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“It’s really hard to go ask someone for help when you don’t have any milk or bread in the fridge because you don’t want to be judged as a bad parent, but I tell them that I have been there myself.”
In February 2021, right in the middle of our third national lockdown, we sat down for a virtual chat with Saiqa Pandor, family liaison manager at Home-Start Camden & Islington, for an honest chat about the vulnerability of so many families in the UK, and what their reality looks like.
Home-Start is a local community charity of trained volunteers and expert support helping families with young children through their challenging times. As of 2020, Home-Start has supported 56,000 children in 27,000 families, in communities across the UK. The charity has been working in Camden since 1995, and expanded into Islington in 2018, providing support to parents of children under the age of five who are struggling. The Camden & Islington branch works with around 170 families in the two boroughs every year.
Talking to Saiqa, it didn’t take long to confirm what families need urgently: food, and basic need items such as nappies, clothes, and shoes. Data shows the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted those who were already vulnerable. Food bank use has risen and single mothers are more likely to have lost work and income. Within the figures, there are thousands of stories, and we won’t forget the scandal of the ‘free school meals’ delivered to vulnerable families at the start of the year. If celebrities such as Marcus Rashford or Jack Monroe hadn’t stepped up, we’re still unsure what the outcome would have been like.
But charities such as Home-Start help locally, building a deep connection with families with children under five years-old, finding out what they need, and offering a lifeline.
Saiqa found Home-Start when she was looking to start the next step in her life, after raising a family of seven children, and when day-school wasn’t an option compatible with school drop offs. She started with a volunteer course that directly linked with her skills as a homemaker. “There was a newspaper advert in one of the local papers here for parents having a couple hours to spare to give some advice to other parents and help out, and I thought this was right up my street”, she says. “Initially, I didn’t think I had anything to offer, but it concentrated on me being a mother and what I can actually bring to a family - not qualifications or written skills, but practical stuff, and I realised I had so many skills I didn’t know I had. I also wanted to work with my own community because I felt there weren’t that many volunteers from my background”.
Community is a key factor within the local charity, which Saiqa views as a strength when it comes to not only helping families but also driving new volunteers in. “I’m a woman from a South Asian background, and I know a lot of women from my background don’t have much confidence in themselves and feel quite redundant when they become middle aged, because they think there really isn’t much more that they can do once their children are grown up,” she says. “But this job is about caring, and we need women like them at the forefront. And volunteering leads to opportunities, to jobs. I think women don’t actually realise when they’ve had a child and they’ve been at home for so long, that there are actually jobs out there for them, that their skills are actually so transferable, and sometimes they need another mum to make them realise that they can do this.”
Saiqa, who had her first child when she was 16 years-old, understands what it’s like. The level of empathy, from one parent to the next, especially one from a marginalised community, is what brought her in, and what makes many Home-Start volunteers stay. “Being a parent for the first time is really difficult; you may not have family nearby, you may be new to the area, your marriage may have broken down, and you find yourself in a situation where you’re completely isolated and you don’t know who to turn to” she explains.
Families come through referrals, health visitors, or mothers themselves sometimes pick up the phone and ask for help directly. Before the pandemic hit, Home-Start volunteers would typically get trained and go visit a family at home for a few hours every week, befriending the parents and building up rapport and trust. This in turn would help get the parents, often mothers, to visit local facilities available to them, as getting out on their own may be difficult. “I help get the kids ready, play with them, talk with them,” says Saiqa. “That way we also help parents enjoy their children, and as a volunteer it actually made me realise through the course that the best people for the children are always the parents. We help them find confidence in their parenting abilities again.”
The pandemic and multiple lockdowns forced the organisation to adapt and find new ways to help, because, as the charity states so clearly on its website, ‘childhood can’t wait’, and existing issues have only been amplified during the past year. “A lot of the mums we help are refugees, who have no recourse to public funds, and they are having a hard time,” she explains. “We also work with mums who have fled domestic violence, and sometimes some of the mums have a husband who is working and they cannot go out, or they don’t earn enough money but yet they’re not entitled to any benefits because the dad is working, so we try to help them”.
Home-Start also works with fathers and parents who have disabilities, providing them with a volunteer for a couple of hours each week, helping them with ‘life admin’ and practical things they may not be able to do on their own. “A lot of our families are not fluent in English as it’s not their first language so we help them get services.” Volunteers become advocates for those families and fight for their rights, especially when they get turned down or are neglected by society because of the language barrier. “Just having this gentle voice next to them really provides them with comfort and solace,” she says. “And sometimes there are mums who don’t have any of these issues. We have a mum who has a nice house and is doing well financially, but she suffers from depression. Anybody can access our services if they need help, no matter what their situation is”.
Home-Start is responsible for its own funding through a number of different streams by generous individuals, private organisations and businesses, historically from the Camden Council to the Big Lottery. ”We have been funded by several projects, but money’s always short,” Saiqa explains.
Food and tech poverty, in particular, are areas where Home-Start helps when nobody else does. “Since Covid, we’ve had good funders providing us with supermarket vouchers for our families, and we’ve been fundraising for laptops for families as children are being home-schooled,” Saiqa explains. “A few of my families still don’t have access to laptops; they’ll have five children and one laptop, and they just do not have the resources for more. During the first lockdown, they didn’t have any laptops at all”.
