Poverty is on the rise in Blackpool as ‘desperate’ families seek help in their droves from food banks and homeless centres.
One resort soup kitchen has seen a 25 per cent rise in the number of people it served over the last 12 months.
Amazing Graze founder Mark Butcher said he has even set up a children’s room in response to the number of families left with nowhere else to turn.
He said: “We have never had a family at Amazing Grace whose benefits hadn’t been sanctioned – and they’re desperate.”
Volunteers at Blackpool Care and Share, which hands out food, clothes and other essentials to those in need, said they had seen a ‘surge’ in low-income families struggling to cope.
Mark said: “We set up our soup kitchen for homeless people, but it’s not just those people now.
“Families are having to come to homeless centres and we’ve had to create a children’s room for them.”
The number people served by volunteers at the kitchen has soared by 25 per cent over the last 12 months.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated elsewhere on the Fylde coast – and across the country.
Linda McEvilly, 71, and her dedicated team of volunteers at Blackpool Care and Share handed out 882 gift hampers over Christmas - a huge increase on the 622 delivered in 2015.
She said: “We have been very blessed this year because Lytham Choir donated so much, and the Nifty Fifties social group in Lytham decided to make us their charity of choice.
“But I don’t think poverty in Blackpool is getting any better.
“We’ve seen a surge in the number of JAMs, which stands for ‘just about managing’. These are people who are probably working on a very low wage and if a bed breaks or a curtain falls down they just can’t afford to replace it.
“The working mum can in some ways be worse off than the unemployed mum on benefits. If their child gets a rip in their coat or a hole in their shoes, it costs money to replace. Even £10 could be the difference between putting food on the table at the weekend.
“The government says they are just about managing - well I say they’re just about not managing.”
Linda founded Blackpool Care and Share more than 26 years ago after fleeing an abusive relationship with her two young children, Jaine, eight, and Anthony, two, in tow. After scouring the resort every day in search of work and food, she found herself shacked up in a leaky hostel with a bedframe lacking a mattress - and swore she would do all she could to help other people like her.
In 1991 she began handing out food, clothes and household essentials to needy neighbours. Now she sits at the heart of a charitable network that offers a helping hand to the whole of Blackpool and beyond, all from the humble hall at St Monica’s Church in Mereside.
Mark, meanwhile, was inspired to set up Amazing Graze in 2012 after turning his life around from a background of drink, drugs and petty crime. Within three months, the Christian goodwill group was serving food and preaching gospel to more than 300 rough sleepers per week. They meet every Friday and Saturday night at their headquarters on Boothley Road, where they serve up more than 20,000 hearty plates of food to Blackpool’s poorest and most disenfranchised residents every year.
All of the group’s volunteers are trained in health and social care and first aid, and are dedicated to supporting homeless people with drug and alcohol problems through every step of their recovery.
According to Mark, there are a number of factors contributing to the rise in people coming to his team for help.
“This is mainly because we get quite a lot of problems coming in from elsewhere,” he said.
“People who come here when they were 12 or 13 with their parents, when they’re 18 with nowhere to go, they think they’ll come to Blackpool, and they find it’s not as nice as they remember.
“I think it’s getting a lot worse because of sanctions.
“I agree with sanctions to a point, but figuring out how to navigate the benefits system is a challenge even for healthy people, so imagine how difficult it is for mentally ill people or people with drug or alcohol addictions.”
But he said the sudden rise in the formerly legal high ‘spice’ threatens to undo the hard work of good Samaritans across the resort.
He said: “Spice is the scourge of our lives. We haven’t got a clue what to do about it. It affects the homeless hugely. They can’t deal with anything and their lives are completely chaotic when they’re on it, and when they’re coming off it they’re even worse.
“They can get a strong dose for just £10 and that’s enough to get five or six people off their heads for a good six to eight hours. It’s dangerous.”
Linda added: “What we have seen over the years is a widening gap between the rich and the working class. It’s the same old story - the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
“My only worry is what will happen when I die. I can’t lift so much now. My hands are swollen and horrible because my age. I’ve had people say they would carry on Care and Share – but that they would have to open a charity shop. I’m aware that if people work they will want a wage. If I can keep going another eight or 10 years then I’ll be very happy.”
Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South, said: ““Unfortunately I think it is true that the need has become greater this year and this has a lot to do with the fact many of the people who are in poverty are in work, but being paid very poorly. We hear a lot about people with benefits but we don’t hear a lot about people who are in work and still struggle to make ends meet.
“Local governments’ ability to deal with this is reduced because funding changes will mean that councillors in places like Blackpool have even less money to spend, and more pressure will be put on voluntary organisations.
“Blackpool is getting less and that needs to be addressed.
“The great work that is done by the voluntary organisations in Blackpool cannot be seen as the only solution. The government must also play a part.”