A while ago, a lady came into the office of the charity I work in demanding a food parcel. I sat her down and gently told her I needed to find out a little more about why she needed the food.
She was not happy with any questions being asked. I tried to explain there were criteria to be met but her voice got louder demanding food for her and her children.
I asked her if she was getting all of the benefits she was entitled to. She told me it was none of my business, but confirmed she was. I then asked her if she had any deductions that caused the difficulty in obtaining food. She exploded and shouted
“Spend my benefits on food!? Why should I do that when I can get it free from you?”
Sometimes I think the charity I run has become very unpopular in our local town. It’s because we don’t give out free food parcels without asking questions. It makes us different to most of the other agencies who give to anyone who approaches them.
We are concerned that the church and other charities are potentially at risk of doing people a dis-service because they don’t make enough of an effort to address the base problem behind the immediate need for food.
When people approach us for food, we ask them: why do you need the food today? We explore what we can do to support them with to remedy that issue first.
Is it about a benefit sanction, delay or a wait for it to be processed? Can we contact the agency and resolve the issue meaning they will be back on track? If there are unaffordable debts can we support them to create a manageable affordable repayment plan?
Sometimes people are needing to spend their food money on repairs or a new washing machine. In this case we will see if we can obtain a grant for the items first.
Are they claiming all the benefits they are entitled to? If not we will support an application or request a mandatory reconsideration.
Some people think its kinder to ‘never ask any questions’ when you help someone. But this is naïve. Asking good questions, in a sensitive way, is one of the most important ways we help people in a way which really helps them.
Our ultimate aim for our work is to help people not need a food parcel again next week. This may seem harsh but if someone is not prepared to take steps to resolve the problem why should our charity simply keep giving them goods or funds when we too are struggling to pay our bills and fund our work?
Please don’t get me wrong, we want to help people. But to do this by empowering them to help themselves going forward and not simply remain dependant on organisations like us.
The key challenge for society to improve how they help people in need is not simply more generosity. The most important thing we can do is help people to believe they have the answers and with support can change their lives. If we cannot do this, how can they ever believe that they do not have to be dependent on others for their needs?
As the cost of living crisis deepens I believe that, organisations really do need to address the root causes in people’s lives. If we don’t, we are simply putting a sticking plaster over the wounds when in reality we need to clean out the wound and give it the best opportunity to heal and become whole again.
If any charity or church truly wants to help people has a moral obligation to support them in a way which helps them get themselves out of poverty.
Surely, this is more like the gospel message, the good news that Jesus spoke about and lived out? He often accompanied physical healing with inner cleansing. There was not just physical change but inward and spiritual change too.
Also, on many occasions he asked people in need ‘What do you want me to do?’ There is no assumption, but an acknowledgement that asking is also hard for some. But the act of naming what you want changed is crucial in acknowledging a desire to improve the situation and not remain in it.
These are the ways that Jesus empowered people to genuine change. If we truly care for people, let’s do likewise.
Jo Moore is CEO of the charity Accommodation Concern based in Kettering, UK
Greg Smith wrote this in response to Jo’s article: We need to dig deeper in our response to poverty