Shelter, a prominent housing charity, predicts that nearly 140,000 children in England will be homeless this Christmas.

Ashamed of Poverty

Across the nation, food banks are feeling the strain of having more mouths to feed, and this is no different than at Whyteleafe Community Hub (WCH), a volunteer-run charity which has become an integral part of its local community.

Whyteleafe is a small village in Surrey, SE England, with a population of just over 4,600. Despite Surrey being one of the most affluent counties in the country, Whyteleafe Community Hub has experienced an increase in the number of people asking for help from its food bank services since November.

‘People who are coming to the food bank are really embarrassed and ashamed. They are scared to ask for help,’ says Sara Jones, Chairman of Whyteleafe Community Hub.

She tells me that the food bank is anticipating to provide for 23 families this Christmas, including 30 adults and 50 children.

‘We are dealing with [homelessness and food poverty] all year round. I think it is just extra sad at Christmas when there is an image of what should be achieved and so few can afford to provide this for their families.’

What concerns Sara most though are the ‘hidden homeless.’ These are people who spend prolonged periods in hostels and refuges, in B&Bs and those living in temporary accommodation, such as the Whyteleafe Travelodge.

‘There are limits to the number of days the Council can place people in the Travelodge,’ explains Sara. ‘But if they move them to a B&B in Croydon and then move them back to the Travelodge, the days start being counted from zero again.’

Those who stay in Whyteleafe Travelodge have no cooking facilities and so rely on specialised food packages from WCH. Nothing that needs to be cooked on a stove or heated up in a microwave can be given.

The food bank is doing everything it can to uphold its main mission — ‘No one should go hungry’ — this Christmas. But unfortunately, across the country the situation is dire.

Record Levels of Homelessness

The latest statistics on homelessness in England show that 105,750 households (and 138,930 children) were living in temporary accommodation at the end of June — the highest figure ever recorded since the report began 25 years ago.

These statistics match a worrying trend. Over the last ten years, the number of people living in temporary accommodation has risen by a staggering 74 per cent, according to Shelter.

Human rights activist and Chief Executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, explains why this is the case:

‘Private rents are at an all-time high, evictions are rising, and the cost-of-living crisis continues. This combined with decades of government failure to build genuinely affordable social homes is what is driving record levels of homelessness and leaving thousands of people on the streets.’

With a combination of interest rates at 5.25 per cent, increasing the cost of borrowing, and private rents reaching a record high in autumn 2023, it is no wonder that Section 21 concerning no-fault evictions was the largest cause of homelessness in England this year.

These types of evictions mean that landlords need to go to court to evict their tenants. Tenants may be able to challenge their eviction and stay in their homes for longer, but it requires significant court costs, which many people are unlikely to be able to afford.

This not only forces people to live in temporary accommodation but has also caused the number of those sleeping rough in England to rise to 2,893 on any given night.

Rough sleeping is defined as sleeping without adequate shelter, usually on the streets, and has been a key concern in Parliament for years. But until the government takes appropriate action against the housing crisis, the number of people who will be homeless this Christmas will continue to rise.

‘The government promised to end rough sleeping, but is falling short of the mark,’ says Neate. ‘Not only should everyone facing the streets be given somewhere safe to stay without question, but the government must also end the cruel freeze on housing benefits and deliver a new generation of affordable social homes.’

The Gift of Hope

Perhaps the government’s new plan to invest £150 million, targeting people with a history of rough sleeping, will be able to aid those who are most vulnerable to becoming homeless this Christmas.

The extension of the Single Homelessness Accommodation Programme announced on December 6, will provide 46 local authorities, housing providers and charities with the funds to build or buy 1,230 new — and affordable — homes.

So, despite the harrowing figures, there is hope that things will get better. At Whyteleafe Community Hub, the food bank has already been infused with festive cheer and transformed into a ‘wonderful, happy place.’

On Christmas Day, the WCH will provide a hot Christmas dinner to those who are unable to cook for themselves, as well as extras such as ‘crackers, sauces and chocolates.’

‘We will also be providing presents for the children via donations from the local community and businesses,’ Sara tells me. ‘… So many people in the community are so generous and that helps us because we can only give out what the generous shops, businesses and families give to us.’

But it isn’t just local businesses and families who donate. More often than not, it is those who have previously relied on the food bank’s services that give back when they are financially stable and back on their feet.

And it is that generosity which pleases Sara the most:

‘It is wonderful to be able to pass on the gift of giving and to see the smiles on our families’ faces. They are always so grateful.

‘We are able to give the gift of hope to our families — that things will get better. And that for me is the true spirit of Christmas.’

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