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IS THAT THE CHURCH? – CATHERINE PICKFORD

page 2 catherine pickford

‘Hello, is that the church?’ Of all the opening lines you regularly hear on a vicarage telephone, this one always moves me. Whatever is about to pass between us, in the eyes of the person on the other end of the line, I represent THE CHURCH, Christ’s hands and feet on earth in every time and place. To be a Christian is a formidable responsibility!

The man on the phone sounds very young, barely out of his teens, and my heart sinks as I hear his story. Mark became homeless this morning when his friend threw him out of the house where he had been ‘sofa surfing’, after not being able to pay the rent on his flat. He has spent the day being bounced between different housing offices, but there are no emergency beds available. The result of six hours of trudging around Newcastle trying to get help is a printed list of places where people sleeping rough can get free food. It is about 4pm on Friday afternoon and Mark is getting desperate. He has never slept on the street and has no idea how to go about it. It is freezing cold and he had no proper coat, let alone a sleeping bag. He happens to wander past St James’, the inner city church where I am Rector, and gets my number from the church notice board. I am his last resort. I know somebody he hasn’t tried. I phone Night Stop, a wonderful organisation that recruits volunteers to accommodate homeless young people for a night or two. They have a couple who can put Mark up, offer him a warm bed and a hot meal, at least for tonight.

Stories like Mark’s are an increasingly familiar part of my work. The spare bedroom tax, new council tax regulations, and benefit cuts often push the vulnerable over the edge into homelessness, which puts an intolerable strain on the limited amount of emergency accommodation in the city. These days, unless you are elderly or a child, if you lose your home, it is highly likely that you will sleep on the streets.

Mark’s story is also an example of the gradual tipping of the balance of responsibility for the vulnerable away from statutory organisations and towards volunteers. In the provision of emergency food, beds for the homeless, support for young people and children in need, and much more, volunteers are plugging the gaps left by city councils that can no longer afford to provide much needed services. The budget of Newcastle city council, for example, has been cut by a third. We have already lost our play centres and youth workers, and more cuts are to come. In our parish, 41% of children were living in poverty already, before the cuts began. Benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, and extra council tax bills are pushing families, even working ones, into hunger.

All the main political parties have praised those who give of their time voluntarily to help the country through this period of austerity, and there is nothing wrong with society relying on volunteers who can afford not to be paid. But there is a real injustice when people who desperately need money work for nothing in roles that are becoming an integral part of government strategy. For example, when people are given sanctions that result in dramatic decreases to their benefits, the job centre staff sign-post them to the food bank. The food bank in our parish feeds 1000 people a week. It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, many of whom are local and living on dwindling benefits themselves. The very people who are propping up the benefit system by working free of charge are themselves buckling under the strain of the sanctions and cuts.

Inner city communities are used to supporting a large number of vulnerable and needy people, and they are practiced in relying on the grace and favour of those who are able to offer support to provide for those who need it. Most churches and community projects in deprived areas have always run on that basis. But as savings run out, the cuts are starting to threaten the livelihoods of those who give help, as well as those who receive it.

One such person is Kathy. Kathy regularly puts in 40 volunteer hours a week. She works at the Citizens Advice Bureau, is a befriender to people with learning difficulties, volunteers at the food bank, supports the Church schools worker, and runs a toddler group. She is also a Reader at her local church. At night, she often lies awake wondering whether she is going to be able to meet the rent this month with the additional council tax and spare bedroom tax. Kathy is working all the hours she can to support others, and she is at risk of losing her tiny two bedroom council house.

These are also hard times for the churches in Benwell. In the last ten years, the local Methodist and Catholic churches have closed, due in a large part to lack of funds. Of the traditional denominations, the Anglicans alone remain, supported financially by churches in better off areas via the parish system. The youth project and two community projects that were set up by and continue to receive support from the church in Benwell are needed more than ever. For example, Cornerstone, one of our projects, is one of the few facilities left in the area that offers activities for adults with learning difficulties and vital respite for those who care for them. The churches themselves are also opening their doors to offer help. Our food bank is run from a church and St James’ now has a weekly free lunch for those in need of food and company, run by volunteers from the congregation.

There has been some surprise and relief expressed by the government that the national reaction to the cuts has been relatively muted. There has been little rioting on the streets. Looking around the Benwell volunteers, I am not surprised. They are working flat out to try and keep the show on the road, to keep people fed and their community functioning. They haven’t the time or the energy to riot.

It is not yet clear what the next few years will bring, but we do know that the cuts are not over and the facilities that remain in Benwell, like the library and the swimming pool, do not have a guaranteed future. It is a very uncertain time. The wonderful volunteers who give their time and energy for weeks, months, and years on end are continuing to keep vital services running so that basic needs are met. They are a privilege to work with. Thanks are also due to the wider church which, through the parish system, is continuing to fund the church in Benwell, and in deprived areas all over the country. That generosity means that in the areas of the most need, when someone at the end of their resources phones the vicarage and asks, ‘Is that the church?’ there is someone to answer. f

The Revd Catherine Pickford writes as Team Rector of St James’ Church in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne. After serving in Benwell for 11 years, she moved in April to be the Priest in Charge of Stannington, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Officer for the Diocese of Newcastle.