By Anne-Lena Leidenberger
Lucy has cancer. The London mother is only able to work part time, so she can’t often afford days out with her daughter Nathalia.
Things used to be worse, she says. There was a time when she could not even afford to buy food. She would skip meals so that Nathalia had enough to eat.
“I used a food bank once,” she remembers. “I didn’t even want to go in. I just kept looking around – is there anybody watching me going in, you know.”
In another London suburb, Fatima, Samuel and their mother, Octavia, share two rooms between the three of them. The children’s bedroom is also the living room and playroom.
“Fatima wants to be a doctor from Monday to Wednesday, a teacher on Thursdays and Fridays, and then a hairdresser on the weekends,” Octavia says.
But with the family constantly short on money, it’s hard for them to have ambitions beyond their cramped living space. “We are trying our very best to make do with what we have,” she says.
These shocking stories come from the text accompanying a photo exhibition that was recently staged at London’s Foundling Museum by The Childhood Trust charity. The pictures in the show, called Bedrooms of London, displayed the often cramped spaces where London’s children sleep. Nathalia and Lucy share a bedroom. It’s tiny, and only recognisable as a bedroom thanks to the mattress on the floor.
“I like the kitchen,” Nathalia is quoted as saying. “It’s the only place that’s really properly done.”
Lucy’s situation is far from unusual: 700,000 children in London are living below the poverty line, according to figures published in 2017 by the New Policy Institute and the Trust for London charity. That figure represents 37 per cent of children in the British capital.
High living costs in London are a significant contributor to poverty in the city. Private rents increased by 20 per cent between 2011 and 2016, and rent for social housing rose by 30 per cent in the same period.
To protect them from homelessness, affected families are placed in temporary accommodation such as hostels and boarding houses. These often have no private spaces and no locks on the doors.
In the past five years, the number of households living in accommodation like these has grown by almost 50 per cent – many of them with children.
Joshua, 17, is also featured in the photo exhibition. He and his family have spent a lot of time living in temporary accommodation.
“The house situation has been kind of hectic,” Joshua says. He talks about having to move at short notice: “They just said you have, like, till Friday to move out or whatever.”
Joshua likes his family’s latest house, but he doesn’t feel safe in the neighbourhood, citing knife attacks, among other things.
Knife crime is a growing problem in many parts of Britain.
Photographer Katie Wilson spent two years taking pictures of children’s bedrooms in London for the exhibition. They show overflowing cupboards, mattresses on the floor and unloved bedrooms shared between several people.
The Childhood Trust wants the pictures to raise awareness of child poverty in London.
“We have had a lot of feedback from the exhibition,” says Laurence Guinness, director of the charity. “Mostly people saying they are shocked at how small the living spaces are, and how little possessions the families have, and how few toys children have.”
The British government has also recently taken new steps towards addressing poverty. According to a report in The Guardian, the Department for Work and Pensions will take hunger into account in its future annual surveys.
That means figures will become available on how many people are skipping meals because they can’t afford them. “The fact that the government is very recently starting to make concessions regarding child poverty is a sign that this situation is becoming politically untenable,” Guinness says. – DPA
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