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Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

This is a guest series of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Meet Emma...

Emma is your ‘typical’ workless benefit claimant: overweight; in a power chair; all-but never worked.

She’s the kind of person who’s pointed out on the street as an exemplifier of all that’s wrong with Britain. The obesity epidemic; the eating of fast-food and processed food and sweets and ice creams; the lack of work ethic; the attitude that believes it’s right and better to take state money than to work.

The person who had children whilst on benefits, rather than wait to be able to afford them. The person who uses abortion as a birth control method. The person who fights like a tiger for her ‘entitlements’, but can’t keep a stable relationship.

Except that that’s not Emma’s story… That’s the narrative that rich and lazy people weave in their heads around people like Emma, because it’s easier than finding out the truth. 

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Do not jump to conclusions

Finding out the truth would mean going to actually speak to people like Emma. 

It would mean refusing to make any assumptions about the reality behind the image, and refusing to pass on one’s imaginings as the ‘truth’ about so-and-so in a piece of faux-shocked gossip.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason middle- and upper-class people jump so easily to false conclusions about poor and struggling people is because they’re reflecting their own selfishness and greed onto a people who are actually less selfish and more community-minded than them. 

Why do so many judge falsely?

But that would be to ‘other’ the rich, and would be unfair.

Whilst there is data showing that richer people are more selfish and greedy, it isn’t right to assume that every rich person is inherently morally inferior and to be judged negatively.

Many may simply be ignorant, living as they do lives that are so divorced from the bottom half of the UK income or class scale. They simply don’t know what is going on in these other people’s lives, and for whatever reason many of them choose to judge these people falsely and negatively.

Seek the right narratives over the easy ones

It is easy to judge Emma from the outside. But judging her and writing her down as a skiver and feckless mother doesn’t make that pejorative narrative true.

It’s the easy narrative, because it lets the richer person off the hook for showing justice and generosity, and even allows us to kid ourselves that justice and generosity is to let this person suffer for their sins until they learn to do right. That’s exactly how God treats us, of course, and is why God had no problem when a person in great debt shows no mercy to someone in a little debt.

Meet the real Emma...

A red Holy Bible, on a wooden church pew

So let me introduce you to Emma. In her mid-thirties, she’s training in lay ministry as a youth worker as part of her training to become a vicar. 

With her knowledge of poverty combined with her acute mind, she’ll bring compassion and clarity to her role.
A silhouette shot of a church, with the setting sun visible through its steeple

Where many middle-class vicars have only their brain to draw on, Emma has personal experience and extensive knowledge of  what life is really like for many people. That invaluable insight is beginning to be recognised by the Church of England and other denominations.

She has two daughters, one a young adult and one in primary school. She has a sharp mind and a strong drive to be engaged and active. In periods where she has been unable to obtain work, she has engaged in lots of volunteering and various training and skills courses. These courses range from basic CV-writing, to life-skills, to crafts. Whatever was available at the time.

She has a back injury from an abusive husband who kicked her down the stairs. When the doctor told her she’d be in a wheelchair within a year, she didn’t want to believe the doctor about the ongoing deterioration of her spine.

But the doctor was right, and Emma now depends on her powerchair for more than occasional and short-distance mobility. She struggles with anorexia, and her body fights back by shifting to starvation mode and clinging on to calories. 

Emma: recovering from abuse

She has ADHD, autism and dyslexia. When she entered secondary school, she was functionally illiterate and yet still undiagnosed. Like many people with ADHD, Emma’s body is poor at telling her that it’s time for food, and this failure to eat regularly compounds the anorexia in her body’s insistence on its need to store rather than spend the calories it gets.

Emma had a difficult childhood. Her dad wasn’t around, but her mum worked as a cleaner and her step-dad worked in a paint factory. Both were binge alcoholics, leaving the children in the care of a babysitter whilst they socialised. That, of course, is an entirely normal and middle-class proceeding, and shouldn’t attract any censure. The problem was with the abusive parenting, which caused Emma to leave home at 17.

Emma: poorly supported in school

A stock posed image of a pupil in a classroom, writing at a desk.

Emma struggled at school, both because of bullying and because her dyslexia meant she couldn’t keep up with lessons. She enjoyed maths, but other lessons were challenging. It wasn’t until secondary school that anyone paid enough attention or care to get her assessed and diagnosed, and she was then given an amanuensis to help her in her work. In this way, she was able to pass GCSEs in maths, science and English.

After school, Emma signed up to train as a mechanic. Unfortunately, she had undiagnosed epilepsy, and was experiencing absence seizures. To the garage, the petit mals, coupled with her poor social skills and limited literacy, made her look like a slacker and scrounger. They fired her within a year.

Facing homelessness

Emma was still being abused at home by her mum. When she lost her mechanics position, she left her mother’s house. She stayed for a week with her sister, but her sister was also abusive. Emma was able instead to get a place at a hostel, a few miles away from where she had been brought up.

For middle-class people used to the luxury of cars, this may sound like living in one’s home area. For people with limited means to travel, being separated from your community like that is a big deal.

Emma joined what was a youth training programme, giving her support in CV-writing; confidence building; budgeting; household management; and travel. This was helpful for her, with her learning difficulties and relatively limited education. But it wasn’t on-the-job training. Whilst she was on the programme, she also worked part-time as a cleaner, to top-up the financial support she received as part of the programme.

Facing rejection and unhappiness

Stock image of church windows

Emma is a bright woman. But her learning difficulties hid this from the casual observer, and blocked her from getting any meaningful job training. The constant rejections were demoralising and dispiriting. The worst was when she was rejected for vicar training, on the grounds that she would not be able to handle the work. She felt that God had given up on her as well as the rest of the world.

