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As recession bites, even the formerly well-off need charity hand-outs

By Karen Ireland

How this middle class woman went from designer clothes, a flash car and luxury home to handouts from a food bank.

What would you do if you suddenly lost your job or had your hours drastically cut? What if you were off ill for a long period of time or some other circumstances out of your control meant that you could no longer afford to pay your bills or worse still put food on the table for your family?

Recently it was reported that every four days a new ‘food bank’ is opening up in UK.

This driving force, known as the Trussell Trust, has opened its first centre in Northern Ireland in Newtownards at Thriving Life Church, which has offered crisis food parcels to more than 300 families this year, according to co-ordinator Jim Clarke.

However, while relatively unheard of across the water until recently, ‘food banks’ are nothing new in Northern Ireland with churches and organisations across the province operating various forms and sizes of food distribution schemes for several years now.

Originally set up by Christian organisations as a means of offering food and essentials to the hungry and the needy, what has changed however is the range of people now needing these types of services as the economic climate and environment has shifted dramatically over the past few years.

Will Maclaughlin, outreach pastor with Dungannon Vineyard Church, who established one of the first programmes,Reach back in 2008 and now works in conjunction with many churches across the province explains: “At the time there was an Assembly report published which said Dungannon and Tyrone were the most likely areas to be affected by child poverty.

“As a church family we knew there were people out there on our doorstep struggling but many of them were putting on a brave front and it was hard to know what was going on behind closed doors but we decided as a church we wanted to do something. We met with organisations and local authorities to establish what the needs were and we soon discovered just how many families were going without meals or electric and even basic essentials.

“We started off small, providing hampers at Christmas and essentials as they were needed and now we have a storehouse which is open every week, where people can come and get bits and pieces which they just can’t afford.

“The group of people we help has definitely got bigger over the years. It is no longer just the low income families or those without jobs. Now it is people who through circumstances have found they can no longer afford to provide for their families.

“Yes, there is a lot of pride attached for many people who for years have maybe had a well-paid job and a nice lifestyle and then they feel like they have let their families down but in this climate no one knows what is around the corner and everyone is making difficult choices about money.”

Alan Carson, who runs The Storehouse at Belfast City Vineyard in Dunmurry agrees: “Every week we are sending out 70 or 80 bags to families in the greater Belfast community and every week we could probably be feeding about twice as many families again as the net is getting wider of the people who are coming to us for help.

“It is hard to see people who feel like they have lost everything and our desire is to show them love and give them back their dignity.

“Our mission would be to see more and more churches working together and helping to serve their towns and communities as one church so no one goes without.”

Families and individuals in the Lurgan, Moira and surrounding areas have been benefiting from the services of The Shed which operates out of St Saviour’s Church in Dollingstown and Magheralin.

This service works together with CAP (Christians Against Poverty) to help people with debt and financial issues as well.

Basil O’Mally from the organisation explains: “We help families in the wider area every week all year round.

“Yes there is a misconception out there that it is single mums who benefit but it is now people from middle class families and all walks of lives — teachers, civil servants, nurses, the list is endless. This climate is affecting everyone to some degree and people are finding that through some change in circumstance such as a job loss, an illness, death, or a marriage break up or even a reduction in hours, they can no longer meet their needs.

“All they want is someone to offer some help in a practical non judgmental way.”

Via Wings in Dromore started by asking parishioners from the local churches to bring a plastic bag of food to church once a month to help those in the community who were going without.

They now supply between 30 and 40 families with food parcels every month as well as providing practical help and support.

‘The first time I got a food bag I was ashamed’

Sue Johnston (35) from Moira is a former policewoman and retail manager. She says:

At just 21 I moved to London to work in retail. I quickly worked my way up and was soon running a large Toys R Us store. I was earning well over £30K which at that time and age was a lot of money and I thought it was great.

I got my first credit card at that stage (my first and one of many big financial mistakes) but I had no clue or education about money and I just bought the best of everything from clothes to eating in fancy restaurants and décor for my flat all on credit.

Family illness brought me back home several years later and as there were no real jobs at that level in retail, I decided to apply for the PSNI. By this stage I had worked up a lot of debt and I was looking for a secure job with a good salary and something which I hoped I would find fulfilling as well.

Emotionally I found the police work tough and I decided after several years it wasn’t the career for me and I wanted to go back to what I knew best and got a job in retail again first as a supervisor and then as a manager in a big high street fashion chain.

I worked hard and the money was good and soon I was head hunted by another big label and offered a bigger salary. At the time I was in a relationship and my partner was very materialistic and high maintenance and always pushing me to do better and get more.

