Imagine this: you smell because you don’t have deodorant.
You can’t wash your hair because you have no shampoo. You scrape out your baby’s soiled nappy and put it back on because you can’t afford to change it as often as needed. And when you have your period, you’re housebound because you’ve no money to buy sanitary products.
This is hygiene poverty.
In summer 2018, I watched Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake – a harrowing depiction of UK lives ruined by the failing welfare system. I was struck in particular by a scene in which the character Katie is caught shoplifting, despite having already been to a food bank, with razors, deodorants and sanitary pads all stuffed into her bag.
Watching this propelled me to set up The Hygiene Bank. Through a network of partners, we are now helping thousands across the country who are at risk of isolating themselves.
The Hygiene Bank is a people-powered, grassroots charity, grounded in community. We collect and re-distribute donated toiletries, hygiene, beauty and personal care items via a network of charity partners that include the food bank, refuge, supported housing for 16-24 year olds, hostels and schools. These in turn are then given out to those that desperately need them.
One in five people in Britain are defined as ‘living in poverty’. Two-thirds of children in poverty live in a working family, where earnings and costs of living don’t marry up.
Parents are increasingly prioritising feeding their families over buying hygiene products, while young teens and adults are going hungry to save themselves the humiliation of showing up at college with greasy hair and body odour. Teachers tell me they have seen an increase in the number of pupils coming to school looking unwashed and in dirty clothes.
They have seen families who wash their faces, bodies, hair and clothes in the same washing up liquid used for the dishes, and kids who don’t own a toothbrush.
The first time I made a delivery to a food bank, a mum turned to her children and said, ‘look, you can have a toothbrush each’. They were delighted.
One teen in supported housing told me, ‘I was ashamed, feeling dirty made me feel worthless. I was too embarrassed for people to see me that way, and so I stayed away from college and my friends and my mental health got worse.’
I hear about this crippling impact on confidence, good health and mental wellbeing all the time.
Hygiene and personal care products aren’t life-or-death, but they have a fundamental impact on the way we interact with each other, and play our part in society.
My passion and that of all our volunteers stems from a sense of injustice. Feeling clean should not be a luxury or a privilege in modern Britain.
From universal credit, to employability tests and work sanctions; from cuts to hardship funds, to closures of children’s centres, we live in a crazy world where the very structures designed to help people out of a hole are dragging them further down.
With the rise of the gig economy and the gradual decline of worker rights, the old adage that work is the route out of poverty is no longer true for many people.
We need to look at an approach to children and invest in them as our future. There needs to be a plan to boost living standards and support our towns and cities in building a more hopeful economic future.
Now is the time to demand concerted action to solve it. Government, businesses, employers and communities need to take action so that we don’t find ourselves in 100 years’ time still reporting that millions of people struggle to make ends meet.
But in the mean time, this is what you can do to help. Drop off new and unused products at one of our 400 collection bins, or if you can’t get to a collection box, order the basics online from our Easho wishlist and they’ll get delivered straight to a bank of your choice.
Help us to provide vital support, because no one should have to choose between hygiene and food.
You can find out more about The Hygiene Bank here.
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