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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Closed curtains tell a story of poverty and hopelessness

This opinion piece is over 5 years old

Rhona Cunningham reflects on what if anything has changed for families over two decades of stalled political progress on overcoming child poverty

We’ve just had Challenge Poverty Week and I went along to many of the events, and we at Fife Gingerbread even rescheduled our annual event to take place during the week.

All of the focus on poverty made me stop and think about how we are doing and what advances we have made.

Fife Gingerbread was originally a lone parent organisation before it widened its mission to include vulnerable and disadvantaged families. So, it has always recognised the struggles faced by lone parents to care, often completely alone, for children emotionally and provide for them financially.

Policies intended to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up actually pressurise parents

Today, though, the one common denominator across all of our work with all of our families is poverty. Poverty knits together a barbed blanket of insecurity and uncertainty.

Poverty strangles ambition and dignity. It keeps families trapped in the hopelessness of the situation.

It’s our job at Fife Gingerbread to walk beside families, one by one, to help them break the chains that hold them tight and help them to see new choices. That’s why working with Citizens Advice and Rights Fife is built into our work wherever possible, so we can take the expertise into the homes to see what exactly needs to be tackled so people can move on.

So what has changed over the years? I hate to say it, but you would be blind not to notice, life is worse.

Sadly, foodbanks and charity shop purchases are the norm; depression and anxiety are the norm.

At the other end of the spectrum increasingly people don’t seem to understand. They assume people are in poverty through life choices not because of circumstances often outwith their control.

Policies intended to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up actually pressurise parents into low paid and insecure work without a social security system to make it viable and to protect them.

Parents who have no money, no food, rising debts, no heating, washing that won’t dry and frustrated and hungry children have no headspace to work out what’s best for their family. They don’t even have the headspace to open curtains.

It is not unusual for families that we work with to have curtains closed on the first visit. To the uninitiated, they might see closed curtains on a house with an unkempt garden and make a negative assumption. Our staff know instinctively that is a sign of utter resignation, depression and withdrawal.

As the weeks go on, the curtains will be opened and eventually dad will come out with the worker for a walk in the park with his kids.

Success is when the curtains are open and dad takes his kids out on his own for a walk in the park with a ball.

This is what happens when a parent is given headspace to begin to think there is a brighter future – headspace matters.

Can we challenge poverty? Aye, damn right we can – and we must – families living in our communities deserve way more than this and we know in Fife Gingerbread what assets they can be if they are given a hand when they need a hand.

Rhona Cunningham is chief executive of Fife Gingerbread