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Social Justice

‘You almost didn’t think it could get worse. But it has’: The workers on the frontline of the cost of living crisis

Three workers at charities across the UK tell us how the people they support are being affected by the cost of living crisis.

The cost of living crisis is continuing to tear through communities across the country, with inflation at its highest rate for 40 years and food and energy prices continually rising.

Charities and support organisations are seeing and feeling how the crisis is impacting families, from food banks that are unable to meet demand to helplines dealing with an record numbers of calls.

On the frontline of the crisis are teams working tirelessly to provide support to those hit the hardest. Everyone is experiencing the effect of the cost of living differently and it is the support workers, care assistants, and helpline operators who are hearing the daily stories of how people’s lives are being turned upside down.

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Three workers at charities across the UK tell us how the people they support are being affected by the cost of living crisis.

Calendula Pears, children’s services manager at Action for Children

Calendula Pears, children’s services manager at Action for Children. Image: Supplied

“I think we’re seeing the start of concerns that are only going to increase,” says Calendula Pears, children’s services manager at Action for Children, a charity working to improve life for children across the country.

She says that one of the growing challenges is an increase in the number of new mums and pregnant women facing homelessness, and having to be housed in temporary accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs.

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“That means that they don’t have anywhere that they can cook a meal, and obviously nutrition is absolutely vital for mum and baby,” says Pears. “Being able to afford food is one aspect, then actually being able to cook the food is another.”

According to government data, there were almost 100,000 households living in temporary accommodation in England in September 2021, months before the cost of living crisis started to take a hold. This includes more than 120,000 dependent children.

In London, twice as many women as men are housed in temporary accommodation, while almost 40 per cent of households in short-term accommodation are single mums.

Pears says the situation is causing an unbearable amount of stress, particularly for mums-to-be.

“Can you imagine not being able to prepare a baby’s nursery because you’re living in a hotel room?” she says.

One woman that the charity is assisting has been placed in temporary accommodation 20 miles from her support network. She is increasingly worried about the thought of going into labour alone, as well as having to fork out extortionate prices for petrol in order to see her family.

“The stress on mums has a huge impact on the baby’s brain development,” Pears says. 

Workers at Action for Children. Image: Supplied

Families with toddlers and older children are struggling, too. Recently, one of Pears’ colleagues was attempting to help a mum whose child was struggling with challenging behaviour. After suggesting that a healthy way to build a routine is to sit down and eat together, the woman started to get upset. 

“She said: ‘No, you’re misunderstanding — it’s not that I don’t want to eat with my child, it’s the fact that I’m eating my child’s leftovers, so I can’t eat at the same time as my child, because I can’t afford to eat with my child’,” Pears says. “That just made me want to cry.”

While Sara is seeing much of the crisis unfold with her own eyes, stories from other colleagues also indicate just how dire the circumstances are for some families. 

“I heard from another part of the county where a family was taking the seats out of the car in order to make the car lighter, so that it wasn’t costing them so much fuel,” Pears says.

As families with two children face an extra cost of £400 a month on average, and with one in three people now worried they could soon be facing homelessness, it’s sadly no surprise that workers at charities like Action for Children are witnessing families having to take such drastic decisions.

Throughout the last winter, Action for Children helped almost 2,500 families with grants from its crisis fund, and Pears is keen to stress that the organisation offers a range of other support, including online advice and a range of practical support through local services. 

“We are at the start of this journey in some respects,” Pears says, solemnly. “This situation isn’t going to get easier.”

Matthew, a helpline operator at Porchlight. Image: Supplied

Matthew, helpline operator at Porchlight

Porchlight is the largest charity working with homeless and vulnerable people in Kent, supporting thousands of people every year to keep a roof over their head.

“We speak to a lot of people who really shouldn’t be in any kind of crisis situation,” says Matthew, a helpline operator for the charity. “They just happen to be on a very average income for Kent that doesn’t really match up to any of the house prices.”

Accommodation prices are particularly high in the county, with the average property costing just over £400,000 to buy, in comparison to the UK average of £281,000. The cost of renting in the county, too, is higher than the national average. Meanwhile, real wages are continuing to fall.

