Camila Batmanghelidjh isn’t angry that children are starving in London. She’s lethal.
“It makes me determined to do something about it,” she tells The Huffington Post UK. “Anger is waiting for someone else to do something. I tend to just become lethal, decide that something needs to be done and do it.”
The 49-year-old colourful charity boss is armed with statistics, and barbs at the government who she claims listen but “ultimately, they don’t care.”
Every day, she says, children in London are going without food as poverty in the capital increases. She’s seen children who are so malnourished they lose teeth, children so hungry who draw pictures of food and eat them, who scrimp and scrape to get their main meal of the day.
Her charity Kids Company are currently helping 2,000 children who otherwise would go without their main meal of the day, with around 70 new cases coming in for help each week. “I raise the alarm all the time in relation to government and these children,” Batmanghelidjh says. “They are very cordial but ultimately, really, they don’t care because these kids don’t vote.”
Is she saying David Cameron doesn’t care about starving children? “It’s not within his visceral experience. He doesn’t see it. When you are in Downing Street it’s very hard to get close to the experience of a child who literally has no food or is sitting in the dark, or... It’s not just his [background] I think often the political classes are not close to the experience of children surviving their childhood. It’s because of that that they make mindless decisions.”
Mindless decisions like acknowledging children need free school meals in term time but providing no food during the summer holidays, or helping only the children whose parents are competent enough to bring them to a sure start centre.
Batmanghelidjh's comments come after a damning report from the Prince's Trust revealed students are coming into school "dirty and malnourished".
Kids Company, through outreach programmes and word of mouth help the rest. This year they have worked with 17,000 of the capital’s poorest children, with one boy coming to them for food because he heard a “crazy fat lady” was giving it away in south London.
Camila with prime minister David Cameron
So what’s a woman to do when Britain is failing vulnerable children? In Camila’s case, start work at 8am, leave at 11pm and carry on raising the alarm - even if it means sacrificing her own family life.
“I decided I wanted to work with vulnerable children when I was nine; so I told my parents I wanted to set up an orphanage. Then by 18 I made a decision, it was either going to be the vocation or my own family. I decided the vocation. I never regretted it. I absolutely love children but I have no need to have my own.”
Kids Company say inequality and poverty in London is getting worse - Batmanghelidjh believes one in three children in inner city schools experience poverty. They say there’s a “hidden London”, where people with nothing are a stone’s throw away from the wealthy.
“Poverty in London is like being in a cage. You can see the goodies out there that other people have access to but you don't get to have access. Because of that it's incredibly humiliating and debilitating on its own,” she says.
“There is definitely a risk. The more imbalanced society becomes the more it generates risk. One dimension of it is people having to move away. Another dimension of it is people can get robbed. In fact carjackings have gone up in London because ultimately when people are starving and they are sitting in a room with no electricity because they can't afford the electricity jack.
“Chronic stress like that can alter people's value systems. A lot of us from the comfort of our seats can make value judgements about what's right and wrong. Left in conditions where you have no food and you have no basic resources it's arguable how much morality you will exercise.”
If it’s increasing unemployment, or people who were just “scraping through” before everyone started tightening their belts, more and more children are turning to the charity to get food and basic resources like mattresses.
“With this government,” she says. “I think we’ve gone slightly backwards, unfortunately, because their preoccupation is with obtainment. So they conceptualise children and childhood in terms of education only, really.”
She adds: “I think there are children in London starving but I don’t know what the official statistics are, she says. “I know for sure there are children in London who for long periods don’t have access to food.
“It’s hypocrisy to go fundraising for Africa and then you starve African children here. We pay aid, as a country, to Africa and to other countries because we don’t want their children to die of lack of food and then right on our doorstep we’re starving children by not having any access to funding for them.”
During the London riots Batmanghelidjh said the social unrest reflected a deeper unease in society about how we treated our young people. Now, she says she doesn’t have access to the “crystal ball” the mayor of London Boris Johnson accessed when he claimed they wouldn’t happen again.
“What I would say to people, you’re grown up, for four days [during the riots] you were frightened and you had uncertainty. These children have fear and uncertainty in entire lifetimes.”
So what would she say to people who think there is not enough public money to spend on vulnerable children, in this era of constrained public spending? The answer, Batmanghelidjh believes, is that we spend far more than we know on these children, who grow up without food and clothes to become the anti-social adults of tomorrow.
“We don’t even know how much we spend on vulnerable children. How do we know there isn’t enough money for it?”
At the inspiring women awards
She adds: “I think people would be shocked if they saw cases here. Both the poverty and the extreme choices people are having to make. Social services in poor areas for example no longer provide food for families that are starving, no longer intervene in households where children are sleeping in shit. Literally, shit.”
One solution Batmanghelidjh proposes is a Royal Commission led by an independent body to look into poverty (“none of these mickey mouse inquiries that get sanitised”). So, would she like to lead it, or even work for the government?
“I’ve never been offered a government job,” she confides. “They know I really have one agenda which is the kids. They’ll only come up with me if they are really serious.“
Key Statistics according to Kids Company
- 70% of Head Teachers were either very or extremely concerned about the children’s levels of nutrition in their school.
- 88% of Head Teachers think poor nutrition is having an impact in their school
- 5 Inner London Schools told them that they estimate between 70% and 80% of their children are affected by Food Insecurity (not always having enough food at home, or knowing if there will be food available)
- 50% of primary school children in the study reported going to bed hungry.
- 85% rely on Kids Company for their main meal of the day
- 64% of children report being hungry because there’s not enough food in theirhouses
- 33% never eat breakfast