Many of us talk about the holiday season as being a time for giving and sharing. But how many of us will be actively doing something to help others this Christmas who are less fortunate than us?
I will be the first to admit that in the past I have done little to nothing other than make the odd charity donation here and there. But I’m trying to do more now. Maybe this post will convince you to do more too.
I saw some distressing figures yesterday and I make no apologies for sharing them here, as grim as they are. It’s important to deal in facts when there are people out there who continue to deny that poverty exists in 21st century Britain.
It does. And it’s getting worse, not better.
According to the homelessness charity Shelter, 320,000 people will spend Christmas homeless. 135,000 children are homeless, and that number is rising by 183 per day.
Analysis by the Equality Trust, a charity that works to reduce economic and social inequality, estimates that 14 million people in the UK – nearly a fifth of the population – live in poverty. (The ‘poverty line’ is defined as having less than 54% of the UK median income. Don’t ask me why it’s 54% – it’s the Social Metrics Commission’s definition.)
Four million people are more than 50% below the poverty line. 1.5 million are described as destitute. We’re not talking about foregoing Netflix or Sky Sports here. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation defines a person as being destitute when they lack two or more of the following over the past month: a home, food, heating, lighting, clothing, shoes and basic toiletries, or when an adult has an income of less than £70 a week.
1.5 million is equivalent 1 in 45 people in the UK – a little over 2%, or the combined populations of Liverpool and Leeds.
Poverty and destitution are not restricted to the occasional homeless person we see sheltering under bridges or in shop doorways. There are thousands of families living in temporary accommodation. Hundreds of thousands more live in their own homes but cannot heat them or put enough food on the table.
Homelessness is real. Poverty is real. And they are bigger problems than many of us would care to admit.
Our perspective – and lazy stereotypes
I – we – are lucky. We live in our own house. Heather and I both have good, well-paid jobs. Our three kids don’t want for life’s little luxuries.
But our distinctly middle-class lifestyle isn’t something we take for granted. Neither of us came from wealthy backgrounds. Both of us had parents who made considerable sacrifices to help us succeed. My parents were immigrants who arrived with virtually nothing; Heather lived with her disabled single mother. Yes, we have both worked hard to earn our success. But our starting point was still considerably better than many other people’s. And we have brought up our kids to appreciate their position of comparative privilege too.
The combination of being a parent and getting older has definitely changed my perspective in recent years. I’m now more outward-looking and less self-centred than I used to be. I care more about helping those less fortunate than me.
Let’s dispel a myth here. People aren’t poor because they’re lazy or lack ambition. There are plenty of hard-working poor people who have dreams they want to pursue. And while there are certainly some lazy poor people, there are just as many lazy rich people too. Despite the stereotype that some would have you believe, people aren’t lazy because they’re poor or working-class. People are lazy because it’s in their nature to be lazy, whether rich or poor, young or old.
How can we help others this Christmas?
I’ve been through that gradual evolution that comes with age, a degree of financial security and a generally centre-left political ideology. I want to do more now to help others who are less fortunate than me.
It starts with the easy stuff, like charitable donations. Remembering to pick up the phone when Children In Need is on. Giving old items to charity shops. I also make monthly Gift Aid contributions directly from my salary to four charities. Very middle-class: a direct debit donor. Assuage the guilt and indulge in a spot of virtue-signalling with minimal effort and time on my part.
We’ve also started to involve the kids, reminding them that Christmas is about giving as well as receiving. (And, boy, do they do a lot of receiving!) Every Christmas Eve, we sit down and make a donation to a charity of their choice on their behalf.
This year, we’re creating a reverse Advent calendar as a family. This involves putting one item a day into a box that we then donate to either a food bank or charity shop. We’ve done this in a slightly haphazard fashion before but we’re being a bit more organised this year. I popped into a couple of our local charity shops to check what items would be most valuable. (Warm clothes are always good.) Across the 24 days, the kids are going to take it in turns to place one item in the box, and this will include them purchasing one item out of their own pocket money and donating one of their possessions, maybe an old toy or a book. We’re hoping this means they’ll be actively invested in the exercise and put their own personal touches into it.
If this means we make a few people’s lives a tiny bit better this Christmas, well, it’s something, isn’t it?
I’m also starting to consider what the next step might be. It’s easy to throw money at the problem and keep it at arm’s length. Out of sight, out of mind. But can I/we also get more personally involved and make a gift of that most precious commodity of all: time?
I’m still mulling this over but a few ideas have sprung to mind already.
I found a soup kitchen in Newbury that runs every Thursday evening. Maybe I could volunteer there for a couple of hours?
There are a couple of homeless guys I often pass on the streets in town. Next time I see them, I’m going to buy them a coffee.
We’re lucky enough that we will spend Christmas with my parents. But not all old people are so lucky. Heather’s mum spent her final years in a nursing home. Our kids were still very young at the time, so we would only see her briefly over the holiday. Other residents similarly had little or no contact. Maybe one of our local care homes would appreciate some friendly company for the residents? Or Toby could bake a cake to take in for them? I don’t know if they accept or allow this kind of thing – but I’m going to pop my head round the door next week and find out.
We and our kids are in the privileged position of being comfortable and well-off. Other people are far less fortunate. If we can do something to help others this Christmas, that would be in the true spirit of the festive season, wouldn’t it?