One step at a time
Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield held their 10th annual Pilgrimage event on 20 October 2018, visiting the Wybourn area and The Manor estate. Sara Millard reports on the day.
After an opening service at Stafford Road Methodist Church, starting with the words “One step at a time we journey onwards with God – this is pilgrimage”, we heard about the Real Junk Food project. It uses out of date (but safe) food in the café – diners pay what they can afford, an electric van collects the food, and they also run workshops in schools to help pupils learn about food and cooking.
Then we walked up to Skye Edge, admiring the view over the city, and David Price spoke about two groups which met up here: the 19th century Chartist rebels, so they could run if the militia were approaching, and the gambling gangs in the 1920s.
St Oswald’s church offered refreshments as Debbie Mathews, Chief Executive of Manor Castle Development Trust, told us about the situation in the Manor Castle area, which had been originally developed to provide homes for steel workers and their families. The area was very badly hit by the collapse of much of the steel industry in the 1980s, and for a time, it was the most deprived area in Sheffield. However, considerable efforts were put into improvements and it became the third most deprived area, which was progress of a kind. But now it has reverted to a high level of deprivation, not only because of the number of people dependent upon benefits, but also because those in work often have low-paid or part-time jobs and are reliant on tax credits to make ends meet. There is anxiety about the potential impact of the Universal Credit system, as 5,000 people in the ward will be dependent upon it. Another major change in recent years is that the proportion of ethnic minorities in the area has risen from 2% to 27%.
The city suffers from a shortage of social housing and there are 22,000 on the council waiting list. As a result, when housing became available in the Manor Castle area, it often went to people who had priority due to complex needs. This meant that an increasing proportion of the social housing in the area was occupied by people with serious mental health issues and high levels of debt. Those reporting suicidal thoughts have increased 100% in 10 years. At the same time, the austerity cuts in services are biting and it is impossible to provide these people with the support that they need.
Manor Fields were still full of wildflowers in bloom as we went up to St Swithun’s Church. The local community, council and churches set up the Food Poverty Network in 2012–13, as the food banks in the surrounding area reported that they were supplying people from the St Swithun’s area.
The numbers using it have doubled each year – in 2017 they gave away 55 tons of food, as 48-hour emergency packs or 4-weekly packs, feeding 6,600 people (who have to be referred to the project). The Network is supported by 110 people who pay standing orders each month, and 20% of the food is donated and 80% purchased. (The opposite ratio occurs in most other food banks.)
A Citizen’s Advice Bureau worker visits on Wednesdays, establishing each person’s needs and whether the help with food should continue for another 4 weeks. Often those who come have two, three or even four jobs, but still do not have enough money to buy food. People are encouraged to use the Credit Union budget account, where rent and utilities are paid, and the remaining money is put on weekly or monthly cash/debit cards. As an extension to the emergency food, Food Clubs have now been set up where members pay £2.50 per week and receive £20–30 worth of food, and training to help them move towards self-sufficiency.
We walked through the general cemetery, after pausing to pray for those in funeral poverty. The average price of funerals has increased to around £4,000, but the government grant covers only about 35% of this, and struggling with the financial pressure of a funeral often gets in the way of people’s ability to grieve.
MP Paul Blomfield talked to us as we ate our sandwiches at St Aidan’s Church. When he spoke to our pilgrimage seven years ago, he had just become an MP. He considered that people are now, on the whole, worse off, in both food and fuel poverty, but there is also greater fragility in the type of work, such as zero-hours contracts, where people are called into work the following day, and then told there might be something later in the afternoon. The issue of child obesity has also to be addressed, as dependency on corner shops or take-away food has led to the families of four million children in the country not being able to afford to eat healthily.
For the second time on our journey Sure Start, a nationwide family support network, now drastically depleted, was mentioned as the best way to help the whole family before their struggle became overwhelming.
Universal Credit, which is being introduced in Sheffield in November, has been a cause for concern for a long time. Deliberate delays in payment and a reduction in income have been built into the system, and in areas where new applicants have to register for Universal Credit there has been a 52% increase in the use of food banks. The police are planning their strategy too, as the payment of a large sum of money each month may lead to vulnerable people being exploited.
Paul’s parting words were for those who are concerned to “make a noise” to put pressure on MPs and the government to make changes.