeds 1000 people a week. It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, many of whom are local and living on dwindling benefits themselves.

The very people who are propping up the benefit system by working free of charge are themselves buckling under the strain of the sanctions and cuts.

Inner-city communities are used to supporting a large number of vulnerable and needy people, and they rely on the grace and favour of those who are able to offer support to provide for those in need. Churches and community centres in areas such as Benwell have always worked on this basis.

As savings run out, however, the cuts are starting to threaten the livelihoods of those who give help, as well as those who receive it. One such person is Kathy. She regularly puts in 40 volunteer hours a week. She works at the Citizens Advice Bureau, is a befriender to people with learning difficulties, volunteers at the foodbank, supports the church- schools worker, and runs a toddler group. She is also a Reader at one of the Benwell churches.

At night, she often lies awake wondering whether she is going to be able to meet the rent this month with the new taxes. Kathy is working all the hours she can to support others, and she is at risk of losing her home.

These are also hard times for all the Churches in Benwell. In the past ten years, the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches in the area have closed their doors, owing in large part to a lack of funds. Of the traditional denominations, the Anglicans alone remain, supported financially by churches in better off areas through the parish system.

 

THERE has been some surprise and relief expressed by the Government that the national reaction to the cuts has been relatively muted. There has been little rioting on the streets. Looking around the Benwell volunteers, I am not surprised. They are working flat out to try to keep the show on the road, to keep people fed, and their community functioning. They do not have the time or the energy to riot.

It is not yet clear what the next few years will bring, but we do know that the cuts are not over, and that the facilities that remain in Benwell, such as the library and the swimming pool do not have a guaranteed future. The volunteers who make such efforts for months and years on end are continuing to keep vital services running. They have been a privilege to work with.

Thanks are also due to the wider Church which is continuing to fund the church in Benwell, and in deprived areas all over the country. That generosity means that, in the areas of the greatest need, when someone at the end of their resources phones the vicarage and asks "Is that the church?", there is someone to answer.

 

The Revd Catherine Pickford is CMD officer for the diocese of Newcastle, and Priest-in-Charge of St Mary the Virgin, Stannington. She spent 11 years as Team Vicar and then as Team Rector of the Benwell Team in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Franciscan.

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