Monday, 12 September 2011

Feeding the hungry

I was shocked to hear an item on the radio yesterday about a large increase in the number of families turning to food banks in order to cope with the rising cost of food and fuel. I was certainly aware that some individuals and families in this country struggle to feed themselves, because the church that my dad was based  at set up a "social fund" in order to help meet such needs in a fairly economically deprived Northern town, and that was over a decade ago! In this church-based initiative, the congregation donated food items, or money which was used to buy tins of value or own brand food to be handed out in bags or boxes. People would turn up at the vicarage with a voucher, usually given by the Salvation Army. Sometimes they would request specific items, nappies, for example, or just ask if we had any more of a particular item.
Most of the people who collected food were on benefits. There was some accommodation nearby which housed young people with difficult circumstances, or who were making the transition from care to independent living. Most of the recipients of the goods, or so I understood, were short of money because they were waiting for benefits claims to be assessed due to a move or change in circumstances. What shocks me about recent reports  is that a lot of the people now needing help are in work, but their wages do not cover the  increasing cost of living. That people who work hard find themselves unable to afford to live is patently unjust and wrong, yet inflation  does take a much greater toll on lower income families, and it is undoubtedly true that many do struggle, and may be worse off than some of those on benefits.
I don't know that answer, but the Trussell Trust reports that a lot of the help offered is coming from churches and religious organisations. It has always been the case that churches have played such a role; I wonder if it will become more common as the economic downturn continues.


  1. I really hadn't realised it had become so bad.
    Shades of the 1930's!

    Thanks for the information about Trussell Trust.

  2. It is shocking. I think I've been fortunate in that I have never gone hungry all my life so far.That is more than can be said by everyone, and hunger is an ever present reality in some places in the world - and unlikely to get better.

  3. Yes, churches do help in such situations, tho’ personal experience makes me wonder if they are always helping; or are they encouraging dependence? I think such help is laudable only if those giving the charity ensure the person is doing something to change their circumstances. One of the drop-in centres I have been researching for my thesis is more than happy to help people. But always asks what people are doing to help themselves. If they continue to keep coming for hand-outs but haven’t done anything to move themselves on, then it is suggested they go elsewhere for help. Of course this is done with some leeway - people with chronic mental health issues or those not able to access UK benefits continue to receive help. But in the main just rolling up a few times a week for a food parcel can only continue for a few weeks before you’re told ‘no more’ if you have done nothing to change your circumstances (such as sign-on, get yourself on a course, join a job club, see a benefits advisor, get yourself a NI number, get help from a drop-in member of staff to chase up your benefit’s claims etc.).

    My experience of working at a church run homeless shelter has made me very wary of just doling out help to anyone who asks. Sometimes the motivation can be about meeting the needs of the Christians doing the voluntary work as much as meeting the needs of those in need. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, helping people does makes feel better about ourselves and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t become the main consideration.

    I presume he’s dead now, or in care, as I haven’t seen him for ages, but there used to be a guy get on the train at Farringdon on a regular basis. He would make his way along the entire length of the train – I can remember his speech verbatim, because I heard it so often: ‘Excuse me ladies & gentlemen – I know you’ve all had a busy day at work, but I would be grateful if some of you could reach into your pocket and spare some change so that I have enough money to get into my hostel tonight...’ And people did. One day he ventured near me, I gave him a well used ‘London Look’ which basically said ‘Sod off’ – whereas my neighbour gave him a pound and then looked at me reproachfully. Several other people in that carriage alone gave him a pound or 50p – if got that in every carriage he’d net about £40-60 from just one train of eight carriages. At West Hampstead, he got off the train, walked over to the south bound platform and got the train back to Farringdon, where no doubt he would repeat this little trick – who knows how much he’d make: £40 northbound, £10 southbound (fewer people are travelling into London in an evening) – three or four times = £150-£200. The guy would then get off again at West Hampstead, go to the Tesco Local on West End Lane and buy six to twelve cans of Tennants Super (I know because I’ve stood behind him in the queue). Someone like me, in the know, knows people AREN’T charged cash on a nightly basis to stay at a hostel – you and I pay for that via housing benefit (the Salvation Army charges around £400 a week for one hostel place from the tax-payer!). But all those on the train happily believed the man – I suspect in part out of ignorance, but also to feel better about themselves. Were they really helping him? I’ll let others decide.