The county, particularly in seaside towns like Margate and Whitstable, is besieged by landlords selling up properties to use them as holiday lets and AirBnBs. A quick search on the AirBnb app shows more than 1,000 properties available for short-term let in the county, flats and houses which could otherwise be homes for people on a long-term rental basis.

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“It’s much more profitable for landlords to use their flat through AirBnb than it is to rent them out. That’s one of the main issues — there just isn’t anywhere for people to go,” Matthew says.

Matthew says he has heard of an increase of people in the area being handed section 21 notices by their landlords, meaning they are evicted without reason. Many of these individuals have not needed to navigate Kent’s housing market for many years and are often unable to afford the cost of rent today, as the cost of living continues to squeeze pockets.

Section 21 evictions are set to be abolished under the new Renters Reform Bill, but it’s unlikely that a ban will come into effect for many months yet.

“The climate has changed to such an extent in quite a relatively short space of time. There’s no way for [people] suddenly to access any accommodation and it’s a bit of a shock,” Matthew says.

“As things get more and more difficult, we get more and more calls.”

Caller on the Porchlight helpline. Image: Supplied

The dearth of affordable accommodation isn’t just affecting young people and families, either. 

“It’s also a lot of older people who are having to go into HMOs [houses of multiple occupation] which is very distressing for people, particularly for women,” Matthew says. “We have older women who should really be retired, living in HMOs, because that’s all they can have access to.”

For many of the people Matthew listens to, the stress of trying to sustain something as essential as housing is taking its toll. 

“The mental health impact is…I mean, it’s unquantifiable,” Matthew says. “We often say we don’t know how they do it, to be honest. It’s such a crisis.”

Porchlight offers support and advice on housing, money and mental health for people in Kent, via its website and helpline. 

Sara, social worker at Young Lives vs Cancer

While rising fuel and food prices are affecting most families, those looking after a child with cancer are facing particular turmoil. According to charity Young Lives vs Cancer, parents have to spend an average of £600 more per month when their child is diagnosed with cancer, to cover travel, accommodation and other associated costs.

Throughout the winter, as the cost of living crisis started to unfold, the charity began handing out winter grants to help families cope with rising costs.

“When I first started working for this charity,” says Sara, a social worker at the organisation, “I always thought this was so hard for these families and you almost didn’t think it could get worse. But it has.”

Sara sees day in, day out how rising energy costs are affecting families. One young boy, who had relapsed bone and tissue cancer and required palliative treatment, was desperate for his end-of-life care to happen at home.

“Their heating had to be on 24-hours a day. And then it was frequent washing, and then their tumble dryer cycles too, as a result of his sickness,” Sara says.

The young boy’s parents, meanwhile, were having to survive on sick pay as they had taken long-term leave to care for him. Their day-to-day living costs sky-rocketed.

“When he was well enough, he was required to travel into hospital for palliative radiotherapy,” Sara adds. “That then obviously meant [an] increase in travel expenses.” 

Some people have to travel for more than 100 miles for treatment, she says, while other families have to ensure their petrol tank is constantly filled up in case they need to urgently use their car.

“If a child, for example, was to spike a temperature, that can be life-threatening when you’re on chemotherapy. They have to get to their treatment centre within 30 minutes.”

As petrol prices hit astronomical highs, this can have a devastating impact on families’ finances. 

Children undergoing treatment for cancer also often see their weight fluctuate significantly. When children are receiving chemotherapy and become very sick, they lose weight, and parents frequently have to find the funds for new clothes.

“But then there’s other times of their treatment plan [where] they’ll be having to take steroids,” Sara says. “And then [their] appetite can become almost like they can’t be satisfied.”

When that happens, parents have to fork out not only for additional food to try and alleviate the hunger, but for more new clothes as the children will often put on weight. Many parents are having to make impossible decisions to cut costs, including on whether or not to feed themselves.

“You can just feel that utter despair of [parents] not knowing what to do, knowing that their child needs this treatment,” Sara sighs, exasperated. “All these other costs, and the impact that then has on the wider family…it puts a lot of pressure on families who are in one of the worst situations that they could possibly imagine finding themselves in.

“It’s desperate. Really desperate.”

Young Lives vs Cancer provides face-to-face support for children, young people and families who have had a cancer diagnosis. The charity works in treatment centres across the UK, while the website has a live chat service for information and support.

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