by Gavin Howard
I live in Cambridge, one of the most prosperous parts of the country. However it is also a city with startling income inequality.
Yes, there are a few entrepreneurs selling their tech companies for silly money. But there are also a huge number of households living below the poverty line and in perpetual crisis.
It is in this context that I am part of a team who run the Besom in Cambridge. Besom enables Christians to give their time, money, skills and specific items to local people in need.
Having done this for many years, I often reflect on the many difficult situations we come across. I often ask myself, what makes the difference to the families who we help?
The best professionals
We take referrals from many different support workers who work with local families in crisis. This is crucial to our work: we don’t go out looking for the need, professionals who know their clients bring them to our attention.
What marks out the best support workers we know? As one of colleagues put it, they are ‘heart-led, not salary driven’.
Over the years we have encountered a number of workers like this. We see great results when we are introduced by them to families at the right time. These workers know when the right bit of help, such as decorating or gardening, or delivering a specific item of furniture, can make all the difference.
These dedicated workers are gold dust. And our relationship with them is so precious.
But the problem is that often their employer loses its contract to support people in this way. Or there are restrictions on the way in which they can operate or on the length of time they are able to work with a certain family.
There is great frustration expressed to us by these golden support workers when they can only take people so far.
In December, there was a powerful ‘Dispatches’ documentary on Channel 4 called Growing Up Poor, Britain’s Breadline Kids. It is a sad programme to watch which featured a Cambridge family, with a heroic little girl.
During the course of the programme, the mum makes a huge decision in order to save money. Like so many of our families, she seems to lack local connections and infrastructure.
It struck me that the placing of older mum figures into these households as supervised and supported volunteers would make a radical difference. An older, wiser head may have helped her question that decision.
Also, a second pair of adult hands in a household could break down some of the sense of isolation that the mum might be feeling and, yes, help her to feel loved.
What churches can do
We have prayed for years now for people to offer time as befrienders and we are, even now, optimistic that individuals in churches would rise up in this area. I am talking about longer term, week to week, service, not just a day’s painting or gardening. This is daunting. People are worried that they will be overwhelmed with need in these situations or that there will be safeguarding and personal protection concerns.
However, well-supported and organised group of volunteers make a world of difference. If a pair of well-trained and equipped people from every church in the country was placed in a household for only a few hours a week, it would show radical love and could also lead to real social transformation. If anyone is running such a scheme then I would love to hear more about it.
It is very obvious to us in Cambridge that social care is in tatters. Long term support and care for vulnerable people is patchy at best. If that is what it is like in our wealthy city I can imagine that this is repeated throughout the nation.
However, the mobilising of a well-equipped army of ‘heart-led’ volunteers could help and sustain thousands of struggling households in this country. Perhaps there is a particular role for those whose own nests might be emptying but whose parenting instinct is as strong as ever?
We have just had an election where politicians promised us great social improvements. But haven’t we always had the tools to make social transformation? Now, more than ever, we need the resolve to make a difference.
Gavin Howard helps to run the Besom in Cambridge which provides a bridge between those who want to give time, money, things or skills and those who are in need.