She wasn’t receiving anything to help her maximise her career, fulfilment or earnings potential.

Nor was she receiving anything to help her process the abuse she had grown up with. 

Consequently, she was both bored and desperately unhappy. She entered a time of self-destruction, wanting to die and managing the despair with dating, drink, and drugs.

Illness, pregnancy and false accusations

Emma was taking contraception, but she didn’t know that epilepsy medication interferes with the efficacy of contraceptives. She became pregnant. The pregnancy drew her to the attention of social services. She was found a place in a mother-and-baby home, where she was able to live for two years. When her baby reached six months, she was eligible for a place on social services nursery.

This allowed Emma to engage in training and volunteering. But baby caught impetigo from nursery – and Emma was falsely accused of neglect and of burning her child, because impetigo can look like burns.

Emma stopped her drinking and drugs when she became pregnant, and has stayed away ever since. But her learning difficulties and epilepsy made her an unfavourable mother in social services’ eyes.

This was a time when people with learning disabilities were still being sterilised, and Emma’s own sister had undergone a court-ordered sterilisation. Emma had also struggled with physical illness during her pregnancy.

When contraception failed again and Emma became pregnant for a second time, with her baby only three months’ old, social services told her she could have either the current baby or the pregnancy, but not both. If Emma continued with the pregnancy, they would take her three-month-old away, and they would likely also take the new baby when it was born.

Emma asked if she could carry the new baby to term and then have it adopted, but was told no. If she went with that plan – or any plan that involved continuing the pregnancy – her three-month-old would be removed.

This command may in part have reflected Emma’s physical health difficulties with her first and her now second pregnancy. But it is telling that she was never offered support to keep her pregnancy, and her three-month-old, even to give the new baby up for adoption. Emma was compelled to have an abortion.

Navigating the benefits labyrinth

Emma didn’t know what benefits she was entitled to, so only claimed disability benefits for her epilepsy, income support as a young mother, and child benefit. She didn’t know she should also have been getting child tax credit. When the DWP finally realised that Emma’s claim for child benefit was also in effect a claim for child tax credit, they paid her over £4000 for a year’s backpay. It is not at all clear that the DWP would be so fair today.

At the same time, Emma was no scrounger. She was no mythical ‘teenage mum’, having a baby in order to avoid work. Raising a young child is hard work and also often boring, monotonous and isolating. Emma had had no intention of being a mother at 19; she wanted to work and train and improve herself. She wanted a career and a life and money to live off. Still, having a child helped to save Emma’s life.

A close-up of a camera lens

Finding home, purpose and training

Boring as it often was, it helped her to live with her memories of her own abusive childhood and the long-term impacts on her own wellbeing and relationships.

After two years, Emma was offered a social house. Whilst her child was still young, she went on a number of training classes. Mostly these were still low- or non-competitive skills, like cooking or photography, which might stave off her boredom but didn’t help with getting a job.

Eventually, though, she was offered a place to train as a peer educator in sexual health and wellbeing. For several years, this was her work. And then the Conservatives came back into power, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Over a period of years, with much striving, and with some help from church (the mother-and-baby unit) and state (social housing, nursery place from six months, access to training, and a meagre but better-than-nothing income), Emma had started to build herself a life.

She had a stable job that she enjoyed and was good at, and therefore had a future. And then the Government – in the name of Big Society and helping people to get out of poverty and into work – pulled it all away from her. They cut funding to the programme in which Emma worked, and her job was removed. 

Stock image of a life-ring

Lifelines ripped away

Emma’s job had previously been used as a reason to take her disability benefits away from her.

Now she had neither benefits nor a job. Yet she’d still had epilepsy, dyslexia, ADHD and complex PTSD the whole time.

She had to start again. Back on benefits; back to struggling; back to insufficient money through no fault of her own. Eventually, she became one of many who had to turn to foodbanks to survive.

The foodbank was run by a local church. Going to the foodbank encouraged Emma to start going to church again, after turning away from faith as a young adult. The church has supported her since that time, and it is because of that that she is now training to be a vicar.

Like with everyone, what helps Emma’s life is not punishment but support. Support for housing, income, childcare and training is what got her her job. The housing, income and childcare support were all vital to give Emma the space to engage in training that led to her job. Later, it was the support of foodbanks that helped Emma find community that eventually led to her training to be a vicar.

What you didn't see at first: the care, the compassion, the sharp mind and more

Conversely, the withdrawal of support is harmful. The cuts made by the Conservative Governments after 2010 caused Emma to lose her job. Her health problems meant it was extremely difficult for her to obtain new work, and it has taken years from when she first left the peer educator role before starting vicar training. Those years could have been more fruitful if cuts had not been made.

From the outside, Emma may look like the epitome of the sickness claimant who is ‘only’ there because of obesity. But that’s because all you can see from the outside is the obesity. You can’t see the spinal damage, the complex PTSD, the dyslexia or the ADHD. Equally, you can’t see the sharp mind or the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that Emma has. You can’t see her compassion, her care, and her sense of fun. You can’t see the real person and her inherent value.

What you can know, however, is that you should never judge by the outside.

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Mt Tabor Methodist Church in Sheffield, with a "Neighbourhood Voices" logo superimposed.

Welcome to the first of our new Neighbourhood Voices stories, featuring people in north Sheffield.

Mt Tabor Methodist Church in Sheffield, with a "Neighbourhood Voices" logo superimposed.

We’re at Parson Cross in Sheffield, on a Tuesday morning.

Mt Tabor Methodist Church opens its doors to the community most days of the week, providing food, friendship and warmth.

