“Before Covid, my three children and I had structure. We would wake up in the morning, they would go to school and do their thing, and I would do mine. We had joy,” says Vicky (not her real name), a single parent living in one of the most disadvantaged boroughs in the country, in south London.
The capital has the highest rate of child poverty in any English region – more than 700,000 children, and 43% of children in inner London. Over the past five years, child poverty has risen in every London borough, in part because of the capital’s uniquely high housing, childcare and living costs, as well as low pay (72% of children in poverty are in working households) and the impact of £39bn cut nationally from the benefit system since 2010. Then, in March, came Covid-19 and lockdown, deepening and accelerating deprivation across the UK, increasing rates of child abuse, mental ill-health and domestic violence.
“It’s been really hard,” Vicky says. “My son is seven and autistic. His routine has been cut away and he has become so aggressive. The younger ones copy. I’m normally calm but it’s been chaos. It’s the financial impact, trying to keep everyone fed and occupied in a tiny flat. Kids crying. I’m told I’m a wonderful mum, but I was snapping and shouting. I started to buy rum every day to flood out my emotions and I’m not a drinker. I felt I’d become horrible. Without these guys, I would have had a breakdown.”
“These guys” are the small dynamic team that run the Max Roach Loughborough Community Centre (MRLCC) in Brixton, south London, led by manager Candice James. It’s relying on the Childhood Trust to help deal with the extra cost and demands of a post-Covid social-distancing world. “Without it, we won’t survive,” James says bluntly.
The Childhood Trust supports London charities and grassroots projects, many now at risk, by match funding. These include lunch clubs, youth centres, refuges, legal services, sports, arts, music and holiday schemes and therapy and counselling services. On Sunday, it launches Champions for Children, a week-long campaign to raise £3.5m to partner 96 London organisations to address the potentially devastating consequences of lockdown for 100,000 of the capital’s most vulnerable children.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis,” says Galiema Amien-Cloete, executive headteacher of a primary school in which more than 80% of its pupils are classed as deprived. “Some of our parents are living 24/7 with four or five children in one- and two-bedroom flats during lockdown. They don’t have easy access to laptops and iPads so home schooling is challenging. If we can raise £3.5m it will help us to cater for the mental health provision and services we will desperately need when we return to semi-normal society.”
On Sunday, the Childhood Trust also publishes Children in Lockdown, a report that charts the impact on London children (echoed in every city in the UK), in areas such as abuse, education and play, hunger, housing, homelessness (88,000 children in London are in temporary accommodation) and mental health. As part of the campaign, London primary-school children were interviewed on film. Their distress is palpable.
One little boy says poignantly, “I feel humanity is going to die very soon.” “My mum can’t cope,” says another. “She’s chucked dad out and now it’s me and my five younger brothers and sisters on the 23rd floor.”
“This crisis … is exceptionally challenging for those who are not included in the national discussion and who rarely get to vocalise their needs,” the report points out.
“Many children are terrified,” says Laurence Guinness, the Childhood Trust’s chief executive. “The government’s message is not designed with children in mind. If home is not a safe place, many feel abandoned and invisible. The consequences may be grave for their mental health.”
The government has pledged £63m for the most vulnerable families. Other emergency measures include a £20 increase in universal credit. Last week, money for extra tuition in the summer holidays was announced; however, a vacuum still exists where a more robust welfare state once operated. Youth and children’s services have almost been erased. A shortfall of £4bn due to lockdown and rising demand has been predicted for crucial London charities. A chasm of provision still exists.
Pre-pandemic, James at MRLCC ran community and parents’ groups, holiday play projects and Rosebuds, a nursery for two- to five-year-olds, free at the point of entry. The centre also rents space to local groups that normally generates an income of up to £50,000 a year. That has gone.
“At lockdown, we closed. We thought statutory services and local authorities would step in and help,” James says. “Nothing happened. We had to do something – even though we were broke.”
The centre has 500 children on its database, the team has been phoning mothers such as Vicky regularly. It became clear some children were being left alone for long periods. So, in addition, three times a week, the team take to their bikes to distribute 120 “Happy Lunches” and playpacks to 136 children in 68 families. It hopes to raise £5,000 this week.
“Covid has highlighted that for many in our community, a balcony is a privilege,” James says. “Some children haven’t been out at all.” She adds: “Imagine if you have a parent with poor mental health, substance abuse, alcoholism, trauma – there’s a darkness for the child. When we really unlock, the stories are going to come and we have to be ready.”
James is giving her team training to deal with mental health issues. “We have to give the children a chance to heal and recover. Play is vital and therapeutic, but our costs have doubled and without funding, we won’t survive. This is crisis time.”
The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF) – Akshaya Patra is Sanskrit for the pot of food that never runs out – has provided free vegetarian meals for children in India for 20 years guided by the mantra, “Feeding children gives wings to their dreams”. In 2017, TAPF came to the UK to feed those in need. Three million children go hungry during the summer holidays.
Last year, the Childhood Trust gave match funding for a pilot scheme that provided 10,000 free meals for four weeks in the summer holiday. “A child can eat a piece of fried chicken that kills hunger,” says TAPF’s Neha Agarwal. “But that’s not tackling malnutrition. I’ve talked to many children who have only a piece of toast at the end of the day.”
This summer, helped by the Childhood Trust, TAPF hopes to serve 100,000 meals to children, raising £100,000 during Champions for Children week. Agarwal says. “If we don’t do this, we know there will be a huge attainment gap by September. Dealing with hunger shouldn’t be driven by charity. I hope in 10 years’ time, we won’t be needed.”
“We haven’t seen the full economic shock of the pandemic yet,” Guinness says. “Debts are mounting, rent arrears rising, unemployment will shoot up.
“We are happy to spend billions on huge infrastructure like HS2 but that’s a false economy when children are going hungry. Investment in human infrastructure must matter too.
“To participate, to have fun, to feel safe and be inspired – they are every child’s right.”
To donate, go to Champions for Children