Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from seven thirty for about ninety minutes the JVA mobile soup kitchen pops up on Brindle Heath, outside The Church public house. This forlorn arm of former industrial wasteland juts out on a rise above Salford and affords a wide angle view of inner city Manchester. In winter after dark those Mancunian lights twinkle and blur in a promise of urban avarice.
Oh baby the stars shine bright.
At seven fifteen a slow caravan of vehicles weaves off the East Lancs Road and onto the heath. A dozen men and women, old and young, disembark and promptly assemble a marquee, a serving desk featuring urns of hot food and beverages and a makeshift self-service open-air cafe of left-overs from Greggs. Paper plates and cups are stacked next to those grey plastic troughs of knives, forks and spoons we had in school dining halls thirty years ago. But here the cutlery is plastic. A square of tables and chairs allows customers to sit and chat while they grab their first meal of the day or, as is often evident, the first meal in days if not weeks.
The staff stand in attendance behind the hot-food-and-drink desks, eagerly serving the queue and making light friendly chat. Serving tea and coffee is a young woman in a pink hooded top with blonde hair. Jenny is eighteen and studying for her A levels. She’s here with her mum and dad who are setting up the marquee and loading take-away bundles of food off crates from the back of a Volvo estate car. John is managing the sandwich bar and cleaning the tables. He’s been living in hostels after completing a prison sentence five years ago. He’s been volunteering for JVA since the first month he got out. I saw him here on Christmas day in 2017, which fell on a Monday. You don’t take days off when your customers might starve to death if you do. They probably will anyway but you’re pushing it back.
JVA stands for the Joint Veterans Alliance. The charity struggles for funding so its members are draining their personal funds to do this. Ex-military men who are kicked onto the scrap heap when they return home from years of service in exile choose to give up their lives back on civvy street by helping those in similar need. Now isn’t that something?
On that Christmas day Monday that I mentioned, these men and women were out here on the freezing Brindle heath. Teeth chattering, feet stamping and fingers numb. Some of them were even walking the doorways of Manchester city centre with freshly baked Christmas cake for the poor souls who couldn’t even make it to support site locations. Everyone counts in large amounts.
Dave circulates and chats to the eaters – some of whom he has come to know well. I see him promise to go down to the local A&E right after the kitchen concludes in order to check on the boyfriend of one of the girls attending. Tanya says Kevin was beaten up last night before being arrested in the melee. It’s clear to me that this is more than just a soup kitchen. It’s a social service. A welfare support.
Some young men stand away from the set-up in the deep shadows, feverishly wolfing down food like animals. It’s good to see. You know, real hunger being sated. It reminds me of when you feed your dog. That ravishing function of the teeth. Sheer urgency.
Others sit at the table and either converse lowly or lean into their plates in a bid to see off intruders. This is not a social function, afterall. Nobody’s here to network. Energy levels are low.
One middle aged lady ladles tea from a hot cup clasped tightly between both hands into her mouth from a spoon whilst wearing a big smile. She’s blowing off rising steam at the rim and ingesting in a continuous loop. Her ear-to-ear grin is infectious and I smile too. She doesn’t want any food. She’s so skinny she’s no doubt gotten out of the habit of consuming it. People don’t want to get their hopes up by flooding their metabolism with the vital promise of nutrition only for another long session of hunger to cheat their newly awakened nervous systems. It’s easier just to leave the stomach asleep and retain a psychology of hopelessness. Anything more is tantalisingly cruel. Life’s hard enough. This is the real version of expectation management. Not that sugar-coated client-care bullshit your L&D coach has you missing half a day in the office for.
I spot-count eighteen hungry souls devouring the food and everyone has a hot drink. People share cigarettes and pass round a joint. Off to one side is a vacant lot sealed by ten-foot high wooden boards. There’s a small gap in the boards thirty feet away from the marquee. People squeeze through to use the privacy to take a pee.
The atmosphere is calm and relaxed. One or two are here to chat but conversation is largely muted. I recognise many faces from around town and the shop doorways. I nod to a few people who sleep in some of the local hostels and who often shout my name when I set out on a run through town. People in my block are here. Neighbours. The women come here in packs. It offsets the danger of walking through a crazy-golf sequence of disused subterranean concrete subways, especially after dark. Most of the subway tunnel lights are smashed or disconnected. But it’s a journey you have to make.
It’s food. It’s an absolute life saver.
!Audacious & The Mustard Tree
There are gospel churches scattered throughout Salford, from Eccles to the quays to the Irwell river banks where our city rubs shoulders with the celebrity neighbour. The river is the visible boundary. Where she morphs into the ship canal at Pomona docks and swerves right at Old Trafford she’s referred to as The Old Ditch.
The Lighthouse is on the new link road that connects Eccles to MediaCityUK. The New Harvest is down in the Irwell valley opposite the Arena. !Audacious is huge. I once navigated someone to it from the quays by jumping in the car with them and co-driving. The beauty of the soup kitchen in !Audacious – and similarly at The Mustard Tree opposite the Chinese Cash ‘n Carry is that customers get to sit at a table and choose from a menu. They get to enjoy being waited on. This elegant twist injects a vital ingredient into the lives of the starving poor: personal dignity. What could be of higher value ?
Think about it: we are not just trying to feed hungry mouths. We are extending compassion and love to our fellow brothers and sisters. The prime function is an authentic demonstration of personal value. Proof of life. The food is the medium through which we do it.
