Day six on the TUC Austerity Uncovered bus has taken us all over the city of Sheffield.
We had to cut short our early morning visit to an open air market after torrential rain brought trading to a close. As shoppers and stallholders ran for cover, we had to retreat to the bus to avoid being soaked through. However, despite the initial setback once again we got to hear some really powerful stories from local residents.
This was thanks largely to the to the help and organisational skills of former Sheffield mayor John Campbell, who acted as our guide. John, who seemed to know everybody in the city, introduced us to some truly inspirational people.
People like Martin, a volunteer at the Chapeltown Advice Centre, who devotes nearly every waking hour to helping local people understand the government’s new tax and benefit changes. Martin, who could be claiming benefits himself due to ill health, would rather give up his spare time to help vulnerable residents:
“My doctor says this place is good therapy for me. I feel we make a real difference here. On busy days we have upwards of twenty people coming in for advice. These are really confusing times for people here. As well as the bedroom tax people have been landed with a council tax bill for the first time which they simply didn’t expect. We help provide legal advice, help people with payment plans and are part of this community. I have become friends with people who we have helped here and regularly give out my personal mobile.”
Martin’s office is full of thank you cards from service users he has helped out. For him it is a place of pride and joy but has come at a personal cost. His volunteering means that he and his wife, who works in a part-time job, cannot save the money they would like for their retirement.
However, as he tells me, she backs the work he is doing and can see how much it means to him. Martin’s passion for the centre is inspiring but also shows how much the government is relying upon the goodwill of people like him to keep local civil society running.
Sheffield is a city with huge variations in wealth, and as austerity has started to bit, life in Sheffield’s most deprived areas has become harder and harder. Reverend Louise Collins of St Cuthbert’s Church and her husband Alpha decided to set up the Fir Vale Foodbank after local people started knocking on the vicarage door asking to be fed.
With the help of a number of local organisations, including UNISON, Louise, Alpha and a network of volunteers run a free food parcel service every Wednesday.
The Foodbank has provided a vital lifeline and helped create a sense of community spirit, Alpha explains:
“When people come here they are not just handed food parcels and told to leave. They are invited to chat to other people and not to feel any sense of shame about their situation. This has helped bring the community together.”
However, as Alpha points out, those “on the margins of society” shouldn’t have been forced into this situation in the first place. While services like Fir Vale Foodbank are invaluable, the fact they have to exist speaks volumes for the gaps that are opening up as a result of this government’s policies.
Just around the corner from the church is a local Tesco. This particular store has been forced to put locks on its bins as desperate people have been sending their children in to retrieve waste food. As one parish councillor summed up to us:
“I grew up in wartime Britain when they had rationing. People had more to survive on then, then they do today.”