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Social Justice

Lighthouse Furniture is helping low-income families make their house a home

As living costs soar, the price of a bed or fridge is well out of budget for more families. This charity is making sure no one goes without

As the cost of living soars, people across the UK face growing anxiety around how to afford food and energy bills. It means that, for more people than ever, the impact of a broken washing machine or having to buy a new bed can prove devastating. That’s where Lighthouse Furniture steps in.

The social enterprise, based in Brentwood, Essex, provides low-cost furniture and appliances for people in need while going the extra mile to make sure everyone can make their house a home, regardless of income. 

The organisation – backed by Big Issue Invest – takes a holistic approach to diverting high-quality used furniture away from landfill and using it to support families living below the breadline. Having what you need to sleep well or cook meals forms the foundations of better wellbeing overall, according to Peter Everett, chief executive of Lighthouse.

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A lot of families have “so many things going on in their lives that you need to unpick what’s going on,” he told The Big Issue. 

During his time working with the local authority, Everett witnessed children sleeping on sofas or sharing beds. “If you’re not getting your basic sleep pattern or don’t have the means to provide a cooked meal then you’re not going to be able to cope with other challenges. You’re not getting the sustenance you need to be able to operate and function well.

“That’s where Lighthouse Furniture has always been. It’s recognising that for families in poverty, those basic things are just as essential as they are for anyone else.”

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The team collects donated home items from the local community – everything from sofas to TVs to clean bedding – to sell on, including at a heavily discounted price for people on low incomes. Supporting more than 2,500 families each year, the organisation estimates it has diverted around 400 tonnes of items from landfill and gave away roughly £25,000 worth free of charge in the year before the pandemic. 

“We make sure that the money families contribute – they often do really want to contribute – covers everything they need,” Everett said. 

“In my first three months at Lighthouse, I was walking around the shop floor and could see this guy scribbling over a bit of paper. I spoke to him and found out he’d just got custody of his children. The council had moved him from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom flat, but he didn’t have beds for his kids or a cooker. So he was trying to figure out what he could afford for the £350 he had. 

“We asked him what exactly he needed to get his home ready, then we told him we’d make sure all that would cost no more than £350. You just saw him break down because that gave him that little bit of hope that he could provide for his family.”

No detail is forgotten as the team works to support households in need. “It’s very well having a cooker, but if you haven’t got the utensils or the pans or crockery and cutlery, then it doesn’t really help much,” Everett added. “We might also give them bedside tables and a lamp, or a toaster and a kettle, basic things which really make a difference if you’ve had to go without.

“Likewise, if you’ve got kids and you haven’t got a table, it’s difficult to do things like homework. A table is a really important item that’s very easy to take for granted. So giving people tables is something we do quite frequently, as well as a sofa and a telly. Just those basic things that allow them to sit comfortably, rest and function as a family.”

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Demand for the service increased during the pandemic – exacerbated by the impact of Brexit on supply chains – and continues to trend upwards as the cost of living puts unprecedented pressure on low-income households. Around 240 people a year were referred to the organisation through the Essential Living Fund, a welfare assistance scheme in Essex, before the Covid-19 crisis. That number shot up to 700 last year.

The Lighthouse Furniture team also saw a particular increase in need from some groups, including domestic abuse survivors.

“In the last two weeks, we met a young girl who was fleeing domestic abuse,” Everett said. “She had a six-week-old premature baby and all she had in the flat that she’d been given was a bed base, not even a mattress.

“We found out at two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and our guys said ‘yeah, of course we’re going to do it’. They took everything she needed to make that place somewhere she could live and provide for her daughter, and they didn’t get back until about seven o’clock that evening. That’s what we’re about, listening to people and giving them that opportunity to make their house a home.”

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The pandemic forced the project, like many other third sector groups, to transform its operation overnight. Unable to welcome customers into the warehouse or collect items from people’s homes, the team pivoted to helping the local council gear single-room accommodation for everything a person would need to self-isolate as well as using their vans to transport items from docks to food banks. Once they were able to open again – after introducing strict safety measures – the demand was so high that people were queuing up over an hour before the doors were open, and the team took a day’s taking in the first hour and a half of the day.

Lighthouse Furniture expects further increase in demand from next month, with several daily essentials set to spike in cost and the government’s household support fund expected to end on March 31. The team is intent on growing to meet the immediate need of people who will be forced to turn to them instead of the government, despite functioning “on a shoestring”.

“We know that we need to,” Everett said, explaining plans to increase capacity for some services such as workshops where electrical appliances are fixed. “We feel like we’ve got a moral obligation to do more.”

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