'This will kill me': Destitution doubles in five years with 3.8 million unable to meet basic needs

A major report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 3.8 million people, including more than a million children experienced the most extreme form of poverty last year

Lee Pickering is 53 and has lived in Leicester all of his life. 

He was housed in a council flat until he became ill this year when he had to make a choice to “heat or eat”. 

Lee was a chef and then in 2015 he went to university to study History of Art. 

Lee became unable to work when he became ill. He told us that he has heart disease, angina and diabetes which requires him to take insulin. 

“I ended up I couldn’t maintain the flat, I couldn’t maintain the property. I had to leave it. The support that’s supposed to be there just doesn’t turn up and you’re left to fend for yourself really.”

Lee was left with few options. He didn’t feel safe going to a hostel so he decided to sleep in the doorway of a church near a local park. 

“I’ve sat here through the night with a pen and piece of paper trying to work out what I can do and there’s nothing more I can do." 

Lee told us that he receives £370 a month in Universal Credit but it is not enough to live on. 

He goes to a nearby shop to charge his phone and visits a friend once a week to get his clothes washed. 

Next to him, he has bags containing sweets, a bottle of cola, crisps and tissues. He says the good food he needs is too expensive.

'End of the day, this will kill me': Lee Pickering has been left with very few options and fears he will die on the street

Lee’s story is one of many millions, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which has found that 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022, up 61% since 2019. 

  • Around 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022 – a 61% increase since 2019

  • This includes around 1 million children – an 88% increase since 2019

  • The number of people experiencing destitution in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years – up from 1,550,000 in 2017

  • Since 2017 the number of children experiencing destitution has almost tripled – an increase of 186%

  • Almost two-thirds of people who experienced destitution in 2022 have a disability or chronic health problem

  • The social security system is not protecting people from destitution: 72% of those destitute receive of benefits

People are considered destitute if they have not been able to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed.

This can be because they either lack necessities like clothing, heating, shelter or food or because their income is so extremely low that they are unable to purchase these items for themselves.

We travelled north, to Liverpool, where we were introduced to Martin. 

Single dad of four, Martin, has found himself in a constant cycle of borrowing money just to pay bills. Credit: ITV News

He’s a single dad who has his twin sons and two daughters living with him. When we first met him, he told us he had £70 to take care of them all that week because he’d been sanctioned for not attending a meeting about his benefits when he had Covid. 

Martin said he owed his energy company £250, but no sooner would he pay some off but the balance would increase again because the weather was turning. 

“I’m usually borrowing before the end of the month for basics food and gas and electricity really…. I’m in quite a bit of debt with both gas and electricity meters at the moment and it’s just not going down by the time I’ve put more credit on I’m borrowing it again.”

Martin has received support from the Liverpool6 Community Association. It started eight years ago as a food bank but has since expanded to all kinds of services to help struggling families. They have a baby bank for cot beds, pushchairs and clothes and also a newly opened laundrette for washing clothes.

'No one is listening': Gerard Woodhouse of the Liverpool 6 Community Association believes it is only a matter of time till they 'find a child dead'

Gerard Woodhouse, who runs the centre, told me he’d hoped he’d be out of a job by now but things have got worse since Covid. 

He said the people who used to donate to the centre were, in some cases, now using the services. 

Gerard Woodhouse, Liverpool 6 Community Association said: "My biggest worry is that one day we’re gonna find a child dead. There’s no ifs or buts you know people are now at the end of their tether people are hungry people are out there shouting they need support they need help and no ones listening.” 

Where are people experiencing destitution in the UK?

As part of the research Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that destitution has increased in all regions of England.

London has the highest levels of destitution, followed by the North East and the North West. Newham in London has the highest rate of destitution of any local authority in the country. Manchester has the second-highest rate, with Middlesbrough third.

  • 1  Newham 

  • 2  Manchester 

  • 3  Middlesbrough 

  • 4  Leicester 

  • 5  Nottingham 

  • 6  Brent 

  • 7  Newcastle upon Tyne 

  • 8  Southwark 

  • 9  Kingston upon Hull, City 

  • 10  Luton 

The rate of destitution has risen more quickly in Wales than anywhere else since 2019, with the exception of London. 

In Newham, Demore has been getting help from the Salvation Army-run food bank. She can get 30 items, including personal hygiene items, for a small donation of around £5. 

It has been a lifeline for her since she became ill and was unable to work. 

Demore said: “Ten years ago I would never have seen us as a community in this situation now we’re here I think 10-15 years from now where are we gonna be I worry for my children.” 

Paul Kissack, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “A million children experienced destitution last year – a number that has almost doubled since 2019.  Across our country, we are leaving families freezing in their homes or lacking basic necessities like food and clothing. Such severe hardship should have no place in the UK today – and the British public will not stand for suffering on this scale.

“The government is not helpless to act: it is choosing not to. But turning the tide on destitution is an urgent moral mission, which speaks to our basic humanity as a country, and we need political leadership for that mission.  That is why we are calling for clear proposals from all political parties to address this challenge with the urgency it demands.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts the increase in destitute households down to a combination of low incomes, rising prices of essentials and high levels of debt.

It says over half of destitute households (57%) have a weekly income of less than £85 a week. 

Nearly three-quarters of destitute households receive income from benefits.

Abby Jitendra, Principal Policy Adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said it is on the government to do more after data showcased that over four million people experienced destitution in 2022

Joseph Rowntree Foundation is calling on the government and politicians to make tackling the rise in hardship a priority before the next general election. 

It is calling for a rise in benefits, but also an ‘Essentials Guarantee’ into Universal Credit, to ensure that everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to afford essentials like food and household bills. It is also calling for reforms to the benefits system and the sanctions it imposes.

The government normally increases benefits in line with inflation in April. The process of “uprating” normally uses the inflation figure from the previous September which in September 2023 was 6.7%. A review is currently underway and a decision is expected to be announced by the Department for Work and Pensions in November as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. 

A UK government spokesperson said: “Our number one priority is driving down inflation because that will help everyone’s money go further.

“There are 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty than in 2010, including 400,000 fewer children, but we know some families are struggling, which is why we are providing support worth an average of £3,300 per household, including raising benefits by over 10% this year, and are increasing the National Living Wage again.

 “To help people out of poverty through work, we are also investing £3.5 billion to help thousands into jobs and are removing barriers for parents with the biggest ever expansion of free childcare – providing 30 free hours of childcare for working parents and support for children from nine months old to when they start school. This will save eligible parents up to an average of £6,500 per year.”

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