A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that around 1,252,000 people in the UK had been destitute – unable to afford to eat, stay warm and dry, or keep clean – in 2015. This same report ranked North Devon 2nd in a list of 5 levels of prevalence of destitution (1 being highest, 5 being the lowest), estimating that 2.1 - 2.7%, or roughly 480 households, had experienced a period of destitution in North Devon this past year.

The reasons for poverty and destitution

Reasons for destitution are, unsurprisingly, closely linked to severe poverty but are compounded by benefit delays, sanctions or interruptions, unsustainable debt repayments and high living costs. Although some destitute groups were able to find assistance out of their situation from statutory and local, public agencies, others were entitled to little or no assistance and left to rely on local charities and voluntary groups to meet their basic needs.

Our services, along with other local charities are playing an increased role in helping those who are unable to meet their own essential needs as statutory services are cut back, yet they too are facing a climate of decreased funding and support for their services, whilst demand for all that they provide is increasing.

Of all the people described as destitute in JRF’s report – unable to afford food, shelter, heating, lighting, clothing, or basic toiletries – the group most likely to find themselves in this situation were younger single men, a fact that is reflected in the users of our Day Centre’s services.

Responding to hunger and basic human requirements

Last year, we served over 9,000 free hot meals to those who came to our Day Centre, for many of them this would have been the only hot meal they ate that day, and for others the only meal they had at all. This is mirrored in the JRF report which noted 79% of destitute service users often went without food in order to meet other necessities such as utility bills and housing costs.

With little support available and decreasing options for assistance, ‘radical economising’ was reported as the most common strategy used to stave off destitution, this including skipping meals in order to meet other essential costs or to ensure children did not go without.

Destitution has a cyclical nature with those experiencing this extreme hardship moving from extreme poverty to destitution and back again. Most often this is due to unexpected expense or disruptions to income arising – such as an illness, loss or cut back in hours to a zero hours contract, change to benefits or a move to colder weather which increased heating costs. Most often those experiencing destitution had their situation resolved through a resolution of benefit issues, or less often, through finding cheaper housing, paying off debts, gaining employment, receiving support for their complex needs or even the onset of warmer weather.

Providing hope and dignity

Whilst many participants of the JRF report related feelings of degradation, and humiliation at the need to seek help with their material needs like food, clothing and toiletries from charitable organisations, friends or family, this is one area that is not echoed in the responses given by our service users; comments such as ‘Freedom provided sanity.’ or ‘Freedom helped me to feel like a human again and not just some ‘thing’.’ are common amongst the feedback sheets provided by our clients.

In an effort to decrease the prevalence and effects of destitution and extreme poverty in North Devon, we run a number of different projects which provide participants with a plan and a possible route out of their situation and back to participate in the wider community.

Providing paths out of destitution

Our two social enterprises give volunteers an opportunity to learn new skills which enhance work preparedness and job opportunities – one of the preferred routes out of destitution noted in JRF’s report. Along-side this, our Digital Inclusion classes enable students to learn how to run useful job searches and write effective job applications and CV’s whilst also mastering basic computer skills such as email account creation and management and using house swapping sites which enable those in social housing to find more suitable, affordable accommodation.
Our core services address the immediate needs of those who find themselves in dire straits – the free clothing store, free hot lunches and shower facilities enable visitors to be clothed, fed and clean, restoring people’s humanity.

‘Freedom gave me a place where I could feel at ease and facilities – a shower, clean clothes and somewhere to eat - that helped me find a job. They gave me back my sense of self-worth.’

Our Day Centre volunteers and workers are also able to assist users in completing often complicated benefits and housing forms, access debt advice or simply sit and listen to the problems being experienced and provide sound advice to create a plan to move out of their situation and back to a more stable existence.

While other large-scale surveys provide evidence of a rise in severe poverty across the UK (which implies a rise in the risk of destitution) over the past decade or so, and a trend that this will continue if nothing changes, our work will become ever more necessary to support the vulnerable in our local communities, as will support from the broader public.

Regular donations help keep our services free for vulnerable people.