“Poverty feels like walking around in a constant maze”

Today (17 October) is the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. To mark the occasion, we spoke to Bea from Hackney who shared her experience of poverty and talked about what she would like to see change to turn the tide of poverty in London.

What does poverty mean to you and how do you think it affects people?

Poverty stops you from doing things. Just being able to go out, be yourself and have access to things without the whole stigma of poverty being associated with it. 

It's not just the lack of money or a lack of resources. It's a lack of a safety net. If you can't build a solid foundation, your house is going to wobble. There's no one I could ring right now and borrow £1,000 from if my housing benefit didn't come through. Eventually, everyone finds themselves in a dodgy situation and it shouldn't be a case of being lucky enough to have someone to bail you out. There should be a safety net there.

Unfortunately, our safety net has so many holes in it that it's no longer enough.

If you're poor, there's a sense of hopelessness that it doesn't matter what you do. It feels like walking around in a constant maze. Every time you think you've found a door, someone closes it or puts an alarm on it. Even if you get the job, that job is going to be precarious. The situation is never stable enough that you can build on. For me, poverty is very much a lack of opportunity.

London has a higher poverty rate than any other region in the UK. In what ways do you find that surprising?

It's not shocking at all that the levels of poverty in London are so high in contrast to the amount of money there is here.

I come from Hackney and just walking around the area, you can really see that the income divide is very stark.

The level of homelessness is through the roof because people can't afford to live here now. Those that do live here are often living in very cramped, damp, inappropriate housing or unstable accommodation like hostels.

With coronavirus, so many of us are losing our jobs at the moment or having our hours reduced down to nothing. It might say on paper that you're working but in your bank account, you're not because you haven't had the hours. It's quite terrifying really and it's a very sad thing to see.

What would you like to see change to help you in your day-to-day life and others experiencing poverty?

I think a big thing to actually alleviate poverty is around lifelong learning, education and training. People need to be able to access computers and decent internet. They need to be able to study from home. There needs to be support for childcare. The support needs to be there to make that access to education a reality. There will always be hurdles but with the right support put in place, there's no reason that anyone shouldn't attain the best possible. 

In order to have a poverty-free environment, we have to address the fact that people aren't earning enough. That rents are so high, that cost of living is so high, that people don't have access to the fact that our society has changed. It’s also about creating opportunities that are actually designed by people in this situation, not by people who are reading about it in an academic way and then figuring out what to do about it. Poor people need to be involved in making these policies and advising on them, otherwise they're not going to work. 

I know these things are expensive. I'm not saying it would cost nothing but I've always believed that what you put into people you get back 100-fold.

It’s about investing in people, and the best place to start is with education, training, employment, and health.

The COVID-19 crisis has proven one thing, particularly in lockdown - when everything went wrong, people did come together to support each other. People on my street were leaving their internet open so that anyone could use it, putting signs in their window giving their WiFi password. You had homeless people sitting outside people's houses, watching telly - it was so lovely.

What does a London free from poverty look like to you?

I like that question. I would love to see a London where no one was homeless and not because homeless people are hidden away somewhere but because there isn't a situation where you can end up homeless. You can't call yourself a civilisation if you've got people sleeping on the streets or if people are going hungry. There shouldn't be a situation where you become so sick from where you're living or where you're working that you end up in hospital. 

A poverty-free London to me would be somewhere where our human rights are respected and enforced in law and everyone has access regardless of income, creed, colour, where you're born or what your accent is like.

With thanks to ATD Fourth World for connecting us to Bea to make this interview possible.

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