Brushstrokes Community Project
is based in Smethwick and is part of the Father Hudson’s Care charity. The project supports local asylum seekers, refugees, families, homeless individuals and people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. Lucy Clark is Resources Co-ordinator and works with many local organisations, groups and individuals who are part of the Sandwell Borough of Sanctuary
(for example Bearwood Action for Refugees). Lucy also works with schools in the area such as St Hubert’s, St Matthew’s, St Philip’s and St John Bosco as part of the Schools of Sanctuary
Brushstrokes was initially established in 1999 by a nun who set about finding out the local need of the hidden poor in Smethwick. After “knocking on doors” in the community, she quickly became aware that this was an area for asylum dispersal, which was adding to a community already experiencing high levels of poverty.
Today the Brushstrokes team aims to support, empower and help to integrate people - predominantly asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants - that have come to the UK. So they have three main areas of service:
- Advice in immigration and asylum, but also in respect of welfare benefits and housing. There is an EU team who are still trying to help people apply for settled status, so they can continue to build their lives in the UK. Furthermore, there is a team of advisors that specialise in the Afghan Resettlement Programmes, who are working with the government and the council to support those people. This also includes working with local homeless teams and Sandwell Council. As well as receiving referrals from Migrant Help and Serco, there is a great deal of liaison with health visitors, medical organisations, family services and schools.
- Delivering English Language classes – including an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programme, and IELTS (International English Language Testing System). These involve teaching individuals from pre-entry level up to specialist language, such as the OET (Occupational English Test) programmes, which are designed to help those who need a particular level of English to work in occupational health roles in this country. While there are 3 paid members of staff, most of these classes are run by volunteers.
- Lucy is responsible for Resources and, as part of this, Brushstrokes runs a foodbank on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as sending out weekly deliveries to several service users with limited access to travel due to disability. Again, a lot of the preparation, welcoming and packaging of food is completed by volunteers. The FareShare delivery happens on a Wednesday and the people who come in on the Thursday feel that it’s like taking part in a lucky dip! It’s exciting, as they never know what food treats they are going to receive. Alongside this, the project offers clothing support, household item support and baby equipment. Basically, Lucy attempts to source whatever local people who are struggling, need. Lucy said “One of my clients has nicknamed me ‘the genie’ as she asks for something and I say, wait a minute, and come back with the item she needs! Sometimes we think that is a combination of the need for food, combined with the warm welcome, respect and kindness that people receive here that keeps them coming back”.
Brushstrokes has been involved with FareShare for at least 3 years. Pre-COVID the numbers of people they were supporting each week were much lower. During the first lockdown, when there was increased funding available from the government for frontline charities and community groups for food provision, the Brushstrokes’ package grew. The team were approached by more families in need, and the Birmingham and Sandwell councils were paying money towards this, so the offer could be increased (and Brushstrokes received more produce each week). Lucy was driving to collect the food from the depot in Nechells on a weekly basis. The food is now delivered to Brushstrokes and Lucy says they have a great relationship with the driver – that she knows there isn’t much they won’t take!
Lucy explained that the food supplied by FareShare has a really, really positive impact. Pre-pandemic, apart from the Fareshare food, everything that was given out by the team every week was donated. There was no cost to running the food resource; they had a donation each month of £200 from which they would to spend £50 per week on fresh fruit and vegetables.
When the COVID pandemic hit, the schools and churches which made up their donation pool closed, meaning the donations stopped entirely. At the same time, there was a huge increase in food poverty nationwide, and particularly in the area where Brushstrokes operates. So, even when those donor organisations reopened and there were a great many street collections taking place, people wanted to send all of that food to the local Trussell Trust Foodbank – which was fine, because that need was so great as well.
Lucy said “So our donations during that time had stopped. It has restarted but, whereas the food we would collect from a harvest appeal pre-pandemic would last us about 6 months, now it lasts us less than 6 weeks. The demand from local people has grown so much that everything we purchase is now strictly budgeted. The fact is that with our limited budget we can’t buy yoghurts, cheese, ready meals or cakes. These are things that we receive from FareShare which are the treats, nice things, but why shouldn’t local people in need have those things as well? Clients can only come once a week on a Tuesday or Thursday, and more people come on a Thursday. The first thing they ask about is the fridge items from FareShare!”.
Brushstroke also runs a community café, which is open to anyone in the local community on a Friday as a recognised Place of Welcome. They also take delivery of big trays of chicken from FareShare, and sausages from Costco, which form the basis of the meals they serve.
As Lucy has observed, the project went from supporting around 27 households pre-pandemic, to over 100 households a week during the height of COVID. In the last 6 months this figure had dropped down to around 70, however recently the team has seen this figure move back up towards 100 again. This is because the cost of living is increasing and the people they are supporting are finding things harder once more. These vulnerable locals are having to make hard choices now – do they put the heating on? Do they buy shoes for their children? Or do they have food to eat? The things that come from FareShare are what they view as expensive foods, so they are not items that people in need will buy if they’re having to budget every penny they have.
QB, asylum seeker Pakistan, single parent of 3 children, said "The food I receive from Brushstrokes helps me when I am unable to manage my expenses. It is very helpful. I have travel fees to pay and study fees and for the children. The food here is a top-up. The fridge items, fresh vegetables, it is healthy food which is good. Thank you for helping".
SM, asylum seeker El Salvador, family 2 adults and 2 children, said: "It would be difficult to manage without coming to Brushstrokes. Canned foods are helpful to [fill] the cupboards. Fridge foods are helpful because it is fresh, and you can cook it immediately. I cannot work so it is hard to manage the financial costs otherwise. The maintenance of the children is too high and this helps".
Finally, Lucy said “We love our FareShare deliveries! We would never stop them. It’s a key part of what we now give out each week and if we stopped our subscription, then we would suffer as a food source. But the café would suffer as well and it would just have much greater implications for us. So we’re really grateful for the FareShare Food”.
Find out more about the Brushstrokes Community Project here
Find out more about getting food from FareShare Midlands here