Sunday, 2 March 2014

Priests back Cardinal Nichol's claims over suffering being caused by welfare reforms

Cardinal Vincent Nichols recently declared that the welfare safety net had been removed and that the punitive use of sanctions, often cutting people off from support for weeks, left many dependent on foodbanks to survive. The Archbishop described the situation where in an affluent country, so many people are being forced to use foodbanks as “a disgrace.” Archbishop Nichols received backing for his claims from the parish where he served in the late 1970s in Liverpool. Father Peter Morgan, parish priest at St Anne’s parish in Toxteth, declared: “the situation is appalling, the most extreme I’ve seen. There are more and more calls at the door.” He recalled the case of a lady who had her disability benefit cut off last November. “She has not had any money since and has been surviving on hand outs,” said Father Morgan, who told how “people make mistakes filling in forms and they are cut off. Many are terrified of filling in forms.” “People are having their housing benefit cut off, so they are running up huge debts. The implementation of the bedroom tax is also affecting a lot of people in Liverpool. A lot of people are looking for places with fewer bedrooms but the accommodation is just not available. When benefits are being assessed and they are just cut off there is no safety net.” Father Shaun Smith, parish priest of the Sacred Heart, Hillsborough, Sheffield, tells of a growing number coming every day for food and help. “They are very much in need. Some have had their benefits sanctioned. Some come from prison and have no support at all,” said Father Smith. “We run an informal food bank at the church here. It is supported by donations. We get a lot of people in genuine need coming, who need referring onto agencies. We are at saturation point. There is a delivery from the supermarket each week, which is funded from donations.” St John Vianney church in Tottenham hosts the Haringey Migrant support group. The capacity is for 50 men, women and children. There have been so many people turning up that the door has had to be closed. “There are solicitors and trainee solicitors coming to help people work through the immigration procedures. The cases vary from asylum claims to the undocumented and students overstaying on visas. This is all part of the parish outreach work,” said parish priest Father Joe Ryan. “We have the regular soup runs going out and there are more people knocking at the door for food. They are given vouchers and go round the corner to the local cafĂ© that does all day breakfasts. “There are people slipping through the net and we’re trying to help them with the basic food support. At the moment we are getting around 10 a week coming to the door. The numbers though are going up.” An east end priest who wished to remain anonymous believes the problem is the implementation of the welfare reforms. “We are seeing real suffering on the ground. There was a case here of a single parent, who had her money stopped because someone had rung up maliciously, saying that someone was living in her house. They weren’t but it took three weeks to sort out. If she had not been in touch with the church she would not have had anything to eat. There are real people at the sharp end feeling the effects of these reforms of the welfare system. People are slipping through the net,” said the priest. In another case there was a family of five, mother, father and three children, granted indefinite leave to remain. “People in this category have no recourse to public funds so are dependent on being able to work in order to stay out of destitution. In this case the husband dropped dead at work. The woman collapsed at work, finshing up £8,000 in debt. The family was evicted. A Catholic charity helped the family, raising £3,000 so the family could get accommodation. After months, the local authority finally decided to help the family- they were not allowed on benefits,” said the priest. “We are getting the reports of doctors and hospitals seeing the effects of food poverty. I’ve been a priest a long time but I am now seeing absolute poverty and a form of destitution.” Father Tim Byron SJ, chaplain at the University of Manchester, recalled how the first student-run foodbank was opened last October. “It is not a drop-in service, rather we have built up 56 referral agencies which range from local headteachers, charities, the probation service, council run family services, mental health service, job centers, housing associations, local churches etc,” said Father Byron. “These referral agencies hold and distribute vouchers which are necessary to access the foodbank. In our first five months we have distributed 2,300kg of food to 464 people (252 adults and 212 children). 31 per cent of the vouchers were issued due to benefit delays, 28 per cent due to low income, 8 per cent due to benefits changes, with homelessness, domestic violence, unemployment, debt, sickness and 'other reasons.'” Father Byron believes that “as the welfare state is being rolled back, as the tide is going out, those who do not have the support of an extended family to rely on are being left stranded and without support. “We supply emergency food boxes to the local hospital for discharged patients and recently we have seen a rise in demand for 'kettle packs' i.e. food that can be cooked for those without access to cooking facilities. Some of these are being requested as people cannot afford their gas bills and so are having to choose between keeping their electricity on but switching the gas off which can have a drastic impact on their heating. “Some students are referred to us. normally during the end of the semester, by student services - as they are too embarrassed to be helped by their peers, we allow them to come out of hours when they can get food more discreetly. During half term - or more extended breaks there is a spike of families who come, who normally rely on free school meals.” Father Jim McCartney, parish priest of Sacred Heart Church, Blackburn and founder of rehabilitation centre THOMAS (Those on the margins of society) testifies to seeing increasing numbers of people coming through the centre. “They are struggling to live and survive. We are seeing increasing numbers of East Europeans and some students looking for help,” said Father McCartney. “There is a need to address some of the underlying problems that have been around for the past decade or so. The workforce need to be better equipped for the jobs market. There are people taking advantage of the benefits system, that cannot be swept under the carpet and must be taken into account.” Father Raglan Hay Wills, parish priest of Our Lady of Ransom Church, Eastbourne, has found lot of people really struggling, often the kind of people who don’t make a protest but are really desperate. “What is for sure is that every day in Eastbourne there is a hot meal available somewhere and sometimes two. This support network is provided by churches, the salvation army and charities. There is no day on which we could not direct someone to a meal. The need though depends on the weather,” said Father Hay Wills. “The real concern is the person isolated, quietly suffering in desperate circumstances, they are not the people who come to the presbytery door here. It is a worry for those people who don’t have anyone to help them. “

see: Tablet - 1/3/2014

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