A unique meeting aimed at tackling the issues of poverty in North Somerset has been held at St Paul’s Church in Weston-super-Mare.
Initiated by the group Equality North Somerset, and chaired by the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, Bishop of Taunton, the hearing brought together organisations who work with people facing extreme financial hardship, in an effort to pool knowledge and resources.
It was the startling revelation that North Somerset now has the third largest inequality in the UK which forced Equality North Somerset (ENS) to take action. (Figures obtained from the Indices of Deprivation published by North Somerset Council. ID looks at the difference between the most and least deprived areas). Believing the Church was the best place to start, ENS approached Bishop Ruth with the suggestion of uniting some of the groups that already support those in poverty.
As Louise Branch from ENS explained, “The core values of the church very much echo the things we are trying to achieve. They’re about social justice and helping people who are less well off. We’re also really trying to make a difference here and the church can be a really good resource for that, it has a lot of strong links in North Somerset and a lot of respect. So it seemed like a win, win situation to work along side the church.”
Bishop Ruth agrees, “I think we, the Church, are uniquely placed to say to people, ‘come and sit round the table with us’. I think this coming together is a good way to ensure we don’t just treat the symptoms by giving those struggling a food bag, but we can help them by tackling some of the route causes of their problems.”
Jamie was the first speaker to address the hearing. A former homeless alcoholic, Jamie hit rock bottom after his marriage failed. He pulled no punches when describing the brutality of life at the bottom of society. “Every time I thought I’d got to rock bottom there was always somewhere even worse to go to. In the end you just get exhausted by it. One Christmas I phoned the Samaritans three times, I just thought this is it.”
Jamie used his own experiences to illustrate how easily life can spiral out of control. He told the audience gathered at St Paul’s. “When you’re in that situation, you need all the help you can get. You can’t see the way out yourself.” Jamie didn’t believe he was of any value to society until he applied for a volunteer position and the woman in charge took a chance on him. “That person, who gave me the first opportunity, helped me to learn to love myself again. If you can talk about your problems and have someone who is compassionate enough to listen and not judge you then you can start to heal”.
Jamie was one of three courageous individuals who spoke about their challenges; bringing into sharp focus the ordeal faced by those in abject poverty. Norma escaped an abusive marriage and brought up three children on her own. From that moment on, she said, they simply became ‘the single parent family’. A label she found hard to be judged by, “People in dire situations are not seen as real people, the first step is to see them as real people, not just as ‘them’. No one chooses to be in that situation. I didn’t chose to be a single parent with three children to bring up on my own. So please just see the person, then you might be able to think about how you can help them.”
Bishop Ruth echoed that when she told the meeting, “Valuing people rather than labelling their situation is essential if we are to bring about change. Overcoming the inequalities of our society is about seeing the person in front of us.”
According to North Somerset Council’s report on deprivation, parts of Weston-super-Mare are now among the most deprived two percent in the UK – on a par with some of the large conurbations in the North of England, so it was fitting that this poverty partnership began its journey at St Paul’s Church in Weston, many of whose congregation have experienced hardship.
Bishop Ruth says, “Here at St Paul’s they do amazing work in their local community. They do a great job in coming alongside the members of their community. Members like Norma are here because of the love and passion which is shown at St Paul’s.”
Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is an organisation that gives support to those in debt. Paul Larcombe from CAP says a poverty coalition is a great step forward, “this is such a big problem that it has to be shared. I’ve had so many referrals from other agencies, a proactive sharing solution would be a great way forward for all concerned.”
Donna Pilgrim from Western Foodbank summed up what the meeting was about, “This is about people, it’s not a ‘them and us’, it’s all of us in this together, looking at the issues that people are facing and understanding them more deeply. Hearing people talk about their issues; drugs, alcohol, family breakdown, financial crisis these are things that could affect us all, when you find yourself in a circumstance that you never expected to be in. This is not a question of, ‘do I want to do a little bit of campaigning? Do I want to stand by people?’ this is a case of us all being in.”