Louise Cooke, a 46-year-old ex-teacher and community worker in Nottingham, has never been elected nor is her work funded by the taxpayer – but she is filling in the gaps left by the government.
For the past two years, volunteering out the back of her local church, Cooke has been running Sharewear – what, in austerity’s language, we could dub a “clothes bank” . This isn’t packets of pasta or boxes of veg but winter coats and children’s shoes. Cooke describes the people who come through the doors as in “crisis” : anyone from job seekers to Syrian refugees, from low-paid workers to people on benefits (“We have people coming in on disabled people’s behalf because they’re housebound,” she adds). Five years ago it would have been inconceivable to think food banks – and the poverty that leads families to them – would be a normalised part of towns and cities up and down this country.
Five years from now, will we say the same about clothes banks? “It’s like we’re living in the developing world – but it’s the UK,” Cooke says. “What sort of society are we living in?”Easy answer, Louise. It’s the sort of society that has allowed, nay, even encouraged, a section of that society to believe that it’s someone else’s job to provide them with free stuff.
It says something about how entrenched deprivation now is in this country that a key reason Cooke started the scheme in March 2014 was that her son – then volunteering at one of the city’s latest food banks – told her, among the queues for food parcels, people were coming in and asking about packs of baby clothes.It doesn’t say anything about ‘entrenched deprivation’, but it speaks volumes about the fecklessness of the benefits culture, and the fad for baby-farming to get yet more benefits.
When Sharewear started it was three rails of clothes run by four volunteers. Now, there’s a team of 20 overseeing a main room for clothes, a separate one for bedding and another for children’s clothes – crammed with shoes, and grey, black, white bits for school uniforms. New things are always needed. “We didn’t do towels but people kept coming in asking for them,” Cooke explains. “It enables them to wash. You can’t get much more intimate than that.”Gosh, how surprising! Who could have predicted that if you start offering free stuff, the demand will go through the roof? And that demand will begin to expand for type, as well as quantity?
Apart from everyone, that is..
Everyone coming in is referred by an agency: local children’s centres, housing associations, women’s refuges (the number of referral agencies started at a dozen and is now about 70). Someone will talk to a family about truancy and realise the reason a child hasn’t gone to school is because they haven’t got a uniform – and then send them to Cooke.Of course they do! It gets them off their books, it means they get to tick a box – what’s not to like?
Vouchers have needs scribbled on them in pen: “Smart clothes for a job interview” or “Warm coats for kids”.Those aren’t needs. Those are wants…
In the early days the vast majority of people who came to her for help had been sanctioned by the jobcentre (“People who’d missed a bus and had their benefits taken”). Increasingly now it’s working families struggling on low pay – often on zero-hour contracts. “Both parents are working and still they can’t afford shoes and coats for their children,” Cooke says. “We get people calling saying, ‘I can’t come on Friday because I’m at work. They need the clothes but haven’t got a chance to come for them because they’re working all the time. It’s unbelievable.”If you can’t afford children despite both of you working, why have them? So that others can pay the cost of raising them?
Enough! No more. The bottomless well of taxpayer largesse is finally exhausted. As is my patience.