Cheetham Hill Advice Centre – helping people get back on their feet every day
Serena Tramonti Media and Advocacy Officer
20th Sep 2013
Earlier this week, when the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC announced that benefit fraudsters could face up to ten years in jail for their crime, he also reminded us of what benefits are for: "Benefits exist to protect and support the most vulnerable people in our society and, whenever the system is defrauded, it's also taking money away from those with a genuine need."
Yet, benefits are becoming a more and more fragile lifeline for those in need, and those who really need the help have to encounter increasing obstacles and huge stigma.
Oxfam warned last week that the austerity measures implemented by EU Governments in the last three years are creating a ripple effect that in 2020 will create 2.7m new poor in the UK - the equivalent of the whole population of Greater Manchester - and a total of 25m in Europe.
"The situation is becoming increasingly desperate. People who come to us for help often haven't eaten for days, or have had no electricity for weeks."
If big numbers put you off, all you have to do is go and talk with those who are experiencing the effects of these austerity measures every day.
Senior case worker Jacky Philipson (pictured above) works at the Cheetham Hill Advice centre in Manchester, one of Oxfam's partners in the UK. The centre provides support and advice to those who have to claim benefits. Every year they look after over 3,000 new cases. Because of the cuts, they are more and more overstretched.
Jacky is worried. She says: "The situation is becoming increasingly desperate. People who come to us for help often haven't eaten for days, or have had no electricity for weeks and cannot afford a bus ride into town. They often have to turn to food banks for help."
Jacky used to work as a nurse in the NHS. She joined the team at the centre 12 years ago, because, she said: "I wanted to help to people to get back on their feet - I believe that in our society we should care for each other, especially when life is not as kind as we would like it to be". She helps people with benefit applications and especially with benefit claims that have suddenly been stopped, leaving people destitute.
"The worst thing is that what we see at the centre is only the tip of the iceberg", she said. "If you have been out of work for a while, live in poor quality housing and maybe develop a health problem too because of the poor conditions you live in, you tend to isolate yourself, and become invisible. I feel that there is this huge invisible part of society that everyone is prepared to quickly make judgments about - and yet nobody seems to give a hoot about this part of society".
Melanie Smith (pictured below), who lives in Cheetham Hill, is one of Jacky's clients. Melanie has no doubts: Jacky was her lifesaver.
She said: "I've been suffering from epilepsy all my life. Ten years ago my condition worsened, to the point that I wasn't able to carry on with my child minder job. Since then, it has been a real struggle. But the last year has been the worse ever; at one point I was so hopeless that I wondered what the whole point was."
Last winter, Melanie's incapacity benefit, as well as her housing and council tax benefits, was suddenly stopped - by mistake. She ended up without any food, without any money for the electricity meter, unable to even make a phone call to her family. She relied on the local food bank and on her neighbours for food.
Melanie says: "I used to go to bed at 6pm in winter - so that I did not spend any money on the electrics and I could feed myself. It was so miserable. If I hadn't met Jacky at the Cheetham Hill Centre, I don't know what would have become of me."
"I used to go to bed at 6pm in winter - so that I did not spend any money on the electrics and I could feed myself. It was so miserable."
Oxfam's support is crucial for people like Jacky to carry on their work. Jacky helped Melanie to navigate the bureaucracy and Melanie is now receiving the support she needs to look after herself and her house again.
She adds: "I'd love to work, to have a job and earn my money. I never thought it would come to this. I don't like the idea of being a sponge - because I know that that's what others think of people like me. But the reality is that it isn't easy. I keep applying for jobs at the job centre every week - but nobody gets back to me. I go on the courses they advise me to go on. My condition is an issue sometimes, but I am trying my best. And yet, I never receive any feedback, never any job offer."
Jacky concludes: "I am dreading the coming winter. The bedroom tax is going to push people further into debt. It feels like it is the most vulnerable those who are hit the hardest and that the gap between those who have and those who have not is becoming a huge chasm. But having enough food to eat and a warm roof over your head are basic human rights."