22 February is Destitution Awareness Day- what is the reality for people who are destitute and and do we have a responsibility towards helping them? This is an account of a day I spent at the Oldham Unity Destitution Project last summer……………
It is one of the sunniest days in Oldham and the Baptist Church is packed as the weekly Oldham Unity Destitution Project gets going. In the kitchen older local women from the church and two young, brightly dressed, Muslim women are serving hot food and drinks. In the main hall people from many different countries are sitting at tables, enjoying the food and, of course, cups of tea. In the creche the children are playing, whilst their parents are making their choice from the tables of food that stretch across three of the walls.
The Oldham Unity Destitution Project started after the riots nine years ago as a befriending project for asylum seekers , since when it has expanded to provide a vital service for the growing destitute community in the Oldham area. Every week without fail it provides a food parcel worth £6.50 to at least 50 destitute refugees. This consists of basics such as rice, lentils and tins of tomatoes.
Stewart Bailey, secretary of the group, tells me that: the project responds to a humanitarian need. Destitution means that people have fled conflict in countries including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine,just to mention a few. Many are traumatised and have to prove their refugee status. They often fail due to personal factors such as trauma and a lack of proof, as well as not being able to access legal support. Whilst in this process the government supports them with housing and a small amount of money. But, once they are deemed as not eligible as refugees, they have all their housing and money withdrawn and become destitute. Even if they want to appeal, it is difficult due to the changes in Legal Aid to get solicitors to take up the case, while dedicated services such as Oldham Law Centre has now closed.
Even for people who decide that they are prepared to go back to their home country it is not straightforward as Stewart explains: These people can apply for Section 4 funding which will provide financial support whilst they are waiting to return home. But not everyone is accepted and some countries such as Iran will not accept them back anyway.
The Red Cross attend the project each week and check people’s eligibility for destitution support. They are able to give limited financial help for the first year. After that the project, which is not a charity, has to meet the costs, raised by regular appeals.
The project is run entirely by volunteers. As Stewart says; People get involved because of their philosophical or political views. We range from Marxists to Methodists. Many local faith groups provide support, including the Baptist Church who provide a city centre venue. Other churches provide weekly food collections while the Pakistani community provide storage for our food. On the day I was there,during Ramadan, Islamic charities were providing bags of food including fresh meat, a rare treat for the recipients as the project has no cold storage facilities.
The project has built up good local links with NHS services Local medical and dental practices will register people and will accept the Baptist Church as an address, Stuart explains: Many of the refugees come from war torn countries and need counselling and so the project refers them to the Freedom from Torture service.
One of the people using the project when I visited was Ali, a Kurdish young man who had fled Iran due to his political activity. He told me his story: I came from Iran nine months ago and applied for asylum. They rejected my claim and now I have no housing or money. I come to the project for food and clothes. In Iran I was a football player and I want to get back into this. Mike Luft, one of the volunteers, has been helping Ali to link up with local team FC United.http://www.fc-utd.co.uk.
They have been very positive in supporting some of our young men. It’s not just about giving them food and clothing, its about helping them to join the society we are all part of. Mike and his wife Heather provided practical support by taking Ali to the sports training ground so that he can join the weekly training group.
Robin Pye, who co-ordinates the community and education work at FC United, told me of their work with asylum seekers and refugees: FC United want to benefit the community we serve so we provide support to groups that have differing needs. including unemployed young men as well as asylum seekers. We recognise their particular problems of loneliness and extreme poverty.We offer sports training as a way for them to integrate into life in Manchester. Football has an international language and can help these young people by getting involved in the sport and making friends.
Stewart says that: the project is Community cohesion at its best. We work from the basis that these people are homeless and hungry, and ask the question; what can we do about it?
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