'˜Poverty in Blackpool isn't getting any better'
Volunteers have noticed the number of people using food banks has soared by 25% in the last 12 months.
They are the safety net there to catch people as they hit rock bottom.
Many of the volunteers working with charities to support those in need, who are living in poverty and struggling to provide for themselves or their families, have first-hand experience of the hardship they see every day.
But despite their best efforts they are seeing more and more people turning to them in Blackpool, desperate for help.
Amazing Graze, a Blackpool soup kitchen set up by Mark Butcher, 49, has seen a noticeable shift in the types of people coming through the doors.
Mark said: “We set up our soup kitchen for homeless people, but it’s not just those people now.
“Families are having to come to homeless centres and we’ve had to create a children’s room for them.
“We have never had a family at Amazing Grace whose benefits hadn’t been sanctioned, and they’re desperate.”
The number people served by volunteers at the kitchen has soarded by 25 per cent over the last 12 months.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated elsewhere on the Fylde coast – and across the country.
Linda McEvilly, 71, and her dedicated team of volunteers at Blackpool Care and Share handed out 882 gift hampers over Christmas - a huge increase on the 622 delivered in 2015.
She said: “We have been very blessed this year because Lytham Choir donated so much, and the Nifty Fifties social group in Lytham decided to make us their charity of choice.
“But I don’t think poverty in Blackpool is getting any better.
“We’ve seen a surge in the number of JAMs, which stands for ‘just about managing’. These are people who are probably working on a very low wage and if a bed breaks or a curtain falls down they just can’t afford to replace it.
“The working mum can in some ways be worse off than the unemployed mum on benefits. If their child gets a rip in their coat or a hole in their shoes, it costs money to replace. Even £10 could be the difference between putting food on the table at the weekend.
“The government says they are just about managing - well I say they’re just about not managing.”
Linda founded Blackpool Care and Share more than 26 years ago after fleeing an abusive relationship with her two young children, Jaine, eight, and Anthony, two, in tow. After scouring the resort every day in search of work and food, she found herself shacked up in a leaky hostel with a bedframe lacking a mattress - and swore she would do all she could to help other people like her.
In 1991 she began handing out food, clothes and household essentials to needy neighbours. Now she sits at the heart of a charitable network that offers a helping hand to the whole of Blackpool and beyond, all from the humble hall at St Monica’s Church in Mereside.
Mark, meanwhile, was inspired to set up Amazing Graze in 2012 after turning his life around from a background of drink, drugs and petty crime. Within three months, the Christian goodwill group was serving food and preaching gospel to more than 300 rough sleepers per week. They meet every Friday and Saturday night at their headquarters on Boothley Road, where they serve up more than 20,000 hearty plates of food to Blackpool’s poorest and most disenfranchised residents every year.
All of the group’s volunteers are trained in health and social care and first aid, and are dedicated to supporting homeless people with drug and alcohol problems through every step of their recovery.
According to Mark, there are a number of factors contributing to the rise in people coming to his team for help.
“This is mainly because we get quite a lot of problems coming in from elsewhere,” he said.
“People who come here when they were 12 or 13 with their parents, when they’re 18 with nowhere to go, they think they’ll come to Blackpool, and they find it’s not as nice as they remember.
“I think it’s getting a lot worse because of sanctions.
“I agree with sanctions to a point, but figuring out how to navigate the benefits system is a challenge even for healthy people, so imagine how difficult it is for mentally ill people or people with drug or alcohol addictions.”
But he said the sudden rise in the formerly legal high ‘spice’ threatens to undo the hard work of good Samaritans across the resort.
He said: “Spice is the scourge of our lives. We haven’t got a clue what to do about it. It affects the homeless hugely. They can’t deal with anything and their lives are completely chaotic when they’re on it, and when they’re coming off it they’re even worse.
“They can get a strong dose for just £10 and that’s enough to get five or six people off their heads for a good six to eight hours. It’s dangerous.”
Linda added: “What we have seen over the years is a widening gap between the rich and the working class. It’s the same old story - the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
“My only worry is what will happen when I die. I can’t lift so much now. My hands are swollen and horrible because my age. I’ve had people say they would carry on Care and Share – but that they would have to open a charity shop. I’m aware that if people work they will want a wage. If I can keep going another eight or 10 years then I’ll be very happy.”
Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, said: ““Unfortunately I think it is true that the need has become greater this year and this has a lot to do with the fact many of the people who are in poverty are in work, but being paid very poorly. We hear a lot about people with benefits but we don’t hear a lot about people who are in work and still struggle to make ends meet.
“Local governments’ ability to deal with this is reduced because funding changes will mean that councillors in places like Blackpool have even less money to spend, and more pressure will be put on voluntary organisations.
“Blackpool is getting less and that needs to be addressed.
“The great work that is done by the voluntary organisations in Blackpool cannot be seen as the only solution. The government must also play a part.”
Foodbanks handed out more than 500,000 parcels across the UK in just six months last year.
Poverty charity Trussell Trust has a network of more than 400 foodbanks helping those in crisis.
It offers three-day emergency food supplies to people struggling for a wide range of reasons – often those on low incomes or struggling with delays or changes to their benefits.
The charity’s own figures show more food parcels are handed out in the North West than any other UK region.
This is reliant on donations, with more than 10,000 tonnes of food handed over by members of the public in 2015/16.
In addition, a range of other services and charities, including soup kitchens, are providing much-needed support to those in need.
13m people are living in poverty
There are a range of reasons people find themselves turning to foodbanks and soup kitchens for help.
There are 13m people living in poverty in the UK after housing costs are taken into account.
Government figures show 1.5m of those live in the North West – more than one in five people.
During the winter many are forced to choose between heating their homes and putting food on the table.
David McAuley, chief executive of the Trussell Trust said: “A crisis in winter for someone on a pre-payment meter who can’t afford the bare essentials isn’t just shocking, it’s dangerous.
“We’ve met a grandma who went without food and heating as she waited six weeks for a delayed pay cheque, a family using candles over the Christmas period because they can’t afford to put the lights on.
“Without the superb support offered by foodbanks and More Than Food schemes like the Fuel Bank people would be going cold, hungry, and falling seriously ill.”
Colin Brown, secretary of St Vincent de Paul Society in Fleetwood foodbank, said: “We give out an average of 45 food parcels each week which help to feed an average of between 95 and 105 persons, adults and children, who can not afford to put food on their table for whatever reasons.
“Clients are referred to the food bank by organisations who are working with them and supporting them to resolve their issues.
“We are supported each week by Fylde Coast Christian Advocacy Service who will work to try to resolve clients ‘benefits or financial issues.
“The food bank has a very loyal group of about 18 volunteers who turn up every Wednesday, come sun, rain, hail or wind, to prepare and give out the food parcels and to cook hot food for clients.
“We are also supported by our very generous churches, schools, organisations, Kirkham Open Prison, Blackpool Food Partnership, the ASDA trolley and individuals who donate food items on a regular basis and on some occasions money.”
Christine Miller, of Fylde foodbank, which was set up three years ago, said: “We have had a slight increase over the last 12 months in the number of people we have seen coming in - probably because people now know we’re here.
“We see a complete mix of people coming in. We see a lot of families with children, and quite a lot of single mums and single men.
“Sometimes people are embarrassed to come to the food bank. Sometimes they are working families and they are just about managing when both parents are in work, but when one of them gets sick or loses their job they can’t afford to look after themselves any more.”
The food bank, which set up three years ago, operates five days a week on Kirham, St Annes and Warton, and handed out more than 2,000 emergency food supplies to people in need last year.
Christine said: “I’m retired now and so are a lot of our volunteers, and when we were young there was a much greater safety net. If you got in trouble you could go and see your mum or your sister and they would help you. Now, because people travel to find work, people don’t have that safety net to lean on.
“Something we have always seen is how grateful people are in donating. People understand what it must be like to have nothing.
“If you see somebody at the side of the road on a cold, horrible, wet day you think how you would feel if you didn’t have a roof over your head. If people are able to, they will give.
“We want people to understand that though we do want people to stand on their own two feet, sometimes they need help getting there, and we are there to provide that help.”