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Social Justice

Empty shell Britain: One family’s experience of furniture poverty

Anita Dance was moved into an empty home. Sleeping on the cold floor for over a year, she’s one of around 2m UK households experiencing furniture poverty.

Anita Dance, a 40-year-old mother of two living in Buckinghamshire, never thought she would want a sodden foam mattress abandoned in the street. That is, until she did.

“I looked at that mattress and I wished it was dry, I wished there was sunshine,” she said, ”so I could just take it and sleep on it.”

Dance, after a spell in temporary housing, had been moved by the council into an empty shell of a property with her children — no furniture, no white goods, not even carpets or curtains.

She had sourced some basic furniture and beds from High Wycombe Central Aid, a local charity that helps poor families access recycled furniture at low cost, for her teenage twins to use. But Dance was left without a mattress, bed frame or sofa. “I had to sacrifice, to sleep on the floor,” she said, folding down her duvet to create a cushion against the cold surface below.

“I couldn’t find the money,” she said. “I couldn’t afford a bed, a mattress, I had to buy kitchen stuff, we didn’t have a washing machine — we didn’t have anything. The basic things we didn’t have.”

Dance is one of an estimated 4.8 million people — 2 million households — in the UK unable to afford basic pieces of furniture or home appliances, according to anti-poverty charity Turn2us.

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The campaign group End Furniture Poverty estimates just 2 per cent of social housing is let as furnished, compared with 29 per cent at least partly-furnished in the private rental sector. Campaigners say furniture poverty generates a lingering impact on family life, socialising, wellbeing and mental health.

Even gold has to pass through fire to become a beautiful gold ringAnita Dance

Anita Dance

Furniture poverty — like fuel or food poverty — is not a unique type of poverty, but is a consequence of not having enough money. Up to 14.5 million people were in relative poverty before the pandemic when taking housing costs into account, according to the House of Commons Library, and the Bank of England estimates the unemployment rate will be around 4.75 per cent at the end of 2021, pushing more families into hardship.

To stop more people like Dance being thrown into poverty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to cancel September’s planned £1,040-a-year cut to universal credit, which also coincides with the highest ever hike to the energy price cap.

Moving from temporary council housing to permanent private accomodation, which she said was around the start of 2018, was supposed to be the beginning of a new life for Dance and her twins. But when they arrived, at the ex-council property now part of a non-profit housing association, the place was hollow, the walls and rooms as bare as the cupboards. “The only thing I found was the light in the house,” Dance said. “The electricity was on, and the water — the rest is up to you.”

Responding to a comment request on Dance’s case, Nick Naylor, Buckinghamshire Council’s cabinet member for housing, homelessness and regulatory services, said: “While we can’t comment on this specific case, Buckinghamshire Council’s temporary accommodation is typically furnished. In the rare cases where accommodation is unfurnished, our officers work with partners and link our clients with third-party charitable organisations who are able to help.”

Naylor did not address the empty permanent accomodation. But he added: “In addition, our Emergency Support Fund and our Helping Hands Initiative are both available to provide further assistance to clients if needed.” The non-profit housing association which permanently housed Dance was separately contacted for comment.

Dance said the first night was hard. They all slept in the living room together. “It was my worst nightmare,” she said. “Three of us had to coil together to get warm.” If she wasn’t a strong person, Dance feels she may have given up.

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Dance said there was no fridge, no utensils, no furniture. Dance remembered begging for curtains at least. “Leave the curtains so that nobody can see that we are living in an empty house,” she recalled saying. But, Dance said, she was told there was nothing to be done.

Stuart Allen, general manager at Central Aid, helped kit out the home with basic furniture. Internal records show a second-hand dishwasher and a bed for the children, among other things, delivered to Dance’s house in 2018.

During this period, in which she received multiple food parcels from a local church, Dance recalls struggling to keep up appearances. “When you go out, you put a smile on your face,” she said.

