Many children living in poverty "dread" Christmas. Image: Pexels
Patricia Leatham’s son pretends the years they were homeless never happened. He sometimes tells people he is 12, even though he is actually 13, because he lost part of his childhood.
“My son talks as if for those two to three years he wasn’t on the planet,” Leatham says now. “If I try to talk about it, he says he wasn’t there. He says he was lost.”
Her boy was being left behind while the children around him grew into teenagers – and it was especially difficult at times like Christmas. Other children unwrapped stacks of presents under their tree, while Leatham could barely afford to keep them fed.
“Christmas was really not nice,” the 48-year-old mother says. “I tried to make it as best I could but it was just awful. As a parent, you do try. I put up a little tree, but he couldn’t even have friends over because we didn’t want them to see where we lived.”
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Around one million children are currently estimated to be living in deep poverty, according to the Childhood Trust. Their families are unable to meet their most basic needs of keeping them warm, dry, clean and fed – let alone pay for the extra costs at times like Christmas.
“There’s no good news this time of year if you’re in that situation,” says Laurence Guinness, the chief executive of the Childhood Trust. “You see the spectacular Christmas lights, you see the shops, you see the Christmas adverts, you see the stereotypes of happy families and abundance everywhere. Christmas is the pinnacle of consumer culture, hung on the emotional peg of giving and receiving.
“Everyone’s welcome, as long as you’ve got money. If you haven’t got any money, you can’t do Christmas. Many children actually dread Christmas. As we get nearer to Christmas, they just wish it wasn’t happening. They feel left out and rejected and victimised. Why are they living in one room? Why doesn’t their mum have enough money to feed them?”
For many families, Christmas is just another day of trying to survive. Leatham and her son were evicted from their council property in Waltham Forest after her parents died. It was her childhood home, where her parents had lived for four decades, but when her mother passed the council repossessed the property.
There had been letters sent beforehand, but Leatham had been too focused on organising her mother’s funeral and she put them to the side. There was no mention of rent or council tax overdue, and she didn’t understand what repossession meant. Then the bailiffs turned up at their door.
“It was quite humiliating because it would have never occurred to me that we would become homeless,” Leatham says. “There is a myth attached to homelessness. You see people in the streets which is absolutely awful, especially in this cold weather, but many people who are homeless are families with children. It was horrendous. I sat in council offices for the whole day.
“My phone had gone off, so I had to tell my son directions for where I could potentially be after he finished school and he would come there in his uniform. It’s horrible. Heartbreaking. It was a sense of not knowing where you are going to be.”
Leatham got to the property at around 10am, and it wasn’t until five that a man she describes as the Grim Reaper came to her with a piece of paper and a key. There was a building name and room number written on it. Their first stop was shared accommodation with other individuals and families.
“It’s horrible, sharing a house where you can see that it is overcrowded with people in it and you’ve got one bathroom for 14 people,” she says. “You’ve got to get children up in the morning to get ready for school, and I used to say to my son that we’d have to get up especially early so that we would be first in line to use the bathroom.”
It affected their health. “His whole face erupted in a red rash,” Leatham says as she speaks about her son. “Our GP took us off their medical surgery register because we were out of the catchment area. And I pleaded with him to keep us on that. My son would just be crying.”
A new report from the Childhood Trust has found that 58% of paediatricians have seen a rise in caseloads as a direct result of an increased number of children experiencing deep poverty. And 90% of social workers have found that deep poverty is having an impact on children’s education.
“Paediatricians and social workers have seen the detrimental impact on health,” Guinness explains, “but what the figures don’t show is that the duration spent in temporary accommodation is increasing all the time. And the longer you spend in temporary accommodation, coupled with the cost of living crisis, the worse your health is impacted.
“Poverty is actually killing children in this country. The mortality rate has gone up. There’s a rise in all the consequences of poverty – respiratory illness, weakened immune systems, developmental delay, limited access to health services. When you’re in deep poverty, it’s harder to access healthcare because of the cost of travel and transport.”
According to the National Child Mortality Database, the child death rate for children in the most deprived neighbourhoods of England was 48.1 per 100,000 population in the year up to March 2023, more than twice that of children in the least deprived neighbourhoods.
Around 74% of paediatricians told the Childhood Trust that poverty is not considered when determining what resources are necessary to help children that require support.
“I had one patient last week, a boy aged four who was suffering from rickets and the parent was not able to bring the child to their GP because they couldn’t afford the bus fare,” a paediatrician says. “Another patient, a girl aged 10, is suffering from malnutrition because of insufficient household income.”
The next place they moved, Leatham had to sleep on the floor. She found a folding chair from a charity shop but she had to sleep in an arched position, so she ended up in A&E twice with severe back pain which meant she battled to walk. She struggled with her mental health too.
“I remember telling someone that I really just wanted to be with my parents,” Leatham says. “Of course both my parents were dead. The only thing helping me not go forward with that thought in my head was the fact that I will be leaving my son even more traumatised than he already is. I was very depressed. If I was by myself, I don’t think I would be here today.”
She had been working as a support teacher but she was made redundant along with many of the other members of staff due to insufficient funding. She was trying to apply for jobs while facing homelessness, but there were so many barriers in her way. She was told not to put her address on her CV in case anyone realised she was homeless.
Patricia Leatham and her son are in a better place now, having won a bid for a council flat two years after they were first made homeless. It was a “gutted” property with no furniture, but she was supported by the Childhood Trust to make it more of a home. She is building up her confidence and starting to look for work again.
“Christmas this year is feeling a little bit more hopeful,” Leatham says. “And I think that’s because of what we’ve been through and we actually are still alive, if I can put it that way. But it is very costly. We are really having to budget because things are just so pricey.”
The Childhood Trust has launched a Christmas campaign, attempting to raise £4.5m in just seven days to support children and families across London. The charity has raised over £40m to fund over 1000 projects since it launched ten years ago, working towards alleviating the impact of poverty on children.
But charities will never be able to end child poverty without government intervention. “It’s more fundamental than just policies,” Guinness says. “It’s a sense of values. A social contract of the same stuff that was in mind and in hearts when the NHS was born.
“The British people are fair, compassionate, kind, generous, and we are bound together by a common set of values. That means we support those who can’t support themselves. I think we have failed in that. Individually, politicians will agree with you on that. But there seems to be a collective failure to create the leadership that sets out a vision.
“There’s a lack of courage in tackling this ‘winner takes all’ system. Unless you regulate it so that it’s fairer, so that there’s less of a distance between the top and the bottom, you end up with this extreme poverty that we have become familiar with. And it’s getting worse.”
Leatham is hopeful for her future, but she worries about others left behind in the hostels and the temporary accommodation and the many more who will be plunged into homelessness.
“Everything needs to change,” she says. “Where do you begin? It’s sad it’s falling on charities like the Childhood Trust because, even though they are brilliant, really it should be coming from the people in charge of governments and councils.”