    I will close this with a little 19th century quote from Chapter 2 of my thesis:

    “Moggridge suggests charity should not be left in the hands of ministers of religion, concluding their characters are not best equipped for the profession of professional charity and observes ‘[these men are] more easily deceived than others...’ (Moggridge, M. W. (1882) Method in Almsgiving London: Charity Organisation Society).

  4. Some fascinating observations there. I was wondering what your take would be on this one and would love to hear what anyone else who has been involved in social work or similar areas thinks.
    A colleague of mine is convinced that nobody in the UK suffers the kind of poverty that means they are in danger of literally starving to death. He feels those who come up with the "I've no food for my kids tonight" line are either exaggerating or have got into that position because they are poor at managing money/have chaotic lives. I actually have no idea! I don't think I've ever been in a position to judge.

    Your guy on the train was onto a nice little earner:) You could even say he was providing a very beneficial service, given that he made everyone feel so good about their altruism!

  5. I heard Louise Casey speaking in 2000 – who was then ‘Homelessness Czar’ – and she noted that the average beggar in the West End makes £200-£400 a day. As I worked in Soho at the time, I can believe this.

    Mind you, it is easy to sneer at the scroungers – people wouldn’t beg, if people didn’t give. Just as some people are content to live from hand-to-mouth, knowing if they blow their week’s benefit money there are always organisations that will give them a meal or some food to tide them over. Westminster City Council actually placed injunctions on some churches, banning their soup runs. And rightly so – several of these soup runs were made by churches in the Midlands! It was a typical example of Christians exploiting the needy to meet their own needs. A minibus would be loaded up with do-gooders on a Saturday evening in Rugby or Warwick or the like, bomb down the M1, park up on the Embankment and begin doling out soup and Christian love and compassion to the homeless of London. Haven’t these Christians homeless people they can minister to in Rugby or Warwick? But of course that wouldn’t be as glamorous! Nor would it allow Little Jack Horner Syndrome! There are ample services in place for homeless people in central London (indeed, having researched one of these (in the West End) for my thesis, I know some actually squabble among themselves to get customers, because for many (including faith-based orgs) their funding from central and local government depends upon demonstrating need!).

    There is something about our culture where many expect others to make good their situation. This isn’t just about ‘Scroungers’ as I noted on my own blog, the middle-class are very good at exploiting the state to meet their own ends and protect their interests (see:

    However I must stress, there are people in need – but your colleague is right, no one is going to starve to death in Britain. Even those exempt from benefits (Asylum Seekers, illegals etc.) can receive assistance from a local authority under the National Assistance Act 1948. Moreover, benefits pay for the basics, but £60 a week isn’t going to pay for depreciation of goods, or give you a wholesome diet or – and this is important bit – protect you from yourself... Which, alas, is what a lot of people stuck in the cycle of dependence really need!

    If properly managed, food banks etc. I am sure provide a worthwhile service – particularly for families on low incomes, but great care is needed not to encourage dependency or to provide a supplementary ‘income’ that allows profligacy because people know someone is always there to feed them, no matter what they do. On more than one occasion I have had a punter come into see me when I was duty social worker who has asked for money to tide him/her over because they have run out (faint smell of alcohol on breath) and I’ve refused. Punter: ‘What am I to do?’ Me: ‘Go hungry, and you might think twice next time...’ The boro’ I worked for actually stopped paying out cash ‘National Assistance’ payments and came to an agreement with the Tesco, where vouchers were provided that couldn’t be exchanged for alcohol or tobacco – WEEKLY payouts across the boro’ BEFORE introduction of vouchers = £600; YEARLY payouts AFTER introduction of vouchers = £600... Had need really diminished by 5000%?

    I think the Jesus Army’s Jesus Centre approach of discouraging dependence and encouraging proactive action to get out of the situation you’re in is the best way forward. A lot of organisations – particularly faith based organisations, but especially the State – could learn from this way of working!


  6. Yes it's so easy to assume that poverty doesn't exist on our doorsteps, especially when those struggling are actually in employment. I guess it's also because we're unsure of how to help - which is why it's so important that our churches are involved.

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