Community groups and voluntary organisations across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are struggling to meet demand for their services and help the region’s most vulnerable people due to the cost-of-living crisis.
An unprecedented demand is emerging for financial and mental health support from families, many of whom are working hard but are finding themselves unable to cope.
A community roundtable hosted by Hampshire & Isle of Wight Community Foundation (HIWCF), an independent charitable foundation, has shone a spotlight on the impact that rising living costs are having on individuals and families in local communities.
Rebecca Kennelly MBE, Chair of Trustees at HIWCF, was joined by: Samantha Mabbott, CEO of Citizens Advice, Hart District; Rev. Tracey Ansell who runs North End Pantry in Portsmouth; and Rachel Thompson, Community Manager at Pan Together, a community hub based on the Isle of Wight.
All three speakers described an escalating crisis among groups of people they haven’t traditionally supported such as families with working parents and private household owners. Families and individuals are most commonly seeking support with rent and mortgage payments, energy, bills and food. The increase in numbers of people needing help in the first few months of this year is stark, and looking at the statistics of average living expenses, it isn’t surprising.
View the recording of the HIWCF Community Lens: focus on the cost-of-living crisis below:
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the cost of everyday consumables has risen by 16.5%, the highest rise since September 1977 and at the end of 2022, more than half of adults were buying less food. In the last year energy prices for the average household have gone up 20%. Despite the speed of inflation slowing, costs continue to rise at a rate of nearly 9%, and food prices are at a 45-year high.
Record energy costs are also a concern for charities and non-profit organisations. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), average energy prices for charities are still four and a half times higher than in February 2021, yet charitable income has not seen a like-for-like increase.
As a result of rising costs, End Child Poverty has revealed concerning figures about poverty in Hampshire – 33.3% of children living in Southampton live in low-income households with Portsmouth and Isle of Wight at 32.2% and 31.5% respectively.
On the Isle of Wight, Rachel Thompson, manages Pan Together, a community centre in an area ranked 5.8% in England’s most deprived. In 2019 35% of children there were reportedly growing up in poverty, against an England average of 17%. Demand for support from Pan Together has grown at unprecedented levels, with a 183% increase in visitors to the Pan Community Larder in the first quarter of 2023 – the majority of whom are working families.
Rachel said: “Nobody should have to choose between fuel, food, and children’s clothes. We (small charities) can’t change the world, but we can make a real and tangible difference to peoples’ everyday lives. The need is pressing and urgent.”
It isn’t just the region’s poorer communities who are struggling. The Hart district is the most affluent and least deprived area in the whole of the UK, yet it is also feeling the effects of the crisis. Samantha Mabbott from Hart Citizens Advice explained how shocked she is at the change in the needs of their community over the last couple of years and how reluctant her clients have been to want to ask for help, often sparking a mental health crisis. She has seen a 341% increase in demand for the free Citizens Advice service, from people seeking emergency charitable support and foodbanks.
Samantha said: “We are seeing clients that are contemplating taking their own lives. We are dealing with safeguarding issues almost on a daily basis now, and it’s due to the financial pressures, unbearable debt and the fear of debt – it’s an unprecedented situation.”
The enormity of this crisis is also being felt by those who give up their time to support others in the community. The region’s volunteers are working harder than ever to help people find solutions to a wide variety of problems, but the increasing pressure is taking its toll on their wellbeing.
Rev. Tracey Ansell, who runs a community pantry attached to North End Baptist Church in Portsmouth, said 90% of people are coming forward not just for food, but for information and support services on wide range of issues from debt management, employment and mental health. She has seen a 60% increase in those seeking help, and where these used to be mainly single people, now the majority are families, referred through schools and Children’s Services. She says that 15% of people visiting the pantry have stolen items through fear of being unable to feed their children.
All of this is having an enormous impact on the mental wellbeing of Tracey’s volunteers: “The biggest impact I have seen, as the stories are being told week in week out, is that we are having to check in on our volunteers on a regular basis. It’s having a massive impact on our volunteers. We’re having to do regular mental health checks on them and that’s something that in over 20 years of Ministry, I’ve never had to do.”
Reflecting on the HIWCF roundtable discussion, Rebecca Kennelly said it had highlighted new groups of people struggling with poverty across the county – those that were just about managing before are now finding themselves in crisis, and suggested now is the time for more local philanthropists and businesses with corporate social responsibility goals to help meet this demand.
HIWCF awards grants on behalf of donors including local companies, individuals, families, charitable trusts, government agencies and local partnerships. In 2022 it gave out approximately £1.9 million, £1.3 million of which was given to help reduce the impact of poverty across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Jacqui Scott, HIWCF CEO said: “The cost-of-living crisis affects all of us across society as the prices of everyday essentials, fuel and energy are rising. We understand that many people across Hampshire and the Island are finding it hard to make ends meet so we are keen to work across the region to see what support we can provide as a Community Foundation and give voice to those who are struggling.”