Tuesday in particular is a food-focused day. There’s a social cafe, a light lunch, and an evening meal, and people who need some bits and bobs to take away can do so.

Regulars and volunteers know the community inside out, and know what has changed – and what needs to change. 

A notice board with various pieces of art and food-related notices

Meet Bryan...

“I have been coming here for 12 years. I like coming here because I know people, and everyone is all right with you here, and you can have a chat and a drink and a bite to eat.

“I do the community allotment as well on Wednesdays. We grow lots of veg, and share it out and what’s left we bring here. I enjoy the allotment group, because you can see from when you’ve planted the seeds right til it grows, and then harvesting.

“It’s a great feeling. You feel achievement. It’s a real wonder. I just love growing stuff. I had my own allotment, but it was too much on my own, so I joined the community allotment. I keep myself to myself, apart from with the people here, and I go to a homeless project once a week, because I have been homeless, and I have a chat and a drink and a game of pool there. 

Can you tell us about Parson Cross? What’s good, what’s not so good? What does it need?

“Parson Cross needs a youth club for young people to go to. When I was younger, we had youth clubs, and when you left school if you didn’t have a job there were youth training schemes (YTS), and they were fantastic. They ought to bring things like that back, we need more support for young people.

“I want people in the election to give young people a bit of a helping hand, help them get on.”

How have things changed in the past year or so?

 

“When I do a bit of shopping, everything has gone up, hasn’t it? Just… everything. I got my cost of living payment today, and I am trying to save it for as long as I can. 

“I wouldn’t say I live “on the breadline” but I’m on benefits, and I have to make it stretch as far as I can. It’s harder and harder.

 

“We need more work here. More jobs for people. There are not enough jobs, not enough secure jobs or YTSs or apprenticeships for people. It’s a vicious cycle, with a lack of opportunities, so people struggle more.”

Bryan is not alone in coming in for community as well as for the food. One of the volunteers says: “A lot of people come here looking for company. People enjoy coming here. With the meal in the evening, there are some people who need the meal and some who are financially able to support themselves but who really cherish having a meal with other people.”

Many projects cite the importance of such community. Food is sometimes what first brings people in, but it’s the sense of community that encourages people to stay. In 2023, LIFE in York interviewed dozens of people at the city’s many food projects, and found connection was one of the most valued features. Similarly, 74% of Your Local Pantry members say they feel more connected to their community, and 66% have made new friends.

I want people to show who they really are, and to make things better

Another regular at Parson Cross tells us:

“The food here is very good, but it’s also about community. I’ve been coming here since last March; I live about 20 minutes away. One of the others here introduced me to it. I come for the sandwiches and sometimes the bits of food to take away.

“Before I came here, I was on my own all the time and it’s not nice being on your own all the time. I was not eating at all because I have had problems with drinking, but this has helped me cut down.

“This is one of the best things in this community. There are a few other places like this as well, that help with loneliness and isolation.

“Parson Cross has changed a lot in my time – half for the better, half not. There is a lot of crime to sort out.

“In the election, I just want people to show who they really are and to make things better.”

Meet Jean...

“I come here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come to talk to people and it puts me on the right track, listening to this lot! It stops me thinking things that I don’t want to. 

“I have been coming for a few years, maybe five years. I was born and bred in Nottingham and my late husband Mel was from Huddersfield, but we lived in Sheffield so it was only an hour from each family. I’ve lived in Sheffield 27 years now. 

“Sometimes I’m a bit down and feel the whole world has gone to pieces, but I come in for company and to talk to people, and I help out sometimes. I sometimes come in for the art or craft as well. And a few of them play music which is good. A couple of us go to the Wise Old Owls meetings at Hillsborough once a month as well, but we pay for that.

“The first time I came here I only stayed ten minutes, but I started coming back. 

“Sheffield has its good points. It’s got a lot of places you can go for food and shopping, and it’s got the speedway, and the market is good. But it has problems too. It’s been getting harder with prices. Budgeting is harder and harder. Everything is up, and I am diabetic and have to have certain things. It’s hard.

“This place is different to others. It’s a food hub. Some places, you have to put your name down or have a referral to get food, but not here.”

The wider neighbourhood

The activities at Mt Tabor are coordinated by Parson Cross Initiative, a charity supported by the church. Nick Waterfield is pioneer minister. Here’s what he says:

Jonathan Buckley lives in the neighbourhood and is one of the charity’s trustees. 

A headshot of Jonathan Buckley

He says: “There have been issues of poverty here for 80 to 90 years. The local primary school has 60% of children on pupil premium, and the other 40% are not wealthy either. There have been new estates built, but two thirds of people are on the breadline. A lot of people here feel that to succeed means to move away, and that takes the money elsewhere.

“Increasing Universal Credit and other benefit levels would help. A lot of voluntary service stuff is hard to maintain because there are fewer volunteers than maybe 30 or 40 years ago. There was a Boys Brigade here, but it shut due to a lack of volunteers. There has been Scouts, but not much else for kids. 

“For us, there is a faith motivation to act, and also wanting better for the kids. There are good news stories. People do not hear those as often, but it’s about hearing and sharing good news stories.

“There are kids here achieving great grades and doing well, but it’s so much easier for people to share negative stories. We should share the good news stories with each other.

“What I cherish here is the community, like people coming here this morning, or coming to the art group. In some ways, people’s lives do not change much, but by coming here week on week, we see the community getting stronger. 

“For instance we’re doing two allotment sessions a week instead of one now, and more people are coming. And a local group of staff have said they want to do a coffee morning for us. And art students at a local school did their exhibition here. We see a lot of good community stuff.” 

What issues do you want to hear being discussed in the election campaign?

