BENEFITS reforms and austere times are leaving scores of Darlington residents vulnerable, according to a Salvation Army minister.

Since its opening last September, a weekend support service offering food parcels and sleeping bags has had almost 300 people through its doors.

In one case, a pensioner in her 70s was given a sleeping bag for warmth after changes to her pension following the death of her husband left her unable to afford to heat her home.

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Another woman cried when she received her sleeping bag – she had been sleeping under a ragged curtain for months after fleeing her partner and seeking shelter on the couches of friends.

One person sought help saying their benefits had been sanctioned and money stopped after a hospital stay meant they missed an appointment with their job centre.

A war veteran too traumatised to spend time indoors was given help and assistance.

Those seeking such support in Darlington cannot be stereotyped, according to Captain Colin Bradshaw.

The majority are women and most are aged between 35 and 55 – aside from that, the service users range from pensioners to rough sleepers, abuse victims and those who have fallen on hard times as a result of job losses or benefit sanctions.

Cpt Bradshaw said: “I have heard all sorts of traumatic stories. There are so many people who are ashamed to be here.

“People feel degraded and neglected, let down by the system. These people have worked most of their lives and are decent people who have literally fallen on hard times and suddenly have no means of income.

“People are being pushed into poverty by benefit reform.”

The service – run by the Salvation Army’s Darlington Citadel – has now launched a sleeping bag appeal.

Cpt Bradshaw said: “Our sleeping bags are literally saving lives. We have more than 200 people who are actually living in them, not just going to bed in them.”

The aim of the appeal is to raise £2,100, which will allow the service to buy 300 sleeping bags at lower summer prices.

Donations of money, sleeping bags and food can be posted to Darlington Salvation Army, Thompson St East, DL1 3EW or dropped there between 10am and 11.30am on a Saturday.

All cash donations will go solely towards the purchase of sleeping bags and food.