The cost-of-living crisis is an omnipresent term, which I fear will get relegated soon to background noise as its overused. We are really talking of destitution in many of our communities and we shouldn’t shy away from using this word.
In the north east, we have child poverty levels of 38% which is the highest in the UK. Across the country there are seven million low-income households having gone without enough food in the previous 30 days (JRF report), and 4.6 million households in arrears with at least one bill. Even before this crisis, over 13% of people in 2020 were in fuel poverty. Far from choosing between heating and eating, this group is going without both and that’s before the winter. With another massive hike to energy prices on the way and inflation almost into double figures, this will be the most immediate challenge facing our next Prime Minister.
Locally, head teachers say those children on free school meals are the lucky ones, food bank users increasingly want high calorie food that doesn’t need cooking and many of our tenants are in survival mode, making it impossible to plan beyond the next food voucher they desperately need. Sleepless nights worrying about the bills and living with the stress and shame of being unable to afford to shower or relying on charity to feed your family takes an untold mental toll. And of course, social housing tenants will bear the brunt of this making it incredibly challenging for providers of social housing to know how best to help.
At North Star we are experiencing an increase in safeguarding referrals we make and a massive increase in referrals for our welfare benefits scheme. The support needs of people referred and living in our supported housing are increasing as mental health deteriorates, and very worryingly women in refuges are choosing to return to the perpetrator, as cost of living presents too much of a challenge for them on their own. Increasingly these tenants have multiple debts, and staff have fewer solutions to assist.
Like many social landlords we are already providing more crisis grants, are funding mental health support for tenants, providing furniture and food, and are linking with a wide range of partners to get “more bang for our buck” but it still feels inadequate. That is because we simply cannot resolve poverty as we have no control over cost-of-living increases and tenant income levels. We have an immediate crisis and a more fundamental issue around deep-rooted poverty.
However, from adversity comes creativity and new partnerships, and in recent months we have seen more collaborations emerge. At their core housing associations are anchor institutions and critical in communities. Warm hubs, community shops with low price food, easier access to grants in a more coordinated way, better links to employment opportunities, coaching and mentoring programmes, direct funding from the private sector are to name but a few of the initiatives I have seen in our communities.
In my role as an advisory board member for business in the community, I know there are many commercial organisations that are keen to do more to help. North Star is linking with one large company, which has shops located in many of our communities. We are helping to develop thinking on how to use some of their shops more effectively to assist with the crisis. Any emerging initiative would focus on highly deprived areas to provide more low-cost food, to create spaces for people to meet and get advice and importantly to provide some temporary warmth. This is localism and creative partnership working at its best.
We are braced for the winter and pray for a mild one. We know housing associations are embedded in communities and we will continue to be a force for good despite the challenges. Our social purpose, relationships and values must be front and centre as our guiding lights. In tough times this is what will keep us strong.