I had paid off my debts from the past but soon with the money we were both earning at the time, all the old habits crept in and we enjoyed a nice lifestyle. I had a lovely sports car, great holidays and nights out and I even bought a house.

Another job with more money came along and I got it and then things just escalated. On the outside I had everything but on the inside I knew I was living beyond my means and the relationship was crumbling too and finally came to an end. I was prone to depression since I was 17 and I ended up off sick with the stress of everything.

It all came crashing round me and I knew I couldn’t cope any more with the pressure of the job and the mounting debt. I had loads of bills to pay and the phone was ringing every day with banks and credit card companies looking for their money and I just wanted to run away.

I had handed in my notice in work as I knew I was only working in that job to earn a salary to pay for a lifestyle to keep someone else happy and that wasn’t me and it was just making me ill.

At that time I started volunteering at the House of Hope in Dromore just to get out of the house and I think that was the only thing that kept me going — meeting other women and talking to people who were so much worse off made me very thankful. I also got two part-time jobs to earn a living.

The first time the volunteers at the House offered me a food bag from their Dare to Care project I was embarrassed and ashamed.

I felt there were so many other people who needed their help more than me. At the same time though I was going without meals or arriving at family’s houses around tea time in the hope of getting fed and I knew I couldn’t go on like this. I needed to be honest with myself and with others too.

I found I loved working in the House and with the girls and women who came through the doors it gave me a real sense of purpose.

I was offered a part-time job two days a week to begin with and then after about a year I applied to become centre manager.

This is the lowest paid job I have ever had but I feel richer within myself than I have ever been.

My life is much simpler now. My car is a beat up old banger — all those things were just material and I was using them to please others or fill an emptiness inside me when I was depressed.

Now my work and the people I meet every day help me realise what life is all about and I do feel like finally I am making a difference.

I know at firsthand what those women feel like when they walk through the door and reaching out that hand and being there for them is what we are here for.

‘I couldn’t even afford to buy washing powder’

Sharon (50) is a mum-of-three from Hillsborough. She says:

I suppose my husband and I, like so many, were property-boom casualties. For years we had ran a business buying, selling and renting properties.

Life was good. I had a lovely big home in the country. We had nice cars, nice clothes to wear and my children were well looked after. I wouldn’t have said I was extravagant by any means but looking back now we were in a good place and very financially secure as I thought.

I had no idea just how little it took to lose so much. The reason I have chosen to remain anonymous is I am now going through a difficult divorce, and while many friends and family have supported me through some of the hardest times of my life, I still can’t bear everyone out there knowing my business — mainly for my children’s sake as they are at difficult ages, 12, 17 and 22.

As the bottom started to fall out of the property market I thought we could start selling the business and the properties but as anyone who is in this situation will tell you nothing was happening and we started to lose the houses one by one.

Eventually, we couldn’t even pay the mortgage on our own home and things just went from bad to worse. I am sure people knew and talked but I tried to hide as much of what was going on as possible.

Then finally, I went to a talk at Via Wings, a charity in the town and sometime told me about Cap (Christians Against Poverty). They help families in financial difficulties like we were.

We had started to lose everything — our home, our marriage and I started to open up slowly and admit that I couldn’t keep fighting to hold onto or fix everything which as a Christian I wanted to do.

I needed to do what was best for my children which was, by then, to get a small house to rent for us as my husband had left by then.

I was at breaking point a few days before Christmas when there was a rap at the door and two members from the Via Wings charity were on the doorstep with a hamper full of food and I just burst into tears.

I believe God sent those two angels that day or we would have been eating beans on toast or chicken nuggets for Christmas dinner.

From then they started providing me and the kids with regular food packages. They knew before I would admit it how much we needed it. I remember the first day I walked into their premises in the town and I came out with my box and I thought everyone would be looking at me and judging me.

People from church who knew me and people who saw the way I was dressed would be thinking I didn’t need the help.

But by that stage I couldn’t even afford to buy necessities such as washing powder which the charity provides (and is an expense I just can’t afford some months) — so I held my head high from that day to this and I thought, this is for my family and I have done nothing wrong and I hope one day to be in a position again to give back and to help others.

You can’t judge until you have walked in someone else’s shoes and you don’t know what is going on around you — with the person beside you in church, your neighbour, sometimes even in your own family because we are all proud and it does take guts to walk in somewhere and ask for help.

But the way the economy is you never know when something like this could happen to you — I never saw my life ending up like this. Now I try to make life about what we do and not what we have and bring as much joy and laughter into our lives as possible.



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