“We need realistic support for people who need it. There should be a basic minimum and they shouldn’t keep cutting. They should maybe expand the trial of Universal Basic Income. They should do less scaremongering and focus on positives. It would give people more dignity and more spending money. 

“Here, people spend money locally, so it would improve the local economy and support jobs. It would improve people’s livelihoods and the neighbourhood.

“The low benefit levels are a big issue for people around here. Reaching a realistic level of income is important for people. We need to see an uplift in benefit levels, and support the real Living Wage.

“I think young people need more investment in youth services focusing on places like this. In wealthier areas, people can afford to go to classes or clubs, but we need more investment in universal services for people who need it.

“So much has been cut for young people. Life needs to be more than English, maths and science. There are not enough funding for wider stuff. 

“There is a need to focus more on enabling people who are creative or sporting to pursue those, rather than pushing everything into English, maths and science. There are so many kids who struggle in a formal school setting, but in a different class or a smaller setting or a one-to-one session, they fly. So we need more investment for young people. 

“There is a financial cost but if we invest in schools and young people now, it reduces having to address issues and pay for other services down the line. Equip people now.”

Pushed into hardship by rising prices and inadequate support

Over lunch, four women are waiting to pick up some food. Here’s a snapshot of their conversation:

“This is my third week here. Everything is about just, managing, with everything going up, and the cost of living. I am on my own now, and because I’m on a meter I have noticed my bills have jumped again since January. It’s gone up a lot. That has taken away food money, just for trying to keep warm.

“And that’s not having it warm all the time – I am sitting just in my kitchen, the one warm room.”

“Nobody should have to live in the cold like that.”

“I spoke to my gas company about keeping warm, because I’m asthmatic, and if it’s cold I start coughing. They said there were food banks I should go to for support! And food banks are running out of stuff.

“I’m paying £210 a month for gas and electric from the same company. 

“Food banks are good and it’s good to meet people, but they have to rely on donations.” 

“I feel so sorry for people with children. When you have not got money for food, what do you do? - You cannot give a child fish fingers every day. The cost of living is up and prices are not coming down."

“I was given my notice of my job ending last October. I went through a consultation, and I was made redundant. So I went to ask how to go about claiming benefits.

“I’d never claimed benefits before and went in to ask. They said my redundancy pay was income, so I wouldn’t be eligible. When that ran out, I went back again and they said I had been given mis-information the first time, so I could put in a backdated claim. But then I was rejected because they said I should have formally applied in the October!

“Now, I owe thousands and thousands of pounds to people. We are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then robbing Paul again to pay Peter. 

“Places like this go some way to helping, but we shouldn’t have to be reliant on charity for food.

“The cost of food is going up, benefits are effectively goin down, people are losing their jobs, and everyone is falling and having to rely on things like this, because they cannot afford to live.

“What we need is for people to be able to afford food. It’s good that people support charity, but we shouldn’t be in this crisis and having to rely on it. We should be able to live in the economy.

“Even at the supermarkets, you are rationed – they say you can only buy so many of their own brand items, and if you have a big household, it’s impossible sometimes.”

Could you host a Neighbourhood Voices conversation in 2024? Find the toolkit here:

A church with people at the margins

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Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Stoke voices: We want opportunity and hope

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

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Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

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Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: annual report 2023-24

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

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This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

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Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

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Three photos of Epsom and Epsom Pantry, with the Neighbourhood Voices logo

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Revd Jeremy Tear has kindly shared with us this sermon, which he preached at St Mary's Great Sankey on Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2024.

The Sunday next before Lent, 11 February 2024

Reading: Mark 9:2-9

The Transfiguration which we read about in today’s Gospel presents us with an amazing incident in the life of Jesus. What does it mean for Jesus to have been transfigured though? It seems to me that to transfigure means to transform – Jesus’ appearance was transformed as the glory of God rested upon him. It was as if he had the Daz treatment, for those of you who remember the advert, for in the words of our gospel, ‘his clothes became dazzling white.’ And that got me thinking – in what ways has God transformed our lives, I wonder? To start the ball rolling, I would like to share with you some of my experiences of transformation that occurred one Lent, the season we are soon to begin once again.

Lenten solidarity

Over 20 years ago now, my wife Emma and I chose to take up a Lenten challenge issued by the charity, Church Action on Poverty. The challenge was to try to live on the minimum wage (now called the national living wage) for Lent. To live on it as an act of solidarity with the three million people who live on this amount (or less) in our country each year. Would we be able to do it, we wondered, or had we bitten off more than we could chew? To try and make the challenge possible for those who had bills already paid by standing order for their mortgage and utilities, Church Action on Poverty devised a particular formula to discount those costs. The remaining money had to cover our food, our transport, our own spending allowance, any unexpected bills that cropped up, etc.etc. Let me tell you it was hard going. … At the beginning of Lent we were actually on a pre-booked holiday at the house of some friends in the Lake District. On the first day Emma wrote this: “It’s frustrating being on holiday unable to spend money and do things we would normally do. I feel slightly cheated.” The following week we were back at home again and my back was playing me up once more as it often does requiring treatment and I wrote this: “I think I am going to need to go to the osteopath but the cost is putting me off but Emma says go.” Perhaps one of the most difficult moments of that six-week period occurred just after Emma had booked a Virgin Value Saver to go down to London. It was in order to see a friend, as she had previously arranged and we decided it would be good for her to have a little treat out. The next day she received an e-mail from that friend saying she would have to re-arrange the date. The money she had spent went down the drain instantly, money we dearly needed to spend on other things, such as a new pair of shoes since mine had a hole in and were letting in water.

Blessed are you who are poor?

