In the working class suburbs of Liverpool the battle with poverty is very real
Jerome Taylor meets the people faced with the fallout of the Government's cuts every day
With its wide streets and semi-detached houses, Clubmoor doesn't immediately strike you as a particularly deprived inner city suburb of Liverpool. Sandwiched between Anfield and Norris Green - two areas that are much more routinely linked to urban deprivation and gang crime - it comes across as a relatively run down yet quiet working class suburb.
But looks can be deceiving.
“Behind closed doors there are a lot of problems,” explains local vicar Steve McGanity. “The parish is in the top five per cent of most deprived areas in the UK. We're talking low income families with poor health, low levels of education and high unemployment.”
Rev McGanity, a charismatic evangelical preacher with a thriving inner city congregation, sees the personal fallout of the Government's cuts every day. He is literally on the front lines of Britain's battle with poverty. And he is scathing of the way slashes to benefits and vital services are being implemented in some of the country's most challenging areas.
“There are always gaps, no system is perfect, but the gaps are getting wider,” he says. “Mostly the local services around here are either desperately stretched or cut back and some have stopped all together.”
With so many living on the breadline, Clubmoor is the kind of place where even the slightest delay in benefits or cuts to someone's income literally leads to people wondering where their family's next meal will come from.
At the back of the local Roscoe Primary school Rev McGanity's church St Andrew's Clubmoor runs a multitude of crisis services, from drop-in debt advice, to depression counselling and - since 2011 - a food bank. Demand has never been greater.
In the past six months alone 6,000 new families have signed up to food parcels in Liverpool. Last year the North Liverpool food bank run by Rev McGanity and his volunteers fed 3,500 people.
It was never supposed to be this way. Food banks are meant to be one off crisis centres, places where the truly desperate can get a brief respite at a time when money has run completely dry. Supposedly users of the food bank should only receive three vouchers a year - not quite a one-off service, but ideally an extremely rare one. But increasingly the team in Clubmoor are seeing clients return multiple times.
“Food banks just shouldn't exist in Britain in 2013,” says Rev McGanity, showing The Independent into a storage room packed with non-perishable goods that have been donated by better off local families. “Instead they're becoming an increasingly common feature of British landscape.”
In Seaforth, an accutely deprived town between Liverpool and Crosby, local Christian Lynne Higgins has been running a “stuff bank” for the last five years. As well as distributing food, the Seaforth Community Shop gives out clothing, toys, books and toiletries. There's a donation box for those who can afford it.
“For a lot of people here the question of whether to pay for heat in their homes or pay to eat is very real,” Higgins said. “In my five years of running this shop this is the worst that poverty has ever been here.”
Higgins said that almost 20 families a week come in asking for food parcels and of those 20, around five would not have enough money to eat that day.
“We have all sorts of people coming in here,” she says. “Single employed people, unemployed people, even people that are on benefits come in here just to get a few cans of soup.”
Back in Clubmoor, in an office down the hallway from the food store, Nicky Williams and Fiona Donovan are manning the debt advice phones. Like the food bank, their services are in huge demand and Friday is the one day of the week people can drop in without an appointment. Despite the snow there is a still a trickle of people desperately looking for a way out of their debt. Four years ago the team's clients were primarily those who overspent and over borrowed. Nowadays they are people who simply don't have enough money to survive.
The top causes for victims now falling into debt, they say, are delays or changes to benefits. Reassessments because of a change in circumstances (such as a mother being left by her partner) and which once used to take 8-10 days are now taking up to six weeks. Appeals against sanctions can drag on for months and sometimes more than a year. During that time the most vulnerable families often have the safety net completely withdrawn.
”There's always been demand for what we do because poverty in this area is longstanding but things have got much worse because benefit delays cause massive problems,“ explains Miss Williams.
But it's not just those on benefits who struggle to keep their heads above water. The team explain how they recently dealt with a client who was determined to keep working at the only part-time job she could find, despite the fact that it brought in just £333 a month when her outgoings and rent amounted to £600. As a single under 35-year-old with no kids she received no help with council tax or bills and could only rely on a small amount of housing benefit. By the time she called up she was in debt on council tax by £184 and gas £136.
”We used to see very few people who were actually better off on benefits," explains Miss Donovan. ”We see it more and more now, especially among those with no kids. Obviously we can't tell them that. But for those who do find work the only kind out there is low paid and part time posts that people can barely get by on."
And if things are bad now, they will only get worse. In April the bedroom tax and changes to the disability living allowance come into force . In a place like Clubmoor, where most of the housing stock is pretty decent semi-detached family homes, the bedroom tax could be disastrous.
On the road where Miss Williams lives five out of ten families live in under occupied houses and are expecting a reduction in their benefits. ”These are homes they have lived in for years,“ she explains. "Some of them have said they're willing to move to smaller properties but there just aren't many out there."
Upstairs in the stock room volunteers are sorting boxes of food to be distributed to other handout centres. There's a papable feeling among the volunteers that however bad things are now, they will only get worse.
As Andrea McGanity, Rev Steve's wife and a fellow volunteer, puts it: "2013 is going to be a very busy year."
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