Loaves & Fishes
Opposite my Job Centre on Paddington Close in Pendleton, M6, is the new home of Loaves & Fishes. This soup kitchen has indoor seating but also boasts a garden with wooden benches and parasol heaters – rather like a beer garden. The outdoor bit allows customers to mingle out of the watchful eye of staff. You know, get a bit of breathing space from authority figures. Bear in mind a lot of these people have been in jail or hostels or police cells or they are constantly in trouble at school or college. They sure could use a moment or two out of the eye line of custodians and deputy heads and arresting officers. Anyone in authority triggers the old anxiety. Loaves & Fishes recognises this.
While people eat, a suite of offices in the main building houses citizens-advice-bureau trained staff who help customers complete application forms to organise their finances and stay on top of obligatory admin. Yeah. At the very bottom end of society, the paperwork in-tray comes in sky high stacks. Many people cannot write. Yeah. The fifth richest nation on earth. Like, for real.
Edwin Hugh Shellard’s gothic-style church was built in 1856 but looks and feels much older. It’s truly glorious and complete with a quadrant garden of landscaped trees and colourful flower beds. It’s like stumbling into Corpus Christi college down Merton street in Oxford. Weirdly it sits deep in the heart of the poorest sink estate in town, surrounded on all sides by towering slum highrises in a pedestrianised crime hot zone called the Broadwalk. The weed and crack dens of Mulberry, Magnolia and Sycamore (all the highrise blocks have soft, Utopian escapist names) look down on Mrs Wyatt’s soup kitchen, flooding it with acid techno and Bob Marley beats, twenty-four seven. Mrs Wyatt lives here. Her jumble sales, soup kitchens and crash-English courses for newly arrived Syrians fleeing the war zone are legendary. She runs a hostel from here that offers temporary bed and breakfast to a dozen or so young men and women.
Known as St Paul’s C of E church to innocent passers-by, it is so much more. You’ll see as much if you take a minute to cross the threshold.
Set up by a couple of women who used to be homeless themselves, Lucie’s Pantry is my own GoTo. I take other people to all the others for company and to keep abreast of goings on. There’s never a shortage of people to help and things to do. A smile. A hug. A chat. Authentic personal enquiry. These are world changing devices to people who grew up without love or parents or school and are now dying of hunger.
Social supermarkets look like food banks but there is a crucial difference; personal dignity. They position themselves smartly between high street shops and soup kitchens. People newly unemployed who cannot afford to feed their families often get issued a food coupon at their job centre which can be traded for goods at a participating food bank. The thing is, this can be humiliating – the ultimate admission of defeat in terms of economic independence. It sends people headlong into the throes of the mental health system, Samaritans, A&E or worse. Social supermarkets recognise that solving short term poverty in a manner which generates a stream of equally dangerous situations is not the best way forward.
You cannot just throw people food. We are not dogs, even if we eat like them.
If you’re on Universal Credit and live locally you can join Lucie’s Pantry. This is a terrific social supermarket. You pay £2.50 a week in cash. Many people do not have bank accounts. You have to prove your benefits status and local residency status and you have to record the temperature of your fridge. You take a cold-storage bag to put things in. Each week you pick up a basket and shop. You get to take ten items. Four from the red shelf. Three from the green. Two from the yellow and one from the deep freezer. There are usually one or two freebies on offer. You check out with an item count. Pay up. Sign the attendance form and that’s the deal. If you miss a week you still have to pay so it will be £5-00 next week. Miss more than three weeks on the run and you’re out.
The place is like the size of a double car garage. The food is wide ranging. You can carb out on junk such as canned soda, cakes and crisps or you can grab staples: bread, milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and veg. I manage to fill my quota on healthy eats. Spinach. Nuts. Shin beef. Full fat milk. High fat condiments. Tomatoes. Salmon steaks. Avocado. Quinoa. It’s not always possible but usually I hit the jackpot. All the food is on the verge of turning but it comes in from all retailers. Tesco Finest. M&S. Sainsbury. The Co-op. Asda. It’s all here.
Crucial non-foods include sanitary towels, loo roll, kitchen roll, mouthwash, toothpaste, showergels, soaps and general hygiene accessories.
Immigrant families humbly scour the shelves, many not yet in command of English. It must be awfully frightening for them and while the women shop, I sense shame hanging off the men as they stand with their children near the door.
Yet Lucie’s Pantry takes most of that shame away because – and I speak from personal experience – unlike a soup kitchen – that low entry subscription fee transforms beggars into genuine paid-up customers and this is the vital quality we must offer our brothers and sisters at this end of society. The forgotten lonely and the never-quite-decriminalised and the immigrant citizens and the mentally ill and the uneducated and the abused and the shameful. Usually, people I meet carry more than one of these burdens on their shoulders.
Every now and again I come across a neighbour in the lift on the way up to my condo in the sky. He makes enquiry as to precisely where Lucie’s pantry is. He’s clearly interested. But when I offer to show him, perhaps because other people are in earshot, he proudly declares he doesn’t need it. He clearly needs it. Personal pride is just as big an obstacle as any other to people at the lower end of opportunity just as it is to people at the top.
Because just under the surface, we are all the same. Feeding people is not enough. All humans are worth their quota of human dignity. We can feed each other and leave our self-respect in tact. And we can do more. We can reach out – and not just metaphorically. Hug people. Sit down in the doorways with your brothers and sisters and look them in the eyes and ask after them. Get to know and use their names.
Just out of sight, Salford has a big beating heart. I love living here. We are leading the way. This is the most important work in the world. Turn your TV off and join us.
The above is an extract from Gary Knapton’s book From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant. Coming soon.