Start budgeting and you can bank on less stress

Festive cheer: Support worker Sarah Mason helps Natalie Marsden prepare for Christmas
Festive cheer: Support worker Sarah Mason helps Natalie Marsden prepare for Christmas
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FOR families struggling to survive on benefits, Christmas feels tougher than for a long time this year, says a Sheffield charity that helps young families.

Home-Start Sheffield family support worker Sarah Mason said a lot of people were having trouble getting their benefits sorted out, causing problems for families, who face further hardship as more cuts ordered by the government hit. She added: “Some weeks the priority is to pay rent. If it’s between rent and food they’re buying food and then potentially facing eviction. That’s where food banks come in so you can have a bit of both.

“They provide proper food, enough to make a meal with, like pasta and rice.”

Sarah said that a local vicar had told her that people might usually knock on her door to ask for a small sum of money but now were asking for food instead, perhaps just a loaf of bread.

She said that she often calls in to ask for donations from food banks of behalf of clients as there is a lot of stigma about appearing to be so desperate: “They worry that social services will intervene and take action.

“They also feel that people look down on them. It’s embarrassing.”

Home-Start has tried suggesting that food banks distribute from children’s centres and other places where families go anyway, so that it is not so obvious.

Sarah added that some clients are fleeing domestic violence and this leaves them isolated if they move on to housing estates where they don’t know anyone and so cannot count on support from friends or extended family.

Credit unions can give loans but they are becoming so stretched that they have put a cap on how much they will lend. Sarah also suggests that families look on websites such as Freecycle for items they need or presents, but this relies on having access to the internet, of course.

Home-Start sometimes receives donations of clothes that volunteers will take home and clean and steam before they are distributed.

Families feeling the strain can often fall prey to loan sharks and ‘door knockers’ who will hand over shopping vouchers worth £250 on the spot, a tempting prospect for families trying to buy Christmas presents.

Sarah said that vouchers worth £250 can cost £350 to pay back.

Others pawn or sell gold they have been bought for special occasions, thinking when they pawn it they will be able to buy it back but cannot afford to and end up losing everything. Selling items on eBay is another popular move.

She said; “People feel the need to keep up with the Joneses. They want their kids to have the top stuff. They don’t want people to look down on them.

”We try and advise them and help them to try and budget. It’s a large amount of money, Christmas. All the spare money has been used to pay for gas because it’s been so cold recently.”

Home-Start Sheffield, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, aims to provide support and friendship for families with children aged under five. This includes outreach work, home visiting and running groups to help give parents the skills to encourage early learning, healthy lifestyles, speech and language development and early bonding and attachment.

Manager Sara Gowen says that families who are on benefits or low paid have to rely more and more on charitable help as the state system starts to fail them when welfare budget cuts are made.

She said: “The fact that food banks are now a necessity is what is outrageous. These are not people who are going out buying lots of expensive things, it’s about people struggling with rising prices of rent, gas and electricity. They have to pay them but they can cut back on food. They buy cheaper and cheaper stuff which is nutritionally not good either. They feel they are going begging in effect because they can’t afford to feed their children. To be in that position daily is humiliating for people. There is a stigma about it.”

Sara said the charity, which works with around 280 families a year, aims to support them and is not judgemental of them, building up a bond of trust.

As a charity, not a statutory agency, Home-Start cannot intervene to take a child into care, although staff would have a duty to report serious concerns to the relevant authorities.

The charity’s workers and volunteers, who all have parenting experience, have to be invited in to families’ homes. Home-Start can work with people on a longer-term basis than some agencies and works alongside other organisations.

It runs five groups across the city for parents to meet and make friends and do activities that involve parents and children.

Christmas on a budget: Visit mumsnet.com - CLICK HERE.