Such a challenge, to live on the Minimum Wage, transformed the way I experienced Lent that year. It gave me something of an insight into what it must be like to live on a low income on a permanent basis, as many do today. We stuck it out for those six weeks, just, but it was beginning to drain us mentally and physically. Spiritually, however, it gave me a real insight into that verse from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God.” One of the ways that has been translated is “Blessed are you who know your need of God; God’s kingdom belongs to you.’ When you are struggling to live on or below the poverty line, it certainly can increase your spiritual awareness. For if the money for things is not there, God may be the only person you have left to rely on to provide for your needs. That is certainly true for many Christians in the underdeveloped countries of our world, as well as for those who live by faith as individuals and in Christian communities in our country. But, in addition to increasing my awareness of my need for God, living on the Minimum Wage brought me an increased awareness of the needs of others. Those who struggle day by day to make ends meet, who live on a low income or on benefits. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Could it be that God has something to teach us through those who are materially poor about our openness (or lack of it) towards God?

Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Today, in the Christian calendar, it is Church Action on Poverty Sunday. Church Action on Poverty is a national ecumenical Christian social justice charity committed to tackling poverty in the UK. They work in partnership with churches and with people in poverty themselves, to tackle the root causes of poverty. Let me share with you a short video they have produced. Please use this prayer card you have received on entering church today to pray for their work. You may also wish to give something to support them as well.

Life in all its fullness

To conclude, I want to return to our Gospel reading where we began this morning. Jesus was transfigured, or transformed for a particular purpose, namely to reveal God’s glory to those disciples in order that they might understand more of God’s desires for them. “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to him.”. Now we may often fail to understand God’s purposes through Jesus (just as the disciples did) but that did not invalidate the transfiguration. So this week, this month, this year, will we be those people whose lives are continually transformed by God, not just in order that we may reach towards our potential of becoming the people God wants us to be, but also in order that others too may discover God’s good intentions for their lives? And part of that, I believe, is lifting people out of poverty so that they may experience life in all its fullness, as Jesus describes it in John’s Gospel.

Amen

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Stoke voices: We want opportunity and hope

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

The UK doesn’t want demonising rhetoric – it wants to end poverty

Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

Artists perform for change in Manchester

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Three photos of Epsom and Epsom Pantry, with the Neighbourhood Voices logo

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Welcome to our new guest series, of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Meet Alan...

Alan is the quintessential benefit scrounger. When a work coach or jobcentre staff member tells you they can identify the scroungers and malingerers, it’s Alan they’re talking about. They’re confident in their assessment that this guy is never going to want to contribute to society. He’s just thinking about how to score and how to get money to score.

As soon as Alan walks into a jobcentre, all the staff know what he is, even if they’ve never seen him before. They see it in the way he walks, the way he stands, in his choice of clothes and haircut. They know he’s on drugs and is high right that moment.

A stock image of a JobCentre Plus sign

When the work coach interview starts, the confirmation continues. Alan has been sanctioned before. In fact, he’s on a three-month sanction right now. He doesn’t care, though, because the rental component of his benefits goes straight to his hostel landlord, so he needn’t worry about eviction. 

The work coach isn’t interested in how Alan will survive. How is he buying his food, paying his bills, or using the bus?

The options are limited. Perhaps Alan has savings, though that is unlikely; they’d have been spent on drugs by now. Perhaps friends or family or charity are bailing him out, though the work coach hopes not: they’d be undermining the sanction. 

Maybe Alan is borrowing from loan sharks, which will present acute problems later, but might at least reinforce the punitive intention of the sanction. A final option is that Alan is working on the side, taking cash in hand without declaring it to the DWP. The work coach would not be surprised, although she also believes that Alan has no work ethic.

Sanctions: designed to punish

Aerial view of Houses of Parliament

Whatever way Alan is surviving, the DWP’s approach suggests they don’t really want him to do it. The point of the sanction is to punish Alan into socially-conformable behaviour by leaving him no other option. The message from the top is that the way to get Alan off drugs and into work is to punish his behaviour until he sees sense. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be working that way doesn’t matter.

So when the work coach queries why Alan didn’t apply for a particular job, she’s not really interested. It will be a made-up reason, maybe borrowed from someone else who said it had worked. She sees no valid reason to turn down a job one is physically capable of doing. She knows, and Alan knows, that a further sanction will now be applied but Alan doesn’t seem to care, which just confirms the work coach in her judgment of him.

Now meet Ben

Then there’s Ben. He had successfully held a range of jobs, including running a second-hand store on a busy street. He is also good with his hands and worked as a car mechanic until a friend introduced him to a swimming pool company where he got a job as a filtration engineer.

It wasn’t easy and involved a lot of travel, but he loved that job, working all across the country in schools and for councils and for private buyers. He worked on the lido at Oxford and at the eight pools built for the 2012 Olympics. 

After that, the trouble started. Ben was made redundant. It’s not clear why it was Ben, given that he’d been with the company for five years. The ‘last in, first out’ principle should have protected him relative to the newbies taken on for the Olympic Games. But it was a Scottish company, and Ben wonders if they favoured Scottish people.

When Ben lost his job, his landlord served an immediate eviction notice, without even giving Ben a chance to look for work or claim for social security. 

There weren’t even any rent arrears, but Ben didn’t want to cause trouble for his house-mates, so he left by the date on the eviction notice. 

Ben had nowhere to go. After 40 years of work, he had no knowledge of the benefits system or what to do when homeless.

Once, walking back from visiting friends, he was gripped by a suicidal impulse. Swinging his leg over the fence to jump from the footbridge to the motorway, he survived only because the friend with him fought him back. Ben didn’t speak to that friend for two years. It was so hard to still be alive, that being grateful was impossible.

