Church leaders from multiple denominations and people with first-hand experience of poverty in North East England met to work together to tackle poverty in the region. Church Action on Poverty North East, Thrive Teesside and the Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, co-hosted a roundtable event for 35 people at All Saints Church, Newton Hall, Durham on Wednesday 11 October.

The agenda had been led by people with experience of poverty, and speakers included people with six particular perspectives of poverty:

  • Davey, from Joe’s Place, Gateshead, had prepared an account about sanctions, which was read on his behalf. It told how an unnecessary sanction had led to him losing his housing benefit, and therefore being evicted while still grieving for a family tragedy.
  • Sue from Joe’s Place, Gateshead told of the particular challenges facing carers, and the huge backlog of people waiting to be assessed for support. She also talked of sanctioning, saying, “People get sanctioned for any reason, sometimes if people could not get online to see a message from the DWP.
  • Lesley from Free Help With Debt, Jarrow relayed stories from a debt support programme, which is helping local people address more than £360,000 of debt collectively.
  • Richard from The Pathway, Upper Teesdale talked about the invisible poverty in rural areas, exacerbated by people being pushed to use online services, when rural internet is often inadequate.
  • Graham and Sharon from Café Together, Easington Colliery told of the challenges in ex-mining areas, and the lack of support services. Graham said: “A lot of people feel abandoned.
  • Julie from Thriving Women in Stockton on Tees read from a collaborative poem, which asked: “Whose narrative is being heard?

Others talked about the loss of face-to-face support, and of the remaining support being stretched to its limit, and David Burns from the Salvation Army talked about the need to uphold people’s dignity, and to accompany them rather than giving hand-outs.

Attendees were encouraged to support community events during the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and a follow-up meeting has been arranged on Monday 30 October, to begin agreeing practical next steps.

The meeting was chaired by Bishop Paul Butler, and church attendees included representatives from Hexham & Newcastle Diocese and the Church of England, Methodist Church, Salvation Army, the Society of Friends, and United Reformed Churches.

The northern church leaders will discuss this at their meeting next month, and also with people involved in the national Poverty Strategy Commission. North East Churches Acting Together would also continue to explore ways of working together to find collective solutions. Local and national government, and businesses must work together to improve conditions for the lowest 15 – 20 per cent economically and we must support the Let’s End Poverty campaign that all political parties must be pushed to say what they will do to tackle poverty in the run-up to the General Election.

Bishop Paul said afterwards, “As always it was very good to hear the reality of poverty from those living with it. To be able to have a significant number of church leaders listening in to the stories, and hearing from others working alongside those facing the challenges of the social security system, the inadequacies of provision for those with significant mental health issues and the lack of support for carers, raises many questions that we need to face as a society. The journey to seek to really end endemic poverty is not a simple or easy one but it is one to which all of us gathered together are committed.

The Rt Revd Stephen Wright, Bishop of Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, said, “I’m very grateful for the invitation for the meeting of Challenging Poverty Together in the North East. Our Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle is committed to working alongside our Christian sisters and brothers, people of all faiths and none in accompanying those who face needs and struggle in life.

Our Lord always invites us to see our society and our political decisions through the eyes of the poor. As Christians, we are called to be advocates for their needs and to support them as best we can. I was very inspired to hear of all the ministry taking place across the North East and I am so grateful for all the volunteers who work across the region to support our brothers and sisters.

Claire Lowery from Joe’s Place, based at St Joseph’s Gateshead, said, “The issues are immense and potentially overwhelming. It’s really important that we make a concerted effort to achieve something tangible. We owe it to the people who have been brave enough to share their lived experience of poverty, to let them know that this event has been worthwhile. We need to give people hope and let them know that people care and that the actions coming from this event will be productive.

Fr Adrian Tuckwell, CARITAS lead, said, “Hearing of how the very services that are set up to help people in need was so distressing. It must inspire us all to work with those who have these experiences and raise our voices against such failures.

Bernadette Askins, from Church Action on Poverty North East, said, “Listening to the voices of people from our North East communities who live daily with poverty was a very powerful experience. I feel very hopeful that by working together we can make a real difference.

The following images are re-produced with the kind permission of the Diocese of Durham.