The community support group, which provides financial, food and employment help to those in need, has seen a “massive increase in demand” as Sunderland residents have been hit by the quadruple whammy of rises in fuel, petrol and food prices along with the removal of the Universal Credit £20 uplift payment.
While Universal Credit payments have increased 3.1 per cent this month, annual inflation is predicted to average eight per cent, meaning a significant real-terms decrease in income for the city’s poorest people.
Staff at the support group have said it’s not just those on benefits who are struggling to cope with “working families who are on low incomes being the worst hit when it comes to making ends meet”.
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With this week seeing the Government ploughing ahead with its 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance contributions, it’s a situation which has pushed many families to breaking point, with people forgoing food and heating at the expense of their health.
Action Group Work Coach, Hazel Cox, said: “It has become a horrendous struggle for people and we are seeing so many more people in need of help for basic things like food and paying for gas and electric.
"I know of parents who’ve come for help who really are facing the choice of going without food to feed their children. I run activity groups for children where we also provide food packs with recipes for families to take home.
"There was one man who was going without food to feed his son. He had a part-time job and was walking four miles to work and four miles back. He recently collapsed with a heart attack and the hospital told him he’d become malnourished and it had happened because of the strain on his body.”
For many, the much coined phrase ‘eating or heating’ has become a stark reality.
Triage admin worker, Sam Ayr, the first point of contact for those contacting the group, said: “We’ve seen a massive increase in families asking for help and the situation for many people has become unsustainable. One of the biggest groups hit are the working poor.
"People struggling to pay the bills are taking out loans meaning that by the time their next wage or benefit payment arrives they already owe it out in debt. “There’s one man who was referred to us by Gentoo. He was living in a two-bedroom house and was not putting the heating on and sleeping in a sleeping bag in his front room to avoid having to pay energy bills.
"He couldn’t afford his £600 energy bill and so in the end we had some funding which we used to pay off the debt and put him back on an even keel.
"We’ve also seen a large increase in the number of people using our Fare Share Food Bank.”
It’s a situation which Sam said is not just affecting people’s physical health.
She added: “We’ve seen a massive rise in the number of people contacting us about mental health concerns and threatening to commit suicide.”
Sam and Hazel spoke to the Echo during a visit to the Action Group this week by Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, Jonathan Ashworth.
Mr Ashworth said: “I’m so impressed by the work carried out by the Action Group and was moved to tears by one of their success stories. However, listening to these stories, you can sense the despair and hardship which is out there.
"The welfare state should be there to support people but the Government’s decision to continue with the National Insurance increase and to only increase benefits by 3.1 per cent means a real-terms cut which will push another 1.3m people into poverty.
"We wouldn’t be pushing ahead with the National Insurance rise and we would be placing a windfall tax on the gas and oil companies.”
Another demographic of concern is the impact of the cost of living on the city’s pensioners.
A statement from the Labour Party claimed that “507,274 pensioners living in the North East are set to be an average of £381 worse off this year” as a result of a state pension increase which falls well short of the eight per cent inflation average.
It’s a situation which is certainly being experienced at the Action Group.
Sam said: “We’ve seen a big increase in older people asking for help with many people asking about eligibility for pension credits which helps cover the cost of things like dental care.
"We’re seeing more older people attending our Bingo, Broth, and Bun and Pie, Peas and Bingo events. It allows people to get fed without losing their dignity of having to ask for help – something which a lot of older people don’t want to do.
"It also gives them somewhere to go to keep warm."
Mr Ashworth added: “Twelve years of incompetent Conservative governments have left retirees across the North East struggling to cope with the cost of living crisis.“Boris Johnson is imposing the biggest real-terms cut to the pension in 50 years. Coming on top of heating bills through the roof and prices rising, Boris Johnson’s pensions betrayal means many of Britain’s retirees are facing impossible choices between heating and eating.”
Responding to the situation a Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures people are facing with the cost of living, which is why we’re providing support worth over £22 billion across this financial year to help.
“From April, the full yearly amount of the basic State Pension will be over £2,300 higher than in 2010 and we continue to work with stakeholders and others to increase awareness of Pension Credit, with the number of new claims 30 per cent higher in 2021 compared to 2019.”