IT’S a sign of the times. As families struggle with the cost of living, they turn to charities and support groups for help.
Those groups in Southend, which help feed the poor and homeless, say they are seeing a big increase in demand. And they fear the problems will only escalate.
In January the age at which a person could claim housing benefit for a single room increased from 25 to 35. In addition, those on benefits see a drop in income if they fail to look for work or take part in training programmes. Coming during the economic downturn, the changes appear to have put added pressures on local homeless charities.
The Storehouse which provides a wide range of help for homeless and needy people, including food, clothing, training and help with addictions, has also noticed a marked increase in those needing help.
John Williams who helps run the Storehouse at the Coleman Street Community Centre in Southend, said: “We believe it’s going to get worse in the next couple of years because the budget cuts are still coming through. We are already seeing the impact of housing benefit cuts for single people.
“We are seeing big changes with lots of people coming into the centre. If people haven’t been deemed to have been applying for work they have their benefits stopped so we have more people coming in for food because of that.”
Both Sainsbury’s and Ocado supply food to the Storehouse but they hope another supermarket will step in to help cater for an increase in demand for the centre’s services.
Mr Williams added: “We have to constantly be good stewards with what we have got. We have to be so careful that we could really do with another supermarket. With Christmas on the way we need all the help we can get.”
The organisers of Soup4Southend who run a soup kitchen at various spots around the town, have also noticed an increase in people needing help.
A spokeswoman, who asked not to be named, said: “We started off with about ten people each week and now there are 50. It does seem to have something to do with housing benefit. A lot of the people we help are under 35.”
She added: “Two Southend churches, Clarence Road Baptist Church and Cornerstone in Bournemouth Park Road, help us but we really need another church to help.”
The local picture reflects news from Uk homeless charity the Trussell Trust which reports food banks are being used by record numbers. The charity expects to feed more than 200,000 people in 2012-13 as food and fuel bills are set to rise this winter.
Lesley Salter, Tory Southend councillor responsible for social housing, said: “I always wondered how big a problem it would be. I know the benefits people have been keen for people to go to them so they can help.
“How big a problem it is I haven’t heard other than what it was expected to be which wasn’t much. “
Council officers are very clued up and try to work with people who have problems. My side of things is the homeless rather than benefits but just how big a problem it is going to be we don’t know yet.”
Andrew Moring, Tory councillor for support services, said: “The council only passes on benefits from the Government. We were expecting a small increase but I am not aware it’s become a really large issue yet.
“I suppose the Government thought people would probably share accommodation or stay with parents.”
Nevertheless, the Homeless Action Resource Project, (HARP) which runs day and night centres in the town, says it is also seeing increasing numbers of people wanting to see specialist advisors to discuss a range of problems.
Gary Turner, service manager at the Valkyrie Road centre, said: “Last week we had a very busy day with 27 people wanting to see our advisors in just one morning. We are seeing many more people than in the previous year.
“We had 1,132 people through our doors last year. This year we have already had 1,600 so potentially up to 3,000 by the end of the financial year in March.”
Mr Turner added: “It’s not just benefits, it’s a whole host of things. Some people are affected by the recession and have lost tenancies but there are increasing sanctions from the Job Centre Plus.
"They are trying to get people back into employment but some people may not do what they are asked to do or may not go on Government work programmes.
“We have courses geared to that programme. If we all work together we will see results and people will be better able to find work.”
Local charities are gearing up for winter and to provide comfort for those in need at Christmas. For more information or to help, visit www.harpsouthend.org.uk and www.storehouse.org.uk