After four and a half years of waiting, Leanne* and her three children recently found out that they can move from the two-bedroom council flat they have outgrown into a house. It’s welcome news, but there is a problem, she says: “There are no curtains, no carpet, no nothing: I don’t know where to start.”
Leanne, who works part-time as a dinner lady and claims universal credit, is not alone in her struggle to afford basic household items.
There are no official figures for the number of people living in furniture poverty, but research done before the pandemic by the charity Turn2us suggested 4.8 million were without at least one essential household appliance such as a cooker or a fridge, and the problem is getting worse.
“Somewhere for them all to sleep is the main priority,” Leanne says. Her teenage twins share a room and the bottom bunk is broken, leaving her son sleeping on a mattress. She sleeps in the boxroom with her two-year-old, who is still in a cot.
There is other furniture to buy, too, and carpets. The twins share a wardrobe and when they are in separate rooms they will need one each.
Leanne’s chest of drawers is currently in the living room with the TV on it, but in the new house she will be able to have her clothes in her room.
“So I’ll need to get a TV stand or brackets,” she says. “We’re over the moon that we’ve got a house. But on the other hand, we’re wondering how we’re going to furnish it when we can’t even afford a new bed for the flat.”
Previously unpublished figures from Turn2us’s most recent survey, of 6,000 people in August last year, show that 8% were living without a washing machine – the equivalent of 4.5 million people nationwide. Meanwhile, 7% were living without a freezer, and similar numbers reported having no oven or fridge.
Not having these basic items has all kinds of knock-on effects for people’s lives: homes are uncomfortable and cold, families are unable to prepare decent meals, and they have to pay a premium to do their laundry.
While secondhand items are available, they often break quickly and are difficult to collect if, like Leanne, you don’t have a car.
Local councils have typically been a source of help through Local Welfare Assistance (LWA) schemes. These offer crisis grants to people in immediate need and are typically used for fuel, food and essential white goods and furniture.
However, the campaign group End Furniture Poverty has found that more than 13 million people in England live in areas with no scheme, at a time when the cost of living crisis is hitting those on low incomes.
It says that over the past 10 years, the cost of furniture, furnishings and carpets has risen by 32% while household appliances are up 17%, and that Brexit is driving many of those prices even higher.
Claire Donovan, head of policy, research and campaigns for End Furniture Poverty, says: “The value of benefits has gone down, wages have gone down and there are these rising costs. It was hard to begin with, and it’s becoming insurmountable now.”
She adds: “With the increase to fuel bills and national insurance contributions, along with rising inflation, the need for support is urgent.”
Freedom of information requests made by the group found that in July 2021, one in five local authorities in England did not offer an LWA scheme, up from one in seven the previous year.
The number of applications increased by 91% in 2020-21, and the number accepted went up by 157%, but the average payout went down by £29 to £146. About a third of funds were used for furniture and appliances.
The group found one in four schemes was only available as a last resort, with applicants needing to have attempted all other options first, including universal credit advances, credit unions and charities.
Several local authorities said people would need to have approached friends and family for support before making an application.
The group called on the government to commit to spending £485m a year on funding for three years and improve its guidance, giving a single name to the schemes and setting criteria for grants. “This will give local authorities the time and certainty to expand on existing schemes, or open new ones where those have closed,” Donovan says.
Thomas Cave, policy and public affairs manager at Turn2us, says: “At a time where millions of people are facing a cost-of-living crisis, we know something like a broken washing machine, or refrigerator, can be the start of a spiral into debt and eventually extreme poverty.”
He adds: “Household appliances are not luxuries – they are essentials; and without the intervention of effective LWA schemes, more people will continue to fall through the cracks of the welfare safety net.”
Shaun Davies, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, says councils are doing all they can to support residents who may be struggling financially. “We agree with this report that councils need adequate, long-term government investment for a more sustainable local welfare support system, which they can use flexibly to plan ahead and help households better manage the expected impact of these increasing financial pressures,” he says.
* Not her real name
At Bulky Bob’s, where sofas find second homes
Collette Williams is a director at the FRC Group – a social enterprise which runs the End Furniture Poverty campaign and several other initiatives, including Bulky Bob’s Furniture World shops in Liverpool and Oldham.
The organisation won a council tender to collect bulky household waste, and it repurposes unwanted furniture. “Either they’re broken, too old, or not wanted,” says Williams. “We get a lot of items daily and take them to the sorting centres and go through them.”
Once in good order, they are put in the shops. Anyone can buy something, but the group has relationships with local agencies who can refer those in need of help. “We provide a voucher and they can come in and choose what they want,” she says. “We don’t want people to think they can only choose the stuff no one else wants. We want them to have the best experience they can … staff ask what they like, what colours they prefer.”
Vouchers have no financial limit, and staff make sure people get everything they need, delivered. “They leave with massive relief because the home that’s empty now is going to have the things they need soon; they also walk out with their head held high.”
Case study: A tired 12-year-old who needs more sleep
Tara’s* 12-year-old son is currently sleeping on an Ikea mattress while she tries to find funds to buy him the bed that he needs. He had been living with his dad until moving back in with her and one of her older daughters, over Christmas. “A friend has lent us a mattress – it’s from one of those Ikea trundle beds that their child has,” says Tara.
It’s better than nothing, she says, but he isn’t able to get a good night’s sleep. “He comes home from school and he’s shattered. I struggle to get him up in the morning and to eat his breakfast as he’s too knackered.”
It’s not just a bed that he lacks – there’s no carpet in the room. “It’s just bare wooden floors upstairs, and brown tiles downstairs.”
* Not her real name