As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, County Durham Community Foundation has launched its Poverty Hurts Appeal, aiming to raise £1m for the most vulnerable people in the region. PETER BARRON reports

TIRELESS community worker Darren McMahon has been asked to put the cost-of-living crisis into context for the audience that’s gathered for the launch of a campaign aimed at easing the pain of poverty in the North-East.

“We have a little bell that rings whenever someone comes in to use our foodbank. It’s ringing far too often, and often it’s a new face,” replies the driving force behind PACT House, a lifeline community hub, set up in a building that was once a bank, opposite the Jobcentre in Stanley.

On one particularly bad day recently, there was a period when the bell was ringing every three minutes as a steady stream of vulnerable people came in for an emergency food parcel.

“I’ve never known it this bad,” says Darren, who was awarded the MBE last year. The honour was in recognition of 30 priceless years at the sharp end of service to his local community, so when he says it’s as bad as he’s known it, you know it’s very bad indeed.

“We used to do 17 food parcels a week but now it’s 30 a day,” he adds.

Darren, pictured below, is speaking in Durham’s magnificently historic Town Hall, that could easily be the setting for a scene from Harry Potter. As part of a panel of local community heroes, he’s adding his voice to the launch of Poverty Hurts – an ambitious campaign by County Durham Community Foundation (CDCF) that aims to conjure up £1m.

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The timing could hardly be more appropriate because the launch comes the morning after the Bank of England has raised the base rate of interest by 0.75 percentage points to three per cent – the single biggest increase in more than three decades.

It comes with a warning that the UK is already in recession, with the expectation that inflation will hit a 40-year high of around 11 per cent during the current quarter.

“This is our effort to fight back against the appalling poverty that is blighting our communities,” announces CDCF chief executive, Michelle Cooper, as she launches the campaign.

“Children without warm coats, pensioners too frightened to put the heating on, families with bills they can’t afford to pay. It’s sickening that this is the reality – we are better than this.”

There’s no doubt that the £1m target is ambitious, but there is already some momentous breaking news as Michelle reveals that Jonathan and Jane Ruffer, whose philanthropy has transformed the fortunes of Bishop Auckland, have donated £250,000 to the Poverty Hurts appeal.

The Ferguson Family Fund has donated a further £40,000, Arqiva £25,000, Banks Group £20,000, and Peppercorn Tax £1,000.

Meanwhile, 14-year-old Ryan Collier, of Tow Law, had chipped in £174 through a running challenge, covering 18 kilometres.

Michelle reports that, so far, a total of £360,000 has been raised, adding that the foundation has awarded more than £400,000 in grants over the past ten days. For every £1 donated to Poverty Hurts, CDCF has pledged to add another 50p.

“This is only the start because the need is increasing on a daily basis,” she says.

It’s a message amplified by Darren McMahon and the representatives of other charities supporting the launch of the appeal: Steve Vasey, founder of Cornerstone Supported Counselling and Housing, in Willington and Hartlepool; Yeama Susan Mansaray, of Purple Rose, which runs a weekly drop-in for asylum-seekers and refugees, in Stockton; Gemma O’Brien, family wellbeing co-ordinator for Sacriston Youth and Community Project; and Juliet Sanders, chief executive of Feeding Families.

“There’s been a massive increase in people coming through the door, including a lot of older people whose grown-up children have become single-parents and have had to move back in, and brought their own children, so there are three generations living in the house,” says Darren.

“We’re also seeing people from low-income families, who might have needed occasional help in the past, but now need it regularly.”

In addition to the comfort on offer at PACT House, ‘warm hubs’ have been opened at seven community venues in Stanley. Open seven days a week, people can shelter from the cold, with a hot drink and soup with a bun. “The kettle’s always on,” is the message.

“Every other call I receive is a request for energy support,” says Darren. “It’s hard to believe that in this century, people are thinking in units – like whether they’ve got enough for a day’s gas.”

He cites the example of a PACT House volunteer, who’d had a cough for two weeks but couldn’t afford a prescription, choosing to feed her kids instead.

Asked what he wants to see happen, Darren makes a passionate plea to support the Poverty Hurts appeal.

“I want toys donated for Christmas Day, I want food for Christmas lunches, I want people to stop accepting that this is how it is. As I get older, I get more and more angry because poverty shouldn’t be the norm – so get as angry as me!”

What’s really alarming is that he knows the worst is yet to come as Christmas approaches. “A lot of people I know won’t be paying the rent in December, and more will be coming to the foodbank because they’ll be desperately trying to save for Christmas presents – that’s the reality.”

Poverty is hurting – and there’ll be no let-up this winter for the over-used little bell at PACT House in Stanley.