Following the national explosion of foodbanks, demonstrated by today's Trussell Trust figures, two "socialist" clothing banks have opened in this region – the first in the country. Mark Tallentire reports

A DOZEN or so tables are set out in a square, roughly central to the main function room at Brandon Welfare Hall. On them: piles of clothes, apparently sorted into tops, bottoms, winter woollies and children’s wear. Around them: 20 or so people of all ages bending and reaching over, rummaging around in search of a gem.

But this isn’t a table top or jumble sale. This is County Durham Socialist Clothing Bank.

The stories “users” of the bank tell are truly humbling. A well-spoken young woman with an 18-month-old daughter, recently widowed. Her partner was the family’s main breadwinner. Without him, money is tight.

“It’s really great here,” she says, meekly. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Elsewhere, a former factory worker and skilled technician; fallen on hard times. Aged 32, he is recently out of prison, has just secured a flat and hopes to find work – any job will do. “I was in a homeless hostel for about a year,” he says. “It didn’t seem I was going anywhere. Then I was offered a flat, a few weeks ago. I want to get a job again.”

Another man says he lives “around County Durham”. A volunteer confirms he his homeless. “I left prison with nowt,” he says. “You’ve got to start from scratch. I left home at 15. I’m 36 now.” He is rummaging through a pile of T-shirts, looking for “something light” for the summer, he says.

A few tables away, a female volunteer is sorting clothes. She organises donations to the bank around her native Weardale, using Facebook to drum up support before driving the clothes down to Brandon for the fortnightly sessions. She uses the bank occasionally but tries not to as, she says, there are others worse off than her. Her husband is disabled and uses a wheelchair and was recently reassessed for his Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

“I don’t think I’m in as bad a position as some people,” she says. “It’s a shame we have to have something like this.”

And then things turn overtly political. “This Government is saving money on the back of the poor and disabled,” she says, adding she got involved with the clothing bank after joining a protest against Atos, the private firm stripped of its contract for assessing benefit claimants’ fitness to work last year following “significant quality failures”.

The initiative is supported by several trade unions and does include the word socialist in its title. James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, said there was “more than a hint” of party politics about it.

Co-founder Dawn Willson, however, insists it’s non-political. “We chose the name because several unions are involved.

“To me, socialism means working together – everybody working together, not pulling apart.”

New to this session was a rail of smart clothes, available to users with upcoming job interviews; bought with £200 from the Trades Union Congress (TUC). There were also toiletries – limited to two items per person; and chocolate Easter eggs – one per child. Clothes, by contrast, are limited only to as much as you can fit in one white bin bag.

Donations are always needed, Dawn says, as demand is always growing. “When we started, I was thinking we’d have a couple of tables and we’d be up and sorted,” the full-time carer who runs the clothing bank voluntarily reflects.

“But it’s snowballed since then. We try to cater for everybody. But we’ve no funding. It was a case of beg, steal and borrow to get the hall.”

The clothing bank opened in October and now attracts up to 100 people per session, from as far afield as Newcastle, Sedgefield and Hartlepool. The pre-Christmas day saw 200 through the doors in just two hours.

Everyone has their own story, Dawn says, but users often include the homeless, disabled and recently bereaved; along with pensioners, jobseekers and those suffering benefit “sanctions”. “We get a lot of people who’ve been sanctioned. But they don’t realise they can appeal – we point them towards help,” Dawn says. "Anyone who needs help, we try to help. We don’t turn anyone away.”

County Durham Socialist Clothing Bank is held at Brandon Welfare Hall, on Brandon Lane, Brandon, County Durham, fortnightly on Tuesdays from noon to 2pm. For more information or to get involved, call 07707-031-625.

Teesside Socialist Clothing Bank meets at The Community Hub, Union Street, Middlesbrough, on the second Saturday of each month. Visit