Forced into awful settings

After two months of sofa-surfing, Ben got a place in a hostel – not through the council or the Jobcentre, but through word-of-mouth from another resident. It was a nasty hostel – which is standard for the sector – and many, even most, of the residents at any one time were drug users.

Ben had used cannabis recreationally in the past, at weekends with friends. It hadn’t become a problem for him, any more than alcohol becomes a problem for most drinkers. But in the hostel, drug use – and heavier drugs than cannabis – was the only social activity available and the only way to make friends.

Ben didn’t have many friends and was deeply depressed. Making friends and surviving the sudden penury and misery was important. Drugs were the only answer being offered. In his situation, it was almost a rational choice. Certainly, it was an emotional one. And emotions are powerful beasts, heavily affected by our circumstances.

So Ben ended up with an addiction to crack cocaine and spice. This was unfortunate, because now that he had a registered address he was able to claim benefits and start to have an income and means to live again. It should – if the benefits had been reasonable and Ben’s living accommodation decent – have been the opportunity to get back on track. Instead, Ben was still depressed, in circumstances barely if at all above destitution – and with a new addiction.

Pushed into crisis

Drugs change people’s emotions and attitudes; that’s why people take them. If they didn’t create a high, a release from worry, or a sense of being above the world and its cares, then they wouldn’t be sought after or addictive.

So when Ben took cocaine or spice to relieve depression or keep in with his hostel mates, it also created a devil-may-care attitude, unconducive to following pointless, or downright unhelpful or dangerous jobcentre commands. Neither the high of the drugs nor the depression were likely to help Ben return to stable, full-time work. They certainly hindered any attempts to look for work.

Ben was sanctioned.

Stock image of a hospital 'emergency' sign

Some time later, Ben found himself in hospital. Broken by the use of drugs and attempts to find work, his body had collapsed under him. He’d been in a coma for seven days.

The shock helped Ben want to turn his life around. Crucially, he was also finally offered a council flat, where he still is now. This gave him the break he needed. It is near impossible to withstand the pull to drugs when you are living in a squalid hostel and the only mates around you are taking drugs. 

So Ben got lucky. He was also able to find a rehab clinic to attend every evening. He was still taking spice, and the staff knew it, but he was cutting down and had cut out the cocaine. He was taking steps to get his life back together.

But the Jobcentre still didn’t help. They saw him as a drug-addict; a scrounger; no different from Alan. It was horrendous. He was trying to get off drugs by attending rehab each evening, by no longer taking cocaine and reducing his use of spice, and capitalising on the opportunity he was given by getting a council flat.

But the Jobcentre wasn’t helping. Instead, Ben says: 

“It was like they were stood on me shoulders keeping me under water, like they’re trying to drown me.”​

————  Ben  ————

Ben: They're trying to force me into hard positions

His illness – his depression, his despair, his drug addiction that he was trying to get rid of – meant nothing to the Jobcentre other than as proof that he was a scrounger to be pushed and punished, constantly.

On one occasion he was told to apply for a job that involved working a till. Ben was trying to beat his drug addiction, but he hadn’t beaten it yet and he knew he wasn’t perfect or beyond temptation. To stand at a till, eight hours a day, five days a week, desperate for money to buy drugs, was a temptation that he was not confident he could consistently withstand.

He said this to the Jobcentre work coach. His recognition of his own weaknesses and his desire to overcome them was seen as irresponsibility. He was sanctioned.

Ben’s own thoughts and feelings didn’t matter. He says: “Well, at this moment in time, I’m taking drugs every day. I’m going to dip that till. I know I’m gonna dip that till because that’s where my head is.

“And I didn’t want to do that because it’s summat I’ve never done. But knowing where I am, I don’t want to be put in a situation where it’s gonna cause more anxiety for me because I’m stressed out looking at all this money daily. They’re trying to force me into these positions and sanction me. It was really, really hard.”

Ben’s life in his council flat was really lonely, so to fill his days, he would sit in a park. In a park, he would not take spice openly; he would wait until people weren’t around, and this desire to conceal his habit naturally reduced his consumption. Sitting in a park was also Ben’s most social interaction. Sometimes just seeing people walk by was a comforting reminder that there were other people in the world.

Ben: finding limited help

Stock image: letter tiles spelling 'support'

Ben was able to get help from a local charity, with his benefit claims and to his debt (no-one had told him either that he needed to pay council tax while staying in the hostel, nor how to do so, nor that he could claim council tax support). He started volunteering with the charity, and progressed into paid work at another charity.

When the manager at that charity left, he acted as interim manager. But when he applied for the permanent position, he was told he wasn’t dynamic enough. (This is a man who went on ‘Naked Attraction’!) He’s up for a laugh and joke, and is a fun and gregarious person who is a pleasure to be around. His 40-year work history has given him a solid range of skills, including in management and running shops. He applied three more times for similar positions with that chain, whilst continuing to work as interim manager. But each time he was rejected.

The fourth rejection hit him really hard. He was doing the job, yet kept being refused the permanent position. It was deeply disheartening, and undermined his self-confidence in his ability to put his past behind him. He had to take sick leave for a few months.

He hoped to find a different job, but didn’t get one, so had to return to the store that didn’t want him. When he did get a job with a different company, he was let go after the probationary period for not being good enough with computers.

Ben is now in debt again, because of losing his job. The jobcentre are currently being kind, because he isn’t on drugs (they don’t know about his history) and they can see that he is looking for work. He could seek early retirement, but he wants to work.

