Imagine having to share one toothbrush between everyone in your family, being forced to stuff your pants with toilet paper because you can’t afford period products or not being able to change your baby’s dirty nappy because there aren’t any clean ones left… This is the reality of experiencing hygiene poverty for many people living in the UK today.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis struck, 22 per cent of the UK population was facing a daily battle to make ends meet, often forced to choose between eating and keeping clean because they can’t afford to do both.
Tackling this injustice is at the heart of grassroots charity The Hygiene Bank, and the life-changing work being carried out by its growing army of volunteers.
“It’s not right that feeling clean should be a luxury or a privilege for anyone in our society. Everyone deserves to be able to care for themselves and their families,” says the charity’s founder, Lizzy Hall.
Highlighting the ‘hidden crisis’ is the focus of the second annual National Hygiene Week, which runs from July 5-11. The campaign’s ‘Look Up’ message urges people to take action, and support their local community to help tackle hygiene poverty.
Hall, 52, founded The Hygiene Bank in 2018 after watching the film I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s harrowing depiction of those pulled into poverty without a safety net. She was struck by a scene in which the character Katie is caught shoplifting, despite having already been to a food bank, with razors, deodorant and period products stuffed into her bag.
Hall got in touch with her local food bank, who confirmed that toiletries were donated, but on an ad-hoc basis. Inspired to help, Hall sent messages to friends and family asking for items to donate. The response was overwhelming and The Hygiene Bank was born.
The charity continued to grow organically over the next year, establishing more than 390 donation drop-off points across the UK. And in 2019 The Big Issue featured Hall as one of its Changemakers, celebrating the inspiring work of The Hygiene Bank and the Kent mum’s dedication to making a difference.
In the three years since its inception, more than 647,000kg of products have been donated, collected, sorted and distributed to more than 2,000 community partners – organisations such as charities, schools and local authorities, which distribute items to those in need.
There are now more than 460 volunteers supporting 150 Hygiene Bank projects across the UK. And the past year has seen demand for The Hygiene Bank’s help soar due to the fallout from the pandemic. In 2020 they distributed over £3.5m worth of hygiene products – seven times that of the previous year, and doubled their number of community partners, but they are still only scratching the surface in terms of need, says Hall.
“Before Covid-19 many were struggling to make ends meet, millions lacked the means to afford the basics,” she explains.
The charity knows that as the UK emerges from lockdown, with the eviction ban and furlough scheme ending, more people will find themselves swept into poverty.
Lockdown restrictions imposed last year meant drop-off point donations from the public reduced dramatically, shifting the charity’s focus to partnerships with businesses and big brands, while encouraging financial and online donations.
Its collaboration with Boots UK not only facilitated public donations by setting up drop- off points in more than 245 stores (which remained opened throughout lockdown), but also provided projects with more than 620,000 essential personal care, household hygiene and PPE items.
“We would not have been able to help all the people that we did without brand organisations coming to our aid,” says The Hygiene Bank CEO Edgar Penollar.
As well as providing practical help the charity is working to change attitudes towards poverty, and tackle the negative stigma associated with the issue.
“We want to shine a light on how any of us could have a life event – like the pandemic, a bereavement, or job loss – which could easily pull someone into poverty,” says Hall.
While the Covid crisis sparked a huge increase in demand for the charity’s help, it also saw a surge in support as people rallied to help each other through the difficulties.
“One of the positives that came out of the lockdowns was that we saw communities come together to help their neighbours – that’s community,” recalls Penollar. “There was that sense of wartime spirit, people coming together to help each other.”
While admitting there is no “simple solution”, he believes that charities working with communities, businesses and government can one day eradicate hygiene poverty.
“We know that of the people in poverty, many are working poor,” Penollar says. “These are people who are getting up each day, working two or three jobs to put food on the table and pay their bills.”
Despite the challenges ahead the charity is hopeful for the future.
“We want to create a social movement to tackle hygiene poverty,” Penollar adds. “It’s through that combined effort that we can come up with a permanent solution. Now is our chance to collectively shape a future that ensures no one suffers the injustice of poverty.”