But more basic needs often take priority, and hard choices must be made. “Families are more concerned with things like a cooker that breaks down than a laptop,” she says. “They’ll be more concerned with getting one the next day to feed their family, or getting their washing machine fixed”. Priorities are as varied as families, but if things break down, they need a replacement quickly, which is where Home-Start steps in. “I’m always filling in emergency grants for families,” Saiqa adds, “I find out what’s going on in the area, what is available, so I can get it across quickly”.
While Home-Start’s volunteers aren’t allowed to visit families at the moment, the organisation has been running remote services where the staff provides help through the phone, a solution that worked surprisingly well, as per Saiqa’s own admission. “I speak to the children, read stories to them, while mums can get some housework done,” she explains. “Then they’ll join and we’ll sing or dance together, or talk about how they’re feeling. We do this virtually through the screen, and it works really well with them. I was worried about how I was going to be able to do this but it works”.
Not all charities take on such a personal approach, which makes Home-Start quite unique. If reaching the parents through the phone during the pandemic has sometimes been hard, Home-Start never gave up. “If they don’t pick up the phone I’ll try again or text to ask if they’re OK, and this alone has had an impact on them,” she says. “We don’t let them forget that we’re here, and we don’t close up the case”. Phone calls, just like volunteers, are a lifeline for thousands throughout the UK who are dealing with not only a true poverty crisis but also with the serious mental health repercussions of a pandemic.
When it comes to talking about child poverty in the UK and the food crisis, Saiqa has, of course, many stories - and they are quite revealing about how poorly the situation has been handled. “I was talking to one of my mums the other day about the ‘free meals’, and just asked her what they got and she said these were things she never would have wanted to give her children,” Saiqa says. “The most heartbreaking part was that she said ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. It really made me feel sad, because that is quite profound when you think about it”.
Home-Start turns to food banks for the families in desperate need, and provides psychological help for parents dealing with feelings of humiliation. “No one says it, because when you need food there’s no pride left, but because we know each other so well now, that mum just broke down about having to get food that is ‘bottom of the pile’”.
Home-Start has had hero funders who gave the organisation supermarket vouchers throughout the pandemic, which has made it possible to help families since as early as March 2020. Some who, as Saiqa explains, didn’t have anything in the house. “Some didn’t even have bread in the house and rang me up, so I went to buy it for them,” she says. “It’s really hard to go ask someone for help when you don’t have any milk or bread in the fridge because you don’t want to be judged as a bad parent, but I tell them that I have been there myself”.
Some of the parents even get confused about what can be viewed as ‘acceptable’ basic needs, as Saiqa recalls one of the mums needing new shoes for her children. “She phoned me up and said ‘shoes are not essential’, but of course they are essential!” Saiqa says. Parents have the mental struggle to choose between clothing their children or feeding them, but Home-Start is also there to remind them that both are vital, quickly finding ways for them to do both.
Regular donations, whether in card payments or physical, are what can really help Home-Start’s mission. “Some grants fund vouchers for us, and we are very careful who we give the vouchers to of course,” says Saiqa. “In Camden and Islington, there are fifteen families that we regularly give vouchers to, and then if someone else needs something urgently like a buggy or appliance, we’ll check if we can help through an emergency fund”.
Urgent needs include nappies, baby milk, and general shopping, because, as Saiqa explains plainly, children staying at home naturally need a lot more food than if they’re out or at school, and basic items need replacement more quickly. “A lot of this is hand to mouth,” she explains. “I can’t express to you the relief people feel when they get the vouchers”.
John Lewis and Waitrose made Home-Start charity of the year in 2020, and provided the organisation with Christmas presents, which, as Saiqa recalls, truly saved Christmas for these families. After a year filled with anxiety, she remembers seeing the joy on the parents’ faces when she went to deliver them personally - a much needed break for people who have been robbed of the only true wealth they once had: freedom. “People can live with less money as long as it’s enjoyable outside, take the bus, go to the museums, as anything that is free in society we’ll find, but without the freedom to go out, it has made these families’ situation ten times worse,” she says. “They can’t be happy or boost their self-esteem while being stuck at home, so it’s very hard, especially as we don’t know when it will end”.
With lockdown restrictions easing up soon, Saiqa is hopeful that volunteer training, the backbone of the charity, will resume soon. The programme had to be halted as the nature of the job requires constant face-to-face interactions, which simply could not be delivered through online training. “A lot of the volunteers end up being more qualified than me and I’m so proud, because I want them to be successful,” she says. “People can still apply to help, as there are so many things they can do. We’d love to get more volunteers!”
As we part, Saiqa confesses that once you become a part of the Home-Start family, it really does become a family. And it shows. “Take a chance on us, as you can really flourish here,” she says.
Home-Start Camden & Islington is now planning to hold volunteer training from 17 May 2021 and is looking for recruits. To help Home-Start Camden & Islington, and contribute to the charity’s mission through volunteering or by donating, please visit www.homestartcamdenandislington.org.uk