In June 2020, a gift by the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation of £1 million helped Catholic charities cope with a food poverty crisis amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was described by Cardinal Vincent Nichols as “a remarkable gift” and enabled many Catholic charities to deliver an emergency food programme to tackle the growing food poverty amongst children and families. One of the richest countries in the world is now feeding some of its poorest citizens through an emergency relief operation not unlike the relief operations we have become accustomed to seeing on our TV screens from around the world.
If I was to draw a positive from all this, it would be that the Catholic Church in England and Wales had the grassroots networks of charities and the national ability to coordinate the distribution of the donation so that it got to those in most need.
With every church in the country closed due to the pandemic, it has been left to the Catholic charities to step up and put faith into action. The exercise has demonstrated the importance of the growth and development of the Caritas diocesan organisations and the network of more than 45 charities under the Caritas Social Action Network. Their work on the front line of poverty has been a credit to the Church and, if there is one lesson I hope we can all take forward from this pandemic it is that the impact of Covid-19 has confirmed that there is an urgency for the Church to invest in a new pastoral imperative to serve the poor and the best way to do this is through further development the Caritas diocesan network of social action charities.
My worry is that the response we have had to take as a country to the Covid-19 virus will increase the number of insecure and vulnerable people and push them to the margins and poverty. The end of the government’s furlough scheme will take many people into unemployment and debt, and increase the number people who are homeless. Without a living minimum basic income many new people will face poverty. With the fallout of the austerity measure and the reductions in front line local authority services still being felt, the six week wait to transfer benefits to Universal Credit and then the sanctions imposed for defaulting on their regulations offers a hostile environment to anyone unable to speak up for themselves or who is not technologically literate.
The priorities for Caritas Salford are to accompany as many people as we can through these challenging times by keeping open our services and expanding them where we can. We will also pay special attention to raising the voice of the voiceless and helping people with a direct experience of poverty speak out for change so that their dignity and worth is appreciated and together with the local authorities, business and above all the voluntary sector we can all work together to build back better. We also need to build the Caritas network locally and nationally so that as Catholic charities we can be even more effective in meeting future needs by building on the grass-roots support of our parishes and the many social action and pastoral organisations that exist in them.
Here in the Diocese of Salford, Caritas has kept open all its services and has been responding to an increased the number of people as the closure of other local authority and voluntary resources has meant that more people than ever have sought our services especially for emergency food and benefits advice. One of our community centre staff said: “The pandemic is having a significant effect on the people we serve, especially those who experience mental health issues and are in desperate need of face to face appointments with their mental health workers. Much of the work is being done by phone and it is quite difficult for someone to be assessed in this way, which leads to more anxiety. We try to remind them that it is better than no contact at all, and advise them to be patient; in the meantime, we are here if they just need to talk. We have noticed the atmosphere is more trusting, friendly and non-judgemental – these are the observations and words of the clients themselves. They constantly thank us for the ‘TIME’ we spend with them.”
The Cornerstone Day Centre helps homeless people. A local man, Simon (not his real name), came to Cornerstone with a gentleman (Ian – not his real name) who is currently homeless and sleeping in a tent close to Cornerstone. Simon had brought him to introduce him to Cornerstone to enable him to access the services we provide. Simon was eager to let us know that although Ian was homeless he was holding down a full time job and working five nights a week. It was clear he had taken the time to build a trusting relationship with Ian, and as he got to know him better Ian agreed to find him some support. I let Ian know that he was welcome to use the showers, get a change of clothes and footwear as well as him having regular access to food when he needs it. Ian appeared close tears by being offered this. I also let him know we could offer him some advice and support to help him find accommodation when he is ready. Ian has only been a couple of times up to now, accessing our lunchtime food offer, the showers, use of the laundry to wash his work uniform and received clothing and footwear. Ian stated he found the staff friendly and welcoming. One of Ian’s fears was he would be judged for being homeless and that everyone would think he was a drug or alcohol user; he says now he knows different. I am hopeful he keeps coming back so we can support him to secure some accommodation and help him to rebuild his confidence and self-esteem. I felt sad that someone who was trying really hard to maintain a job had no accommodation.
Government figures revealed that there were 183,105 children in Greater Manchester living below the breadline in March 2019, even before the cost of housing was taken into account. The number has been rising year on year, and is up from 143,857 in 2015.
The increase has been driven in particular by a sharp rise in the number of children living in poverty despite one or more of their parents working. Some 123,558 of the children living below the poverty line in March 2019 were in working families - 67% of the total, and up from 86,408 in 2015.
The overall rise means that around one in every four children in Greater Manchester is now living in poverty (26%) - although that figure is higher in some areas than others. The proportion stands at 13% in Trafford, 15% in Stockport, 20% in Wigan, 23% in Bury and Salford, 24% in Tameside, 30% in Rochdale, 32% in Bolton and Manchester, and 38% in Oldham.
Mark Wiggin is Director of Caritas in the Diocese of Salford