Parents hit by bills crisis making ‘impossible choices between nappies and food’, charity warns

Sophie Livingstone (left) CEO of Little Village, and session lead Sandra Vasiliauskaite (centre) help single mother Alice  (Lucy Young)
Sophie Livingstone (left) CEO of Little Village, and session lead Sandra Vasiliauskaite (centre) help single mother Alice (Lucy Young)

Alice had her phone at the ready, waiting for the NHS to call back about her dental problems.

The 37-year-old from Wembley, who relies on benefits, was in excruciating discomfort and hoping the NHS could provide a dentist to sort it out.

She prided herself, though, on being appreciative for what she had despite going days without food and sitting in the dark at night to cut down on bills. Yet today she was tearful because of what her seven-year-old daughter had been saying.

The single mother, who worked as a manager at McDonald’s and quit her job to have a second child five months ago, said: “We went to a party at my aunt’s last night and my daughter blurted out to everyone: ‘Mum doesn’t buy me things any more.’

“I felt angry, embarrassed and judged. But afterwards, I thought, it’s true – I haven’t been able to afford her a birthday or a Christmas present.”

She added: “Recently my daughter came home from school and said: ‘Remember those delicious sweetcorn sandwiches you used to make? Maybe you can make them again and we can sell them and get rich.’ I asked what prompted this and she said a child had told her: ‘We don’t want to play with you, you’re not rich.’

“Things have got very, very hard. We went to church Sunday and afterwards I was sitting at home crying because we had no food and my daughter tried to comfort me, saying: ‘Remember what the preacher said, that God will provide and we don’t need to worry?’ I thought, my daughter is having to deal with things way beyond her age. It breaks my heart.”

Sophie Livingstone helps Alice pick out blankets for her son (Lucy Young)
Sophie Livingstone helps Alice pick out blankets for her son (Lucy Young)

Alice had come for support from Little Village, a brilliantly innovative charity that has set up a network of “baby banks” across London where struggling parents with children under five can come and get free nappies, wipes, clothing, toys, books and equipment like beds and prams.

Little Village is one of the charities earmarked for funding with money we raise from our On The Breadline Christmas appeal via our partnership with The Childhood Trust, which was announced today and will focus exclusively on helping children in London – and that comes on top of our partnership with Comic Relief announced last week.

Founded by a group of mothers in 2016, Little Village supports 7,000 parents across London who have been referred by health visitors, midwives, food banks or other charities, and has five branches – in Wembley, Hackney, King’s Cross, Tooting and Hounslow.

One-third of those they help are working parents in poverty, another third are refugees or asylum seekers and 11 per cent have been plunged into poverty fleeing domestic violence. Nearly half are single parents and the sterling equivalent of aid they get from Little Village for an infant is over £1,000.

CEO Sophie Livingstone, 45, said they had seen a sharp increase in parents seeking their services, up from 6,000 last year, as well as more severe cases. “A lot of children we see have been sleeping on the floor or sofa cushions because their parents cannot afford furniture.

“In one case, a baby was sleeping in an open drawer because the mother did not have money for a cot. We provide new mattresses and cots to parents who need them.”

Little Village supports families with babies and children under five living in poverty across London (Lucy Young)
Little Village supports families with babies and children under five living in poverty across London (Lucy Young)

She spoke of mothers skimping on meals, sitting in the dark at night too afraid to turn on lights or heating, and added: “We had a mum whose child’s nappy was absolutely sodden, soiled and overflowing. The mother had been trying to ration nappies and change them infrequently.

“It was pretty grim and she was embarrassed, not because of neglect but because she had no money and was making impossible choices between nappies and food.”

Ines, 26, a single mother of three children under four, said she had fallen on hard times after going on maternity leave from her job at a Knightsbridge hotel. “I used to earn over £1,300 so to drop to £826 [universal credit] a month makes things very tight,” she said.

Ines with her children, aged three, two and five months (Lucy Young)
Ines with her children, aged three, two and five months (Lucy Young)

“Our electricity has gone up 70 per cent. I can’t afford to turn on the heating so we wear jackets indoors. I come to Little Village to pick up essentials. I can’t afford toys or buggies. This place is salvation.”

Another single mother, Elizabeth, sat alongside, tears streaming down her face. “I get £10 a day from the Home Office and with that, I must buy everything,” she said.

The 44-year-old from Honduras has been living with her three-year-old daughter in a hotel room. “Today, when I went to get my £10 from the Welfare Centre, they said come back later, so I haven’t eaten and nor has my daughter.”

She added: “I come for baby clothing but my daughter is asking the staff for food. It’s embarrassing. I have lost 29lb and my clothes are falling off me, but I can’t afford new ones. My fridge is entirely empty except for half a carton of yoghurt. I have trained myself to not feel the hunger but I get upset when my child goes without.”

Elizabeth and her daughter look at the soft toys available for children at Little Village (Lucy Young)
Elizabeth and her daughter look at the soft toys available for children at Little Village (Lucy Young)

As we were about to leave, Alice finally heard from the NHS about her search for a dentist. As she came off the call, her face crumpled. “They say the waiting list to get dental work on the NHS is over a year and that I must have my tooth problems sorted privately,” she said.

“They said it will cost over £500. I feel helpless. I only have £500 for food and bills every month and I am already £2,000 in debt with my electricity company.”

 (Independent)
(Independent)

She looked around plaintively. “I am so grateful for what I get, but I can’t eat or chew on the left side. And I worry. How will we cope when it gets cold? I can’t take this pain much longer.”

Christmas appeal in a nutshell

What is new?

On The Breadline, our cost of living Christmas appeal, has partnered with The Childhood Trust, a charity that helps children in poverty in London. They join as our second partner after Comic Relief.

The Childhood Trust is pledging £500,000 to match reader donations. Comic Relief has pledged £1m.

Where will the money go?

Donations made into our partnership with The Childhood Trust will be given out in grants to organisations that help children in poverty in London. Donations made into our partnership with Comic Relief will go to organisations across the UK (including London) working to help people on the breadline of all ages cope with the cost of living crisis.

How your money would support Little Village

  • £100 could pay for 13 mattresses with bedding to keep 13 babies safe and warm

  • £500 could deliver a newborn’s buggy worth £350 to 50 mothers

  • £1,000 could pay for hygiene packs to keep 33 babies clean, dry and safe for a month

  • £2,000 would support 25 volunteers to call 900 families to reduce isolation and get help they need

How you can help

To help children affected by the cost of living crisis who live in London, donate here. To help children and communities affected by the cost of living crisis wherever they live in the UK, donate here.