NEWS
20/10/2011 02:41 BST | Updated 19/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Winter's First Frost Marks Start Of Difficult Choices For London's Poorest Families

If the weather reports are correct this week, we will see winter's first frosts forming on the streets of London.

For most in the capital it will be just another sign of the changing seasons.

But for more people than you may expect it will also signify the start of a terrifying daily dilemma: do you heat your home, or do you feed your family?

That is the stark choice that will be faced by thousands of London's poorest and most vulnerable families, who are described in a new report by Trust for London and the New Policy Institute. And given the recent report that thousands of people could be at risk of death through fuel poverty this year, the problem seems to be getting worse.

"Poverty is about worrying yourself sick that winter is going to come in the next week because then you've got to put the heating on," said Moraene Roberts, who lives on the Stanford Hill housing estate in Hackney, where she estimates about half of the 500 families there are living in a state of poverty.

"Poverty today means wearing the same winter coat for 8 or 10 years. I'm not a fashion junkie at all, but my coat has been worn and cleaned and worn and cleaned and it's wearing a bit thin, and it would be nice to be able to say that I will go out and buy a new coat … But I guess that's going to have to wait another year."

For Roberts, who is 58 and living on disability with three adult children, whom she brought up in Stanford Hill and two other estates, many families in London are nearing the point of total despair, fearful that as employment falls and services are cut that they may never be able to pull themselves out of poverty.

"I know of young parents who feed their children at their own cost," she said. "They make sure their children have food and then survive on left overs, on bread and butter.

"They do their best on little or nothing, even those who are in work."

Roberts, who is a human rights activist who also works for the ATD Fourth World poverty campaign, says that communities in poor areas do not rally around each other and help their neighbours in the way that they once did.

The time of popping next door for a cup of tea when you can't afford to keep your own heating on is over, she says, the result of years of disintegrating community spirit.

"It's harder and it's colder, and a lot of that is because people did what they were told in the Thatcher government and got on their bikes. Communities were broken up," she says. "Communities don't gather together now."

Research released on Thursday by Trust For London and the New Policy Institute claims that London is one of the hardest places in the country be poor, particularly for children and young adults.

The report found that poverty is higher in London than the rest of England, and that 38 per cent of children in the capital are in low-income households compared to 30 per cent in the rest of England.

Eight of the ten English authorities with the highest rates of child poverty are in London, the report says, and on average, poverty is a harsher experience for children in the capital with more missing out on activities such as having friends over for tea and going on school trips.

Children's charities in some of London's poorest areas say that those wider effects of poverty can have a profound impact on young people.

Catriona Maclay, director of the Hackney Pirates project which provides free literacy and creativity lessons for children from often deprived backgrounds, said: "When we ask our volunteers what their most formative learning experiences are, again and again they talk about the clubs, trips, inspiring adults and special places which made a critical difference to them.

"It's not just the in-school learning that matters, but all the other opportunities that help children flourish - creative activities, role models, family time, trips, extra-curricular clubs and a wide social circle. These may seem like luxuries, but we need to invest in the broadest possible learning for children so that they can succeed."

Unemployment rates for young adults are also higher in London (23 per cent compared to 19 per cent in England as a whole). And while Londoners are generally better qualified than elsewhere they also face a tougher fight to find work.

Even in the capital extreme inequalities exist. Children born in Southwark, Croydon, Haringey and Harrow are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as those born in Bromley, Kingston and Richmond. Adults in Hackney are twice as likely to die before the age of 65 as those in Kensington and Chelsea.

Bharat Mehta, Chief Executive of Trust for London, said: "The Government has rightly acknowledged the critical importance of investment in the early years of children. However, our research shows that although good progress has been made in education, children in London are experiencing very difficult times. There is an urgent need to address this and the growing unemployment facing young Londoners."