But it took roughly a year before Dance received another furniture delivery. It was when Dance needed a new second-hand bed, after her adolescent son was outgrowing his old one, that Allen realised Dance had been sleeping on the floor for over a year.

In the end, it was the twins who alerted Allen at Central Aid. “The children went to Stuart and they said, ‘Look, our mother is sleeping on the floor,’” Dance said.

“I remember this distinctly,” Allen told The Big Issue, who visited Dance’s house when delivering the furniture, and noticed the absence of a bed. “She was trying to sort them out, and I thought, you’ve got nothing.”

Allen didn’t have a bed to offer her, but delivered a mattress. Allen said it took until April this year, when Central Aid records show another van delivery, for Dance to get a second-hand bed frame. “Stuart really helped,” she said.

In an effort to clamp down on furniture poverty, Central Aid recently partnered with Ryobi UK, a power tool company, and Adebayo Akinfenwa, the Wycombe Wanderers footballer, to launch the Re-Build campaign. Ryobi will provide tools and expertise for dozens of charities in the Reuse Network to fix up old furniture.

The campaign is an effort to urge people not to throw out old appliances — and to deploy recycled housewares to plug the gaps of missing furniture in the homes of poor families.

“This campaign means a lot to us at Ryobi – we’ll keep doing what we can to help raise awareness and tackle furniture poverty in the UK. It really is the poverty issue you’ve never heard of, and we are committed to helping to address that,” said Thomas Leather, head of marketing at Ryobi UK.

He added: “But, for everyone who has been helped by the Re-Build campaign, and more broadly the great work that furniture aid charities do, there are so many more still to help. We need a concerted effort from brands, government and the public in general to work with furniture charities to really achieve that.”

Claire Donovan, head of policy, research and campaigns at pressure group End Furniture Poverty, said: “Furniture reuse is one part of the solution, but we also need more furnished tenancies in social housing, adequately funded local welfare assistance schemes from local authorities and more government funding for these schemes and End Furniture Poverty campaigns on all of these issues.”

She urged anyone struggling with furniture poverty to visit her organisation’s website to find way’s to get support.

As many as 1.9 million people in the UK are living without a cooker, according to research from Turn2us, and 900,000 people are living without a washing machine.

This is a problem experienced by people across the countryConservative MP Steve Baker

Conservative MP Steve Baker

Steve Baker, Dance’s local MP and one of an estimated 60 Tory MPs who oppose Johnson’s imminent universal credit cut, welcomed the campaign and thanked those involved.

“Wycombe Central Aid is a great local charity, and I am pleased to see it has teamed up with Ryobi and Adebayo Akinfenwa to help people moving into accommodation have some essential home comforts,” Baker told the Big Issue.

“I know this is not just a problem in Wycombe but is something experienced by people across the country. There are a lot of good people who care about others, and they can help by donating unwanted household items for the Re-Build campaign.”

Akinfenwa, joining campaigning footballers such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, said he hoped the campaign would mean children growing up with life’s essentials.

“I’ve thrown away things that could have been reused so being part of this campaign is overwhelming, especially to see the smile it puts on a child’s face when they have the furniture delivered,” he said.

Dance’s twins have just sat their GCSEs, and are planning to go on and study IT and double-science at A Level. Even during the darkest moments, spending nights on the cold floor, Dance remembers thinking, “These are my babies. I have to show them that we can do it from scratch.” Her determination to set a good example got her through. She hopes to pass on that strength to her twins.

“I had to show the children that, you know what, we will go through this,” Dance said. “I told them, ‘Even gold has to pass through fire to become a beautiful gold ring’.”

Now, Dance has landed a cleaning job. It’s not much, but it helps bring home a modest income. She called on people to back the campaign and think twice about throwing away houseware that could be recycled. And today, with the help of Central Aid’s low-cost second-hand furniture, Dance’s house is looking more like a home.

It might not be a dream house, she said, but to finally have a permanent, furnished home to call their own, “it is perfect.”

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