I announced this on my Instagram page recently, but at the start of December I decided to take time this holiday season to talk about homelessness and domestic poverty in the UK. In a season that is cold and unforgiving (and will be long after our celebrations are over), at a time that should be about giving and helping your neighbour, I believe it’s more important than ever to talk about this.
A recent statement release by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, declared that despite being the fifth largest global economy 14 million people, a fifth of the population in the UK, are living in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. According to Alston, various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40% by 2022, nearly half of the children in the country. The numbers are a disgrace, and they cannot be ignored. Here is what the UN report had to say about our Government’s policies:
‘British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society… In England, homelessness is up 60% since 2010, rough sleeping is up 134%. There are 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list, but less than 6,000 homes were built last year’
It’s not great. As a result of this, in this post I have tried to gather together as much information as possible from various sources on what we can do, both big and small, to help alleviate the problem or aid individuals trapped within these cycles. I urge you all to remember that these are all solutions to problems caused by systemic injustice. Beyond this we need public pressure on our local representatives, on our policy makers, and on the ultra rich who are allowed to get by without paying taxes or dealing with consequences. We need public policy rooted in compassion for human welfare, we need an overhaul to our social systems, and we need our Government to actually care about these things and not just bury them under Brexit.
So please, find our who your local politician is. Go to their public forums, talk to them about this. Ask how they’re representing the poorest and most vulnerable. When our social systems fail us, we all lose out.
And here’s what else you can do:
Support Crisis at Christmas
Crisis has helped tens of thousands of people out of homelessness since the charity began in 1967. They work side by side with people to help them rebuild their lives and find a home, as well as carrying out research and campaigning for change. This year you can reserve a place for a homeless person to spend Christmas off the streets. For £28.18 they will receive:
- A warm welcome and good company
- Three nutritious, hot meals daily, including a delicious Christmas dinner
- A bed for the night, if needed
- A chance to shower, freshen up and get clean clothes
- A health check and treatment from a doctor, optician and dentist
- Expert help with mental health and addiction problems
- Advice on housing, employment and benefits
- A way out of homelessness for good through Crisis’ year-round training, education and support.
Buy The Big Issue
You can’t talk about supporting the homeless and vulnerable in the UK without mentioning The Big Issue. Anyone who has ever visited a town/city in the UK has passed a Big Issue seller, please consider buying a copy from them when you pass by. There’s a misconception that the Big Issue is a hand out, it’s not. Sellers buy their copies at cost value then sell they for a set higher price and take home the profit, exactly the same as every other legitimate business out there. The magazine is a hand up, not a hand out, and while sellers may often be sleeping rough or homeless, they’re also hardworking small business owners that deserve our support. Many sellers are transitioning into accommodation and are excited and hopeful about their future, despite what life may have sent their way. This year I made a commitment to try and carry cash at all times, so I can always buy one when I pass a seller. Perhaps this is a resolution you could commit to in 2019 too, though it looks like card payments will soon be available which will make it even easier. Plus, the writing is really good. It’s a worthwhile read each week.
Support The Big Issue Foundation
Beyond the magazine The Big Issue also run a foundation that looks at the core issues of social and financial exclusion, working with individuals who have made the first step to try and work themselves out of their situation. The foundation provides vendors with bespoke support to help them address issues that may be involved with their housing insecurity, including connecting them with local services to change these situations. With their help vendors are able to open bank accounts, access health services, find accommodation, meet their aspirations and reconnect with families and friends, volunteer, train, learn and start their own enterprises and find paid work.
Eat at a StreetSmart restaurant
Since it’s creation in 1998 StreetSmart has raised over £8.2 million for homeless and vulnerable people across the UK. At participating restaurants during the months of November and December, with the benefit of a tablecard or a reference on the menu, a voluntary £1 is added to the diners’ bill. At the end of each month, the restaurant passes on all of this money to StreetSmart, who use it to support reputable charities for the homeless. You can find a list of participating restaurants in the UK here, and why not consider asking your own local cafes and restaurants to sign up for next year?
Support your local food bank
Supporting and donating to your local food bank is absolutely crucial. Food bank use has quadrupled since 2012, the amount of emergency food supplies that are given out has nearly doubled in five years, and areas such as Lambeth, a universal credit area, has seen food bank use increase by 150% in six months. There are also some misconceptions out there when it comes to food banks, here’s what I know from volunteering in one:
- People think food banks are just for the jobless. Wrong. Many people who use food banks have jobs, but their income is so low that they can’t afford their rent and bills plus food (bear in mind that our unemployment statistics overlook people in zero hour contracts which are terrible). It’s even worse at this time of year, when people have to choose between paying for heating or food. In term times children may get free hot lunches at school, but once the holidays start families can’t always afford to feed them. Last December food banks distributed over 150,000 three-day emergency food supplies, which was nearly double the normal monthly average.
