Support our campaign to tackle the cost of living crisis

Candice is diabetic so skipping meals carries a health risk. A few weeks ago, as the final pennies of her universal credit drained out of her bank account, Candice gave the last of her food to her eight-year-old daughter and tried to make it to dinner without eating. By mid-afternoon, the 32-year-old single mother was in trouble.

“I had a headache and I felt dizzy and light-headed,” Candice, of south London, says. “My eyes started rolling to the back of my head. I felt like I was going to pass out. My daughter had never seen me like that and she was worried, so we walked to Croydon University Hospital. At A&E they gave me food and water and said I was dehydrated and that my medication requires three meals a day.

“I already knew that but since I lost my job as an elderly-care support worker during Covid, and with prices shooting up, I can’t afford it.”

That same week in west London, another drama caused by the cost of living crisis was playing out. Jennifer Jones, a disabled single mother of seven, also on benefits, was shopping on the high street in her electric mobility scooter when she ran out of power. “I got into debt of £1,600 with the electricity company that I absolutely cannot afford, so I have been cutting costs by only charging my mobility scooter for four hours instead of through the night,” she says.

“I was going along when suddenly the energy gauge started flashing red and then it died. I was stuck in the middle of the high street miles from home. I had to stop a passerby and ask them to push me to a fast-food restaurant where I asked to charge it. They said, ‘We don’t allow that sort of thing’, and I started to cry so they said OK. I felt embarrassed and stressed. It’s the second time this has happened to me.”

These are just two of the myriad ways in which the cost of living crisis devastates the poor and vulnerable – then suddenly overwhelms them.

With food prices and energy bills rising at the highest rate in more than 40 years, people everywhere are tightening their belts, but for those on the breadline there is no more slack. More than 14.5 million people live in poverty in the UK, including 4.3 million children, nearly one in three, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For many, it means impossible choices like going hungry or sitting in the cold and dark.

That is why The Independent and our sister title the Evening Standard have combined forces to launch On the Breadline, a Christmas appeal to support people most affected by the cost of living crisis.

We have partnered with Comic Relief, which has kicked off our joint initiative with a £1m pledge to give grants to charities and organisations helping the most disadvantaged people across the UK. We are appealing to corporations, charitable foundations, philanthropists and readers to donate generously so we can double this sum and make additional grant allocations in the new year.

Samir Patel, CEO of Comic Relief, said: “This winter is going to be frighteningly tough for people up and down the country as the cost of living crisis pushes millions to breaking point. Millions face going hungry and without basic necessities, and pressure is mounting from all angles. As this national emergency intensifies, people need our help now. We are hugely grateful for this opportunity with the Evening Standard and Independent to launch a cost of living appeal and raise urgent funds this winter. From supporting food banks to providing warm clothing and energy top-up cards, this campaign will deliver a lifeline and ease the pressure for people facing the toughest times of their lives.”

Over recent months, our team of writers has been interviewing people around the country struggling with the cost of living crisis. Some of their stories are deeply harrowing and shocking, including:

Over the coming weeks, we will report on organisations helping to ease the pressure on people on the breadline. One group is Guiding Hands in Croydon – and even the journey there revealed the impact of the cost of living crisis.

At the train station, staff admonished three teenage boys for attempted fare-dodging. It turned out they were on their way to school but had no money for transport. The station staff agreed to let them travel free but told them that instead of jumping turnstiles, they needed to tell staff who would be understanding. A customer service representative said: “We see this happening a lot now. The cost of living crisis is forcing poor kids to break the law just to get to school. It’s a terrible situation. We have no official policy but at this station we see if their need is genuine and, if so, let them travel free.”

At the Guiding Hands community centre, essentially comprising two small rooms, The Independent met a resilient and supportive group of single mothers, including Candice, who regularly attend their Monday coffee mornings and empowerment sessions, as well as their Foodie Friday social food bank supplied by The Felix Project. “This place is a godsend,” said Candice. “It gets me a food top-up once a week and I can talk to other mothers and feel I am not in this alone.”

She spoke to Cece, 32, a single mother of three children aged five, two and two months, who is trying to get by on universal credit of £687 a month after rent. Cece said: “I come from a proud family who always worked. My dad was in IT, mum was a social worker and I worked in victim support for the Home Office earning £27,000 a year until I was made redundant after the pandemic. Now I think about bills all the time but this place is a life-saver. Here I get a £35 hamper of food and baby provisions for a fiver and it gets me through the week.”

Tracey Davis (centre) leads a Guiding Hands CIC session

Another single mother, Ann, a former end-of-life carer with four children, said: “Gone are the days when I could look forward to three meals a day. One if I’m lucky and sometimes it’s just crackers or toast. I didn’t eat at all yesterday. I get universal credit and, after paying rent, I have £267 a month left for food, utilities, transport, everything. You can’t believe how fast my prepaid energy smart meter goes down. I put money in and before I look round, I have to top up. I tell the kids, ‘socks, dressing gowns, blankets’ because heating is crazy. I don’t know how we will cope when it gets really cold. I will probably come here to keep warm.”

Guiding Hands has just applied for £7,000 from the National Grid Community Matters Fund to become an official “warm space”. More than two dozen councils around the country are launching warm space funds this winter – including Islington, Hounslow and Richmond in London, and county councils in Essex, Wolverhampton, Somerset, Derbyshire and North Devon. In Wolverhampton – where nearly a quarter of households are in fuel poverty compared to 13 per cent nationally – they are opening 38 warm spaces. Ian Brookfield, leader of Wolverhampton County Council, said: “It feels like we are going back to Dickensian times.”

Guiding Hands CEO and founder Tracey Davis, 52, said demand for their service has risen sharply. “We regularly help about 50 mothers a week with our coffee mornings and Foodie Fridays but we now get an additional 45 walk-ins every month. They knock on our door and say, ‘Can we get a food parcel? We have no money and no food’. Often they have googled ‘food bank’ in desperation and travelled to us from far away.”

Tracey set up Guiding Hands 11 years ago to help struggling single mums aged 16 to 25 with advice about everything from cooking to bathing a baby, but she has since expanded it to support vulnerable mums of any age with school-aged children. She said: “As a single mum myself, I know the struggles. I used to be the bookkeeper of a children’s centre in Brixton and we had to exclude kids because their parents couldn’t afford to pay and it broke my heart.”

Jennifer is worried she may no longer be able to afford to charge her electric wheelchair

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