He wants the structure, the independence, the extra money. He doesn’t want to depend on state hand-outs or have to seek food parcels to survive, but he is in a perilous situation, physically and financially. If winter comes before he is offered a job, it is hard to see how he will get by.

Ben & Alan: similar paths, similar solutions

Ben and Alan are similar people. But where Alan might be termed a member of the ‘underclass’ for lacking a work ethic and choosing to stay on drugs, Ben’s situation was a response to the circumstances imposed by outside forces – a change in the economy; his boss’s decision to make him redundant; his landlord’s decision to kick him out; the Government’s failure to catch people when society drops them or to ensure a liveable income during jobsearch.

Alan is the kind of person who makes the middle-class scared of the council estate and deprived inner-city wards.

They worry about his behaviour and attitude, and whether they’re at risk of attack and to what extent he is gaming the system. Ben, on the other hand, is not at bottom distinguishable from the working class. He shares their work ethic and commitment to providing for oneself, and takes responsibility – even at the cost of benefit sanctions – for keeping himself away from drugs. Alan should be punished; Ben should be helped.

The problem is that Ben and Alan are the same people. One person is who you see from the outside: the ‘scrounger’. The other is the person on the inside, trying to survive in horrendously challenging circumstances. One is the superficial person who the government insists needs to be punished. The other is the real person, helped by support but held down by sanction.

The lives and truths we don't see

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

The complexities of our lives cannot be broken down into stereotypes. Those of us who have never been in the sort of situation that Alan/Ben experienced will always struggle, to the point of impossibility, to understand the emotions and the survival decisions required. Those of us who have come out of such situations risk false confidence in our own contribution to the escape, and a concomitant false scorn for those still in it.

But what I find most interesting is that ultimately, whatever you think of Alan/Ben, the question about how to respond to is still answered in the same way.

Punishment did not push Alan/Ben into ‘right’ behaviour; it pushed him further down into desperation. What he needed, however much his situation was his own fault or the fault of others and structural factors, was support.

He needed an exit from the environment he was living in; a stable life with stable and sufficient finances; and a community around him to give him joy, purpose and a reason to keep living. It was this support that enabled Alan/Ben to start and maintain efforts to stop taking drugs,. It is the loss of this support, in the loss of his job and the risk of homelessness if he cannot pay his rent, that could push him back into drug-seeking.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help. Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help.

Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Stoke voices: We want opportunity and hope

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

The UK doesn’t want demonising rhetoric – it wants to end poverty

Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

Artists perform for change in Manchester

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: annual report 2023-24

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

Charity and church leaders call for urgent action on rising poverty in the UK and around the world

New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Three photos of Epsom and Epsom Pantry, with the Neighbourhood Voices logo

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

A silhouette shot of a church, with the setting sun visible through its steeple

How can churches respond to the UK's cost of living scandal?

That’s what many church-goers are still asking. Household bills have soared, incomes have been squeezed, and the inadequacy of the UK’s social security system has been exposed and rightly challenged.  

Many people have been going perilously cold or hungry, and are becoming isolated and destitute. 

In a compassionate, rich country, this should be unthinkable. So, what should churches we do? 

A silhouette shot of a church, with the setting sun visible through its steeple

We have updated this blog for 2023/24, with six ways that your church can respond positively and effectively. These suggestions will go a little way to easing the crisis for people in your community  in the short-term, and/or shortening the crisis for everyone in the medium to long term.

1: Join the national campaign

Almost in ten Brits say more should be done to tackle poverty in the UK – a remarkable level of consensus.

Yet while the public will for action is vast, national political leadership is sorely missing – Politicians keep ignoring the issue of poverty. 

The Let’s End Poverty campaign is bringing together a diverse movement of people and communities who have lived in poverty or witnessed its effects and who all want change. It’s a powerful campaign that can make a big difference in 2024.

Are you a church leader or a church-goer? Sign up to the campaign today, find out more, and discuss how your church could get involved.

2: Listen. Truly listen.

A cartoon drawing of two people chatting at a table

Are you truly hearing from people in poverty in your community? Can you create ways to ensure that open conversations take place. Mistakes are often made (and resources misdirected) when people or organisations assume what is needed, rather than listening to people with lived experience of complex issues. 

Forming real relationships and having meaningful conversations are essential. 

What is your church doing beyond the Sunday services to meet and hear from local people? Perhaps collaborate with other churches, to increase your reach. 

Perhaps you could host a Neighbourhood Voices event, to get started?

3: Repair dignity, hope and choice

InterACT Pantry in Leeds: a green shipping container, with three people outside

The Your Local Pantry network now spans all four UK nations, from Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale, Portadown to Portsmouth. About half of the 100 Pantries are church-based. Bringing people together around food strengthens communities, increases dignity, and eases the impact of high living costs. Pantry members report incredible benefits. It’s a positive outcome for all concerned. 

Could your church set up a Pantry, or team up with an existing one in your area?

4: Sign to guarantee the essentials

A stock image of a yellow pencil

Despite living in one of the world’s richest countries, around 90% of low-income households receiving Universal Credit are having to go without essentials. People are being swept into poverty.

The basic level of Universal Credit should always cover the bare essentials. Trussell Trust is running this petition to push for change. Why not share it with your church leaders and congregation?

5: Know who else can help

A stock image of a white arrow sign

People in acute financial crisis will often need specialist support and advice. No church team can ever know everything – so ensure instead that you know where people can go in your community for expertise. Speak to local organisations like citizens’ advice, your local CVS, your local authority and other charities. Gather contact details and information leaflets, so you can be a useful pointer to people who turn to you. 

6: Connect with grassroots experts

A group of 12 people, in two rows, outside a log cabin

The UK has some fantastic networks of groups led by people with first-hand experience of poverty – people who best understand the causes of poverty, and whose wisdom is crucial to truly tackling it. There may well be active organisations in your region – check out the links below.

