Winston Waller is worried. The families he visits every week with his group of fellow volunteers are hungry and the pressures on them are growing worse.
Winston, and his wife Joanna have been members of the SVP most of their lives, and they say that the demands on their Conference are increasing.
The Conference runs a good bank at their parish and each week distributes food parcels.
“We have been seeing a steady increase in the number of people needing our help, particularly for food and fuel poverty”, says Winston. “We are just one SVP Conference, and we are currently supplying around 500 food parcels a year.
“If you can go somewhere and take someone some food and they are grateful it’s quite a nice warm cuddly feeling. On the other hand, you are calling on a house where they are short of food. Sometimes the children are so hungry they start looking in the food parcels as soon as you get there. It makes me feel frustrated and angry we have to deal with this. All we are doing is keeping people going hand to mouth. There are systemic problems causing this and we feel trapped because if we stopped our foodbank what would happen?”
Winston’s experience on the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) For Food Poverty in Parliament has taught him that the benefits system is harmful to mental health. He explains that in the last 6 years the DWP has investigated 69 suicides of people who have been refused benefits. However, Oxford and Liverpool University researchers think there are more likely to have been around 500 benefits related suicides in that period.
The system penalises those who are particularly vulnerable. “If you have a disability the system mitigates against you. If you are on benefits these days, you need to be organised and you need to be mobile for meetings at the job centre. You must get to your meetings on time and fill in lengthy forms on a computer, all of which may be difficult for you. You have to work hard for your poverty. If you don’t get to your meeting or fill in the forms on time you will be sanctioned.
One family we visit can’t read. So they might get a letter from the DWP and they will depend on someone else to read it to them, otherwise they will be penalised too. The system is humiliating and inhumane.”
SVP Conference members like Winston work hard across the country to help families and individuals in their homes and see face to face how problems like benefit sanctions are affecting vulnerable people. Meanwhile, the SVP also runs a number of Community Support Projects in towns and cities around England and Wales which also provide food and friendship for the hungry.
Tower House is one such project and is geared to help the older and retired community of Brighton and Hove.
Lindsay McCrae is manager at Tower House and describes the service that is provided to isolated older people. A two-course hot lunch is provided free of charge for lonely, isolated people who are brought to Tower House either by their carers, or by the free mini-bus service that the project operates.
“Our guests may be registered blind, have Parkinson’s Disease, or some other disability like Dementia that makes it difficult for them to cook.” Lindsay tells me.
“Or, perhaps they are bereaved and their partner was the one to prepare the meals meaning they don’t know how to cook. These older people may get microwaved food delivered to them, but it is not home-cooked and it means that they are eating alone.
“The SVP’s Tower House gives them the opportunity to eat together with others and the social and wellbeing benefits associated with that. It is a social event and it is good for people. “
As a result, Tower House offers its visitors friendship and community as well as a hot home-cooked meal.
“It’s like Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. It’s a bonding experience but it also builds neural pathways in the brain and allows people to share memories and things they like,” says Lindsay.
Sue Walker agrees with Lindsay that “having someone cook for us is an act of love.”
Sue is the manager of another SVP Community Support Project called Blackfriars which is based in Newcastle.
Every Tuesday Blackfriars opens its doors to homeless people and puts on a hot lunch for them in the lovely spacious hall. The lunch session, called “Vinnies” sees about 150 lonely, isolated and homeless people come together around circular dining tables where friendly volunteers serve them food, a volunteer cuts hair, and local Counsellors Alistair and Paula help them with benefits and housing advice.
“Food unlocks conversation”, says Sue. “And this can uncover other areas where people need help. We recently had a couple Toni and John who came to Vinnies for a hot meal and it turned out the tent they were living in had been burnt down that morning and they had lost everything they owned. As well as providing them with a meal, we got them replacement sleeping bags, clothes, cooking stove and a new tent.
“We also provide housing for some homeless men and women in our Hostel next door to Blackfriars, and sometimes these residents, wanting to say thank you, become volunteers in turn themselves.”
The SVP runs two other Community Support Projects giving support to the local community in Leeds and Bradford. Both are known as St Vincent’s.
David Hyman-Schofield is a manager at St Vincent’s Bradford and is developing a community garden in waste land surrounding the centre.
Accustomed to the high levels of poverty and destitution in Bradford, David has designed a way that the Community Garden at St Vincent’s can be utilised to complement the food parcels that they distribute to hungry families from the Centre.
“Those who are hungry and coming to collect food parcels will be able to come and collect fruit and vegetables to complement their parcel,” David explains.
“The idea is to give fresh, nutritious, healthy, fresh food in addition to the pasta, rice, tea and cereal that we regularly provide to families and individuals in need. We want people we help to feel valued and nourished emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.”
If you would like to find out more about how the SVP is nourishing communities across England and Wales, visit www.svp.org.uk, or telephone 02077033030.