- People think that anyone can walk into a food bank. Wrong. People don’t just turn up and take what they want, they have to be referred from organisations, doctors, and other frontline professionals using a voucher system. That’s right, GPs are prescribing food to people. Sometimes people will come who clearly haven’t eaten in a long time, and they are given emergency food supplies.
- People think that food banks give everything you need to make a meal. Kinda wrong. There’s a list that you have to stick to of food that isn’t perishable. Service users get things like rice and pasta, but any fruits or veggies come in tins, people have to work quite hard to have a good diet. If donations are generous you can add extra items (for example I’ve added coconut milk and extra veg to make a curry, baking supplies, toiletries, or extra sweets for families if available). Also people can often only use the food bank every two weeks, & it can be really hard to stretch this amount.
At this time of year please find out what your local food bank needs and donate. Make sure to ask what they specifically need and what extras are good to give at Christmas. And then go and contact your local MP, and ask them what they’re planning to do to eradicate the need for a food bank.
Buy Jollie’s Socks
Not only are Jollie’s socks ethically made in the UK, every pair sold is matched with a pair donated to a homeless charity in your local area to be distributed to their service users. Socks are one of the most needed, and least donated, items for the homeless, so buying from them both gets someone a nice gift and takes care of someone in need too. You can see their full list of partners here and buy online here.
StreetLink is a free service designed to help end rough sleeping by enabling members of the public to connect people sleeping rough with the local services that can support them. If you pass someone sleeping rough you can use the app, website or phone number to enter details of the location, time and date you saw the person and any other information you have. The service will then contact professionals who will try to find them and help them access things like shelter and food. The app doesn’t have great reviews, so I recommend using the phone number instead: 0300 500 0914.
Nightstop provides emergency overnight accommodation for young homeless people who are facing a night on the streets or sleeping in an unsafe place. The project relies on community hosting to provide a safe, welcoming place for young people in crisis. Volunteer hosts, who are ordinary members of the community, open their homes to young people aged from 16 to 25 years, offering a private spare room, a shower, a hot meal and laundry facilities. If you have a spare room you can learn more about volunteering here (training is provided, so you won’t be left in confusion).
Sponsor a room at Centrepoint
Centrepoint is the UK’s leading youth homelessness charity; supporting more than 10,000 homeless young people each year through providing accommodation, health support and life skills to get them back into education, training and employment. For just 40p per day you can sponsor a room at a Centrepoint shelter, where alongside accommodation residents will also be given counselling and taught skills they need to find and stay in employment. You can also buy a gift for a young homeless person here.
If you’re looking for creative wrapping paper ideas, or just prints for your home/gifts, you can buy hand-screen-printed designs from Wrapping Up. It’s on the pricey side but all proceeds go to Wrap Up London, which provides vulnerable people with warm clothes in the winter months. You can also donate good quality warm coats directly to Wrap Up London at tube stations, which will be distributed to charities and community organisations working with vulnerable people across London.
We all know that fighting food waste is sustainable, but City Harvest takes this one step further by collecting surplus food from restaurants, grocers, manufacturers, wholesalers, hotels and caterers and delivering it to organisations across London that feed vulnerable individuals. Each week they redistribute 30 tonnes of food, so if you have a cafe or restaurant local to you, why not ask them to donate their leftovers to the project too?
Café Art is a social enterprise that connects people affected by homelessness with the wider community through their art. They take art made by homeless individuals and display it in independent cafes around London (see which cafes are involved here) where it is available to buy. When pieces are sold 80% of the money goes back to the artists, both giving them a small income but also majorly boosting their self-esteem and educating the community on homelessness. You can also buy the organisation’s annual photography calendar for 2019, which is comprised of pictures taken by homeless Londoners.
Based in Bethnal Green, Second Shot Coffee is tackling homelessness one espresso at a time. They employ people who have been affected by homelessness, train them up and transition them on to long term employment elsewhere. At the same time they run a ‘pay it forward’ scheme that allows you to pre-pay for an item, so that later someone in need who would otherwise be unable to afford it can come and receive the goods free of charge. This gives someone experiencing homelessness the opportunity to feel normal for a moment, by coming in to Second Shot and being treated exactly the same as any other customer. So far Second Shot have give away more than 5,500 coffees and 2500 meals.
Change Please’s coffee carts can be found in key spots in London, and are run by members of the homeless community. These individuals are trained as baristas, paid the London Living Wage and offered support with housing and mental wellbeing. If you’re a city worker, or know one, then getting your regular coffee fix here can do some serious good.
Rise is a bakery on Brick Lane that works with charity Providence Row to employ and support people who have experienced homelessness. The bakery will deliver brownies made from locally sourced ingredients straight to your door or office. All of their goods are currently sold out, but keep an eye on their online shop in the new year for some sugary treats that support others.
And remember, beyond all of this, to look into policy in your area and your local representative’s voting record when it comes to policy that affects the most vulnerable. We need to be vocal, we need to be loud, and we need to amp up pressure to change how our country treats those in need.