The Covid-19 pandemic has added a host of dreaded words to our everyday vocabulary; furlough, antibody test, social distancing, and self-isolation being the most frequently used. However, there is one word which refuses to go away - regardless of world events - poverty.
It is an inescapable fact that during the most challenging times, poverty becomes an uncomfortable and frightening reality for an increasing number of us. Anyone can fall into poverty; all it takes is an unexpected event such as a bereavement, relationship breakdown, loss of employment or income, or illness. But perhaps the most serious side-effect of poverty is that it can marginalize those affected, and lead to discrimination.
But what exactly is poverty? And how can we fight a shapeless spectre which has been our constant companion for millennia?
Offering support to those living in any form of poverty is at the heart of the services provided by the St Vincent de Paul Society. SVP President Helen O'Shea says:
"The first thing to note about poverty is that it is not as simple as having a low income; there are complex factors involved, both economic and societal. However, the reality of living in poverty is entirely different from the cold statistics. Poverty is a tangible state whose symptoms may include hunger, homelessness, fear, anxiety, mental health decline, drug and alcohol dependency, and a loss of dignity."
The dictionary definition of the word 'poverty' is: the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support. For statisticians, the parameters for measuring poverty include the 'relative' method, or measuring the resources people have in comparison to everyone else. For example, according to figures from the Money Charity, 4.8 million UK households live without at least one essential appliance, such as a cooker, a fridge or washing machine.
Another method of quantifying poverty is by looking at a definitive set of resources, such as food, clothing, heating or shelter. Using this method, a worrying 12.5 million people are classed as living in 'absolute' poverty in the UK.
Helen O'Shea continues: "Drawing the 'poverty line' depends on a huge number of factors, but in many ways, this is an academic exercise. Being labelled 'poor' does not put food in stomachs, clothe, provide shelter, or offer comfort.
"The government's support for people at risk of falling into poverty, and those already struggling with it, has been unprecedented, but it does not go far enough. The charities sector is struggling to cope with demand while its revenues are being severely squeezed. Charities are the safety net for the government's economic policies. They offer support where the government's efforts fall short. If the government does not recognize the impact the pandemic is having on charitable support services, many will fade away."
Asked what we can all do to help address poverty, Helen O'Shea responds: "There are a number of options; volunteering, raising funds through a campaign such as the SVP's Rise to the Challenge, or donating time, goods or money, will all help. If you can do none of the above, then showing kindness and understanding for people who are struggling is the least any of us can do."
According to figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRT) around 14.3 million people are living in poverty in the UK, and that figure is set to rise sharply as the Covid-19 pandemic grinds on. The JRT also estimates that £78 billion of public spending is linked to dealing with poverty and its consequences, which includes spending on healthcare, education, justice, child and adult social services. Significantly, over half of people living in poverty live in working households. This trend is increasing as living costs continue to outstrip wages.
Helen O'Shea continues: "Our members work tirelessly in their communities, compassionately, diligently and without fanfare or fuss, to deliver support to anyone who needs it. Our members offer befriending to the lonely and isolated, they deliver food parcels and other essential items, and help with practical solutions to everyday problems, such as filling out online forms when you can't afford a computer, tablet or phone.
"Meanwhile, our shops are firmly rooted in communities, supplying essential household items to those who otherwise would not be able to access them. They also provide vital funds for community support projects through the sale of donated goods. We need to support our charity shops - they are not only environmentally friendly, they also help to fund change for those who need it most.
Additionally, the SVP operate support centres, which offer a range of services, including providing a hot meal or food parcel, education, and services for older people. The SVP centres in Leeds and Bradford are seeing increasing demand for essential support. Centre Manager Sheena Eastwood says: "The food banks in the area closed during lockdown, but the SVP decided to keep our services open. We have been serving 1,500 meals a week during lockdown, and our food isn't just wholesome and tasty, it adds to people's quality of life. It gives people visiting our centres some dignity."
The SVP centres in Leeds and Bradford also offer books and activities for children, meals and food deliveries for those shielding, and on one occasion the team helped produce a CV for a beneficiary, who went on to get a job. The services are delivered in a non-judgmental, supportive environment. Sheena adds:
"We always say 'kindness costs nothing'. We never judge people who come to the centre. They all have names, they are all unique, and they each have their own reason for visiting us. They all deserve our support and kindness."
The Leeds and Bradford support centres have experienced a drop in calls for debt advice over the lockdown period, though this is expected to rise sharply in the new year, as Sheena explains: "During lockdown the furlough scheme, mortgage and rent holidays and the ban on evictions all meant that many people had a false sense of security. As these initiatives come to an end, the risk to households grows. We are bracing for a wave of calls for help as we near Christmas and the new year."
The support and essential kindness offered by Sheena and her dedicated team at the SVP's Leeds and Bradford centres has an enormous effect on beneficiaries. "I am so grateful for the help you have given me making my life worth living again," said one beneficiary. Speaking about the centres' food provision, another added: "People would have really struggled without you guys. You're angels."
Meanwhile, the SVP's Tower House in Brighton, which supports older people and those who feel isolated, has had to adapt under strict government guidelines during the pandemic. Despite the temporary closure of Tower House, the centre has continued to supply around 30 people with weekly food parcels. Centre Manager Lindsay MacRae says: "I am aware how many of our guests live frugally. We offer essentials to our older guests in a stimulating environment. Nothing goes to waste. Any spare food we have we donate to two other Christian led projects in the city."
One recipient of the care at Tower House said: "It is my first taste of heaven. Everyone is so welcoming and kind."
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the SVP has seen demand for its services increase at a time when funds for its vital support services are being squeezed. People who have never before accessed SVP or other charitable services are now using them, swelling the number of people in need as the pandemic continues to bite.
SVP President Helen O'Shea concludes: "In a wealthy country such as ours, poverty should not exist, yet it does, and it continues to grow. We need to end this unjust, marginalizing of people on economic grounds. We all need to tackle the causes of poverty, find new ways of supporting those who cannot support themselves, and rediscover the dignity of work. Only with that approach will we ultimately be rewarded with a fairer society for all."