“Christmas is a hard time to start with but when you’ve got nothing it’s ridiculously hard”

As suffering families wait up to six weeks plus for their universal credit, Fashion North visits Britain’s first clothing bank where desperate families are reaching out for everything from prom dresses, school uniforms and Christmas clothing gifts.

The County Durham Socialists bank is one of the only clothing banks in Britain, if not the only bank in the North East. Situated in Brandon Community Hall, you’re eligible to attend the bank if you’re on any form of benefits. Dawn Wilson, 52, the founder of the bank, which has now been running for three years, was set up when Dawn over heard a conversation between a mother and son about how she couldn’t afford new shoes for both of her children.

Founder, Dawn Wilson

Dawn said: “When the bank first opened in 2014 there were around 20 people and by the end of the first year we were getting almost 200 through the door. Sometimes it’s the same local people but most of the time they come from all over the North East, Teesside, Sunderland, Newcastle, Hartlepool, you name it.

Piles of donated clothes

We had a gentleman before, his wife had died and he was with his two kids on his own and he just stood at the doors and cried because he was so embarrassed to come in. Me and the volunteers were all in tears by the time we got him through the door but he came in and got the help he needed. It’s very hard to watch, not everyone wants to admit they need help, but we’re all in the same situation, my husband is disabled.”


Jayne Gowland, a volunteer at the bank is in just as much need for help as the people that come through the door. Jayne’s husband is disabled and uses a wheelchair, however, the government took away their mobility vehicle. This urged Jayne to vote for Labour for the first time in the recent election, in order to receive more help.


Dawn added: “I’m sick of people having to fight over the benefits system over and over again, it’s just not fair to be told you’re disabled you can’t work but you’ve lost your leg, have cancer or are in a coma to be told you’re fit for work. Where are they going to get the jobs from?”


With the universal credit just rolling out at the end of October, the recent decisions from the Tory Government have upset a lot of people. With a six week roll out, families applying for universal credit in November will not receive a penny from their first claim until after Christmas, meaning more families in dire need of the clothing bank. “Christmas is a hard time to start with but when you’ve got nothing it’s ridiculously hard, it’s not just going to hit the young but the old too,” said Dawn.


The info graph below explains the current universal credit situation.


Trevor Bark, co-founder of the clothing bank said: “Christmas is unpredictable, last year we had over 250 people. They find amazing things, we’ve had wedding dresses, a Chanel bag and prom dresses. We actually hold an annual prom show.”


The bank usually struggles for men’s clothing but Dennis Easten, 54 from Stanley attends the bank every fortnight to collect clothes for his son though as nothing usually fits himself.


A food bank also runs alongside the fortnightly clothing bank in Durham, where retailers such as Greggs and the Co-op provide free food. Trevor said: “It’s like a co-promotion, synergy, it works well together.”


In a recent article the Victoria Derbyshire programme revealed that the flaws in the new credit system design are leaving people ‘near-destitute’, with the main interview being about a five-year-old child eating from bins.


Eileen McKnight-Smith, 57, a Business Management mature student at the University of Sunderland thinks that the Government are intending to make the benefits into a repayable loan, just like the student grants. She added: “I’ve also noticed that they’ve sneaked it through as a statutory notice.”


When asked whether more clothing banks are needed in Britain Eileen said: “They are a good idea but it’s difficult because some people might be embarrassed to go. In my day Schools provided items to poorer children but it was all very hush. It sounds like a strange idea but I think it would be good if the clothing bank could be made mobile, so that they travel to people instead of people travelling to them. Public transport is expensive, especially trying to get to Durham from the outline villages and if you haven’t got the money for clothes, you’re not going to have the money for travel either.”

Brandon Community Hall

Although the conversation of the universal credit has been spoken about a lot recently, some members of the public aren’t aware of the situations other families are in. Ian Spence, 60, a glass blower at the Glass Centre Sunderland, said: “I don’t know much about it, no-one I know is in this kind of situation but I would like to know if there are ways I can help.”


And there is, the Durham Socialist bank are always looking for donations, November 19 is the Christmas fair to raise money for toiletries and December 12 is the last bank of the year, which they are looking for children’s toy donations.


Alternatively, you can head over to their website https://www.cdsclothingbank.co.uk/ to donate or contact a member of the team if you’re thinking of starting your own bank, wanting any advice, or someone to talk to.


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