The front garden is littered with rubbish; the gate hangs impotently ajar on one hinge. The concrete path is split and the gaping holes have been filled with opportunist rampant weeds.
The broken front door has been ‘kicked in’ one too many times, evidenced by the clumsy attempts to repair it with gaffer tape.
The moment I step inside and onto the lino floor the overwhelming presence of cat faeces and urine hits me, not just because I must take care to avoid stepping in it, but because the smell of ammonia is so strong it stings my eyes and makes them water.
Moving further into the lounge, the plaster walls are bare, save for some childish attempts at biro graffiti; the curtains are cheap, thin and both they and the low ceiling are deeply stained by years of tobacco smoke. There are three battered and stained sofas, one against each wall, and a coffee table dominates the small space the middle of them. It’s too cold to consider taking off our thick outdoor coats, and yet shivering on one of the sofas, in a thin, well worn school uniform, is an eight year boy.
As I look around I see that without exception every surface is filled with clutter; on closer inspection the clutter is in fact dirty cutlery and crockery covered in food in differing stages of decomposition. Blue bread and jam, rotten chicken nuggets and stained cups and glasses are all home to scum and islands of fungus floating within. More faeces, junk mail, and bills litter the floor. I didn’t venture upstairs, but I can only imagine the cold, dirty smelly beds this poor child and his siblings would have to sleep in. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down on the filthy sofa, so I sat on my paramedic bag instead.
The family are clearly poor by any standard, but after chatting to the mother it becomes additionally obvious that she is clinically depressed. She is tearful and unmotivated to do any house work or even provide for her children’s basic needs; her hair is greasy and she appears unwashed. There is no absence of love; nonetheless the home feels unwelcoming – a thoroughly miserable place for a child to grow up. A single mum, on benefits with three children – it can’t be easy. However, this wasn’t taking place in a third world country – this was in London, England.
I was called to the home for a minor health problem – but what I found was so much more than that and couldn’t be sorted out by anything in my bag or by a simple trip to an accident and emergency department. Once mum and child were in a clinical environment, away from their home, the staff would be none the wiser to their plight and they would be discharged soon after receiving treatment. Discharged right back to the health hazard of a home where if I had a dog, I wouldn’t leave it – not even for a moment.
While it was, without any shadow of a doubt the worse situation I have seen a child in this country living in, I know the situation is not unique. The HBAI survey showed that 13.5 million people in the UK (23%) are income poor. Of those 13.5 million people: 53% are in households which include at least one child [source].
Families can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities, and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.
Poverty is associated with a higher risk of both illness and premature death; and the impact on children is often the hardest and most far reaching. [source]
Poorer children on average experience poorer health during their childhoods and the effects of this last throughout their whole lives. Children living in poverty are 2.5 times more likely to suffer chronic illness than children in better off households. As I acknowledged earlier, poverty wasn’t the only challenge faced by this family; it rarely is – the issues are many and complex. I have to say that this little lad’s situation played uncomfortably on my conscience as I got in to my clean warm bed that night.
For further information about child poverty head over to the End Child Poverty website.