7: Build on what has worked - and be there!

Communities rallied in an incredibly positive and proactive way when the pandemic began. Many groups of neighbours set up WhatsApp groups, and perhaps your church found new ways to keep in touch with local people. 

Don’t let that go.

Churches, at their best, are thriving hubs at the heart of their communities – open and inclusive to all believers and everyone else. Churches at their best connect with and support the local area through local collaborations, shared spaces and resources, and genuine community.

Dig deep and reflect on what it means to be a church on the margins.

And now? Over to you...

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Stoke voices: We want opportunity and hope

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

The UK doesn’t want demonising rhetoric – it wants to end poverty

Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

Artists perform for change in Manchester

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: annual report 2023-24

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

The Your Local Pantry network is growing rapidly.

There are now more than 100 Pantries, across all four nations of the UK from Portadown to Portsmouth, Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale. 

Food is integral to all Pantries, but we have learnt over the years that Pantries are about so much more than that. They bring huge positive changes to people and neighbourhoods. 

Here is a quick round up of seven ways Your Local Pantry shops make a meaningful difference. 

A shopper holding a basket beside a volunteer, in front of full shelves at Hope Pantry in Merthyr Tydfil.

1. Your Local Pantry strengthens communities

One member in Birmingham told us: “It’s community spirit all the way, it brings the community together and it makes people feel part of something.”

And a volunteer said: “I have made new friends, learned new skills and my confidence has increased. I have gained valuable work experience. I really enjoy being a volunteer.”

74% of Pantry members say they now feel more connected to their community.
Two Pantry members with their shopping at Peabody Pantry in Chingford

2. Your Local Pantry membership leads to friendship

Pantry membership leads to improved physical and mental wellbeing. Access to new friends, community, good food and new opportunities all contribute to this.

Barbara, a Pantry member in Chingford, told us: “I have made a lot of friends here. I am now a member of the wellbeing cafe and social club.”

Another member said: “I was very lonely and going to the Pantry helped me make friends who support my mental health as we talk outside the Pantry.”

Ellie, a volunteer, said: “Friendships are one of the biggest benefits that people get from the Pantry.”

66% of Pantry members say they have made new friends.
A volunteer and a customer at the Peckham Your Local Pantry

3. Your Local Pantry improves health and wellbeing

Many Pantry members report feeling better after joining a Pantry – physically and/or mentally. 

Pantries provide a wide range of foods, including fresh produce, making it easier for people to maintain the diet they want to, and the community and dignity of Pantries are cherished by members.

Don, a Pantry member in Leith, told us: “The free vegetables and fruit is great. I’m on a limited income so I was buying processed food as it’s cheaper, but it’s not as good for you.”

68% say Pantry membership has improved their physical health, and 83% say it is good for their mental health.

4. Your Local Pantry improves household finances

On average, Pantry members save £21 on groceries each time they visit. That means members who attend weekly can save more than £1,000 a year on shopping bills. 

One member told us: Being a carer limits my finances, this allows me to stretch further with
two grown-up children at home.”

Another said: “I now have peace about my finances, and especially about providing meals for my family. If I start to feel concerned again I just think – Wednesday is coming – don’t panic! I no longer feel shame about my financial situation, I feel proud of how it has changed – I have my dignity back.”

97% of members say Pantry membership has improved their household's financial situation.

5. Your Local Pantry shops prevent food waste

The sheer vastness of national and global food supply chains mean there’s always a risk of some food going to waste.

Pantries are an efficient and ethical redistribution route for surpluses, via national charity Fareshare or through direct relationships between individual Pantries and businesses local to them.

One member told us: “I hate food waste. This along with affordability were my two main reasons for joining. What I got in return, that was unexpected, was community and friendships.”

98% of Pantry members say tackling food waste is important to them.
InterACT Pantry in Leeds: a green shipping container, with three people outside

6. Your Local Pantries nurture dignity and agency

Charities and community projects don’t always manage to maintain people’s dignity when it comes to food access. Pantries are different, as members testify.

Natalie in Liverpool told us: “Some people feel ashamed going to food banks, you feel like you are getting labelled. In the Pantry you are actually paying for stuff. It makes me feel, I have paid for me shop.”

Another member in Birmingham said: “I feel happy and don’t feel ashamed going in here, or feel like I’m being judged. Everyone is treated the same.”

A member in Leith said: “At the Pantry, you have choice, which is important. You can choose what you want.”

7. Pantries are a route to so much more

Food is often what brings people to Pantries. But once there, members find so much more.

Every single Pantry in the network offers some form of additional support or connection. 

Sometimes that is helpful introductions to other services.

Sometimes it means bringing other services and opportunities into the Pantry. 

Sometimes it means bringing members together to start making change happen themselves – such as in Peckham, Epsom and Portsmouth, where there are member steering groups, and where members are looking to take part in Speaking Truth To Power projects, opening the doors to many new opportunities.

 

100% of Pantries connect to wider services or opportunities

Read more about the full impact of Pantries in our So Much More report...

In sum? Pantries are bringing huge benefits to individuals, families, neighbourhoods and society as a whole.

If you’d like to know more, or would like to discuss opening a pantry, visit yourlocalpantry.co.uk

A church with people at the margins

Weed it and reap: why so many Pantries are adding gardens

Epsom voices: It’s a lovely place – but many feel excluded

Stoke voices: We want opportunity and hope

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

The UK doesn’t want demonising rhetoric – it wants to end poverty

Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

Artists perform for change in Manchester

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: annual report 2023-24

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle