In Sheffield, the Listen Up! programme is helping local churches to hear the stories of people in poor communities, and work together for change. It’s an example of Church Action on Poverty’s ‘partner church’ work. In this guest blog, Revd Ali Dorey shares some of the stories that have emerged.
Two local Listen Up participants came to the ‘Poverty on our doorstep’ morning on 1March in Sheffield (convened by the Hallam Diocese Justice and Peace Commission) to retell some stories that local people on benefits had told us through Listen Up on the Longley and Manor estates.
There were two main themes for our stories – how resourceful local people were against all the odds, and what strategies they used to get by.
We told about the family where both parents lost one of their own parents when they were still a child or in their early twenties. The father has suffered with bi-polar mental health disorder for over a decade, yet has set up a successful local mental health support group. The mother holds the family together. When we interviewed the family, their eldest daughter was pregnant with a child who would have to have his legs amputated. The teenage son suffered from a rare bone condition which meant he needed transport to school every day.
We told about the young single mum who was barely able to make ends meet on benefits. She taught her children about the money they had coming in, so they understood why they couldn’t always have everything they wanted. She bought small gifts for them throughout the year ready for Christmas, but they knew they couldn’t expect anything expensive. This lady volunteered at the local lunch club for the elderly, and when it was her birthday, they made sure she got a cake.
We also told of the professional woman, who at 40 years old had worked all her life, then was made redundant. She then met and married her husband. She got another job, and fell pregnant soon afterwards. She was made redundant again through a ‘last in, first out’ system. In the meantime, her husband, who was a painter and decorator, had to stop work because of a knee operation. When the lady gave birth there were complications that kept her in hospital and then on medication. Neither of them was used to claiming benefits, so didn’t realise what they were entitled to. There was a catalogue of errors in their benefits payments, which at one point meant they had no income for weeks and then were charged Council Tax arrears, because they’d not received benefits.
We also told of a single man, a recovering alcoholic with mental health problems, just getting his life together. On a walk with a friend, he fell and broke his leg, putting him in hospital. When he came out of hospital he was housebound and relied on local people to bring him shopping and was struggling to sort out his benefits again.
Having listened to these stories, we are not inclined to label these people ‘scroungers’, but to call them and their communities heroes for finding ways of coping with some of the hardest things life can throw at us.
Maybe it’s time their stories were heard and allowed to shape welfare reform?
Revd Ali Dorey works for the Diocese of Sheffield as Mission Development Co-ordinator (North Sheffield Estates)