Universal Realities

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It’s been another crazily busy week at our foodbank session – in one afternoon we’ve fed 72 households, that is 112 adults and 55 children …. since January 2019 we’ve seen almost a week on week increase and levels are now at over 70% higher than before the Universal Credit roll out in Sheffield.

One household we spoke with today had made three (YES THREE) Universal Credit claims since December:

  • First claim after he lost his job in December – He waited the five weeks standard delay for first payment, but didnt recieve any money. He contacted DWP to be told he’d failed to reply to, an email (he hadn’t seen it) and so his claim was cancelled by DWP. So he submitted a new claim – another five week wait for his first payment.
  • Fortunately in this period he found a job. The wages weren’t great, but with the hours he put in and his partners part time wages, they earned enough in that month to take them over the threshold for Universal Credit, so his claim was cancelled by DWP.
  • Sadly a couple of weeks later he was laid off. He has now had to submit a new claim for Universal Credit and is subject to a five week wait for his first payment.

Stories like these are sadly too familiar, as people are left with little or no monies whilst waiting for claims to to be processed. Add this to the frequent amount of debt that people are carrying, rents and mortgages owed and the negative impact on peoples mental health can hardly be overstated. I wonder sometimes how people who find themselves in these kinds of situation cope, but of course most of the time they do, the bonds of family and community remain stronger than some might imagine, especially perhaps in places like Parson Cross and similar neighbourhoods elsewhere.

Into this situation we throw our volunteers and helpers, without which there would be no service, no food bank ….. week on week they too have to cope, not just with the pressure of giving out food parcels to around 70 households in four hours (thats roughly one every three and half minutes) but they also find time to listen to the stories (the lives) of those who attend. Stories of relationship breakdowns, of ill health, and addictions; of jobs lost, and dashed hopes, of choices made between fuel or food, of Mums not eating a meal so their child can do….. and all this shared and received with compassion, and often a smile.

Today our voluntary team stayed on an extra hour in order to make sure everyone who came had been given a food parcel – it’s never enough, but it’s all we can do, and we’re glad that we can even though we are sad that we have to. We don’t ask for gratitude and thanks ….. but every now and again we are blown away by the grace we are shown by people who come to us, today we were given a donation of £1 from a young woman who has come to food bank a number of times over the last few months, with it this letter (see photo above):

“TO EVERYONE,

Thank you so very much for all you do. Your kindness is like looking up into the sky and seeing stars, which I do feeling I am not alone.”

To be honest – I have nothing more to say

 

 

 

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“We have failed ….” Reflections on Foodbanks & Universal Credit

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This Saturday (20th October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare it’s has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.

It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30th November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).

The “failure” of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached.  Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).

Lets be clear;  the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental, how do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post war consensus around social security, and the return of pre war models of  the “deserving and undeserving poor relief”. Food banks with their “quasi systems” of referrals, and time limits on the like are simply reinforcing the hoop jumping  exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly its is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) in fact helped perpetuate.

Where does this leave us? I don’t now but here’s some thoughts.

I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is “complex” – yes it is and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:

  • Poverty and poor mental health
  • Poverty and low wages
  • Poverty and disability
  • Poverty and isolation
  • Poverty and debt
  • Poverty and addiction
  • Poverty and deskilling
  • Poverty and ill health

This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the “national minimum wage”) sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!

But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to “feed the hungry” and provide for those in need; but lets examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new “centre stage” for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into “saviour” mode?

Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.

  1. We are likely to see an increase in the “corporatisation” of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for “robust” referral systems to ensure public accountability.
  2. The closure of many smaller, “independent” food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
  3. The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.

I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:

Today we set off on a journey together; 

a journey of discovery, 

a journey of understanding,                                    

a journey of emotions,                                            

a journey of prayer.

One step at a time,                     

we journey onwards with God.                         

This is pilgrimage.

Changing Seasons

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This weekend saw the Autumn Equinox and at Share Ministries we marked it with an evening of folk music from local friends and an open mic session for others to share songs and poems.

Autumn Equinox (also known within Pagan community as Mabon) is celebrated when day and night are of equal duration before the descent into increasing darkness and is the final festival of the season of harvest. It is also a time to recoginse that the balance of the year has changed, the wheel has turned and summer is now over.

Recognising and marking seasonal change is important, it’s important to do so within the context of creation (the natural world around us) but its also important to do so in our own lives (we are of course also part of that same creation). Seasonal change in our lives can take many forms; we move from childhood to teens  and early adulthood through our middle years and into our old age. But of course other changes of season may also take place; our health may change, relationships come and go, hopefully we learn to love and also inevitably to cope with the loss of people we love. In all these changes in our life seasons God travels with us, offering light even in the dark times, providing us a sense of balance in our lives that holds us firm in good times and bad.

My ministry seems to be in something of a season of change – decisions about new priorities and partnerships are underway, as well as new challenges faced by those I work alongside and those we seek to serve as friends in community. Universal Credit casts a dark shadow over the coming season as the roll out hits Sheffield around November / December this year, its total effects are still of course unknown but the experience of many in places it is already in operation show it has caused more problems than solutions, deepened peoples experiences of poverty rather than lifting them from it. In the past six months alone our food bank service has seen a further 26% growth in those seeking help – if Universal Credit increases these figures we will find it increasing hard to cope with demand in the same way, thankfully our supporters are still generous and we will continue to look for the best ways to exhibit our key values of Love, Hope, Grace and Advocacy despite the increasing challenges.

Our Equinox Blessing

Blessings for the bounty of your Summer harvest.

Blessings for balance in our life as we attune with the power of equal night and day.

Blessings for that which falls away, that which needs to be released with faith and trust into the mystery.

Blessings for gathering and storing the light & warmth of the Summer sun as we head through this transition season towards the dark of Winter when the earth goes to her womb-place and takes that which has fallen away and uses it to create new life that comes in the rebirth of Spring.

May we all harvest well so the light within can carry us through the time of least “outer” light.

 

(Photo by Katie York – Sunshine & Poppies)