"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
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
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
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