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BARBARA BENTHAM has been working at Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre in Greater Manchester for 20 years.
Her job is to advise and represent people whose benefits have been axed on the say-so of private companies hired by the government to withdraw or reduce benefit payments to those receiving them.
Bentham and the centre’s other workers are pretty successful. By helping some of the region’s most vulnerable people to appeal against decisions made by the private “assessors,” a total of £1.5 million has been won back for benefits recipients.
But the fact is that austerity is driving the union-backed centre’s work to breaking point.
The latest challenge is to meet vulnerable people’s inability to even clothe themselves.
That’s why the centre has opened a clothing bank — like a foodbank but providing shoes, socks, shirts, underwear and other garments rather than tins of beans and packets of cereal for the hungry victims of Tory austerity.
Clothing is donated by individual supporters and some retailers and manufacturers.
Any needy person can take up to five items of clothing, and be given a free breakfast too.
Homeless people are in particular need. Dozens turn up each day for a bite to eat and a hot drink at the centre’s breakfast club.
The centre also helps ex-offenders newly released from prison, finding them a place to live and, if possible, jobs, though they are few and far between.
The centre’s work with ex-offenders is so effective that even the police have been impressed at the lower-than-average levels of reoffending in the area served by the centre.
The centre is about to buy its first washing machine.
Being able to wash the clothes of homeless people might seem a tiny improvement in the centre’s work in Salford. The fact that it’s necessary is indicative the levels of suffering to which working-class people are being driven by the policies of the Tory government and its predecessor, the Lib Dem-Tory alliance.
Bentham, facing ever-increasing numbers of people forced into desperate poverty by withdrawal of benefits, said: “I have spent almost 20 years working with some of Salford’s most vulnerable people. I have never in all this time witnessed poverty at the levels we are seeing today.
“This government has created a ‘hostile environment’ affecting anyone who is unfortunate enough to be poor.
“People are suffering. Lives are being put at risk.
“Austerity is a cruel political choice which has devastated the lives of many.
I have clients who are surviving on charity food supplies for months on end.
“Disabled people are having their income slashed after inappropriate assessments by private companies making a profit out of people’s misery.
“Families are waiting several weeks to receive benefits, forcing them to choose between feeding and clothing their children or paying the rent.
“I am appalled that in the fifth-richest country in the world we have homeless people dying on our streets and foodbanks springing up everywhere.
“My job has changed dramatically in recent times. It was always about making things a bit better. Today it is a constant fight to keep people alive.”
Sometimes that fight is lost in Salford. People are dying.
The potential for suicide by Salford’s most vulnerable people is now so great that staff at the centre undergo “suicide awareness training” to help them spot signs that clients are so desperate that they see death as the only way out.
Others die through despair at the system. Geoffrey is an example. He was a client at the centre. His benefits were stopped. An appeal against the decision failed. Seven weeks later he was dead. Most likely the anguish he experienced contributed to his death. In his case even the dedicated work of the centre was not enough.
The problems brought to the centre are grinding and relentless. Funding to meet the increasing needs of the most vulnerable is a constant problem.
But the centre does have friends. Fundraising benefits have been supported by film-maker Ken Loach and MP Dennis Skinner, and have raised thousands of pounds.
Local Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey is one of the centre’s most active supporters and refers to the centre as Salford’s “fourth emergency service.”
The work of Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre is inspirational — an example of trade unionists, socialists and community activists banding together to defend and help the city’s most vulnerable.
But it also exposes the increasing levels of suffering deliberately created by the Tory government in pursuit of greater wealth for themselves and their friends.
Salford’s experience is replicated in towns and cities across Britain.
Long-Bailey said that the wider way to tackle the problems of poverty, deprivation and homelessness in Salford and across Britain is a change of government.
The Salford centre is in constant need of funds to continue its work. Donations can be made to salfordonefundforall at Unity Trust Bank, account number 59124555 sort code 60-83-01.
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