Food poverty in the UK often grabs headlines but there is as underlying form of poverty facing millions of adults and children that all too often gets scant attention – and that’s access to necessary clothing.
The Poverty and Social Exclusion research project estimated in 2013 that there were about 5.5 million adults in the UK who go without essential clothing, and this number has likely only further risen in the ensuing years of austerity and now amid the current coronavirus crisis.
Unite Cambridge Community branch chair May Shafi saw this need first-hand when she started volunteering with the Royal Voluntary Service during lockdown, mostly delivering food and medicines to people shielding at home. It dawned on her that there were other no less important things that people needed.
“With the high street shops closed, many people weren’t wearing the right kind of clothing,” she told UniteLIVE. “A lot of the older people didn’t want to shop online because they don’t trust the internet. I got quite concerned – you’d see pensioners, people with diabetes, who were out in t-shirts in the cold weather.”
After having completed over 270 hours with the Royal Voluntary service, she decided to stand down and focus on a new ‘on-demand’ clothes bank.
May has a breadth of experience supporting people, mostly in welfare and legal services and had also previously run a clothes bank back in Trumpington, Cambridge where she lives.
“I thought to myself, well I’ve run a clothes bank before, and I’ve got loads of clothes in my garage from that previous experience so I can do it again,” she said.Without premises the only thing she had was her garage, so she started organising from there and it soon took off.
Her Unite Community branch had already planned on launching a clothes bank, alongside a Universal Credit advice drop-in service in April, but the launch was delayed when the lockdown came into force.
But now when she saw the increased need for clothes amid the current crisis, she decided it could not wait. She packed in her role with the Royal Voluntary Service and focused on supporting her Unite Community branch, by launching the Unite Community Clothes Bank.
“You can do most things from anywhere if you want to,” she noted. “You don’t need to book space and wait for the lockdown to be over.”
At the time, May had also just started volunteering at her local Community Fridge (picture below), where people bring in food they won’t use so that others in need can pick it up. She asked the community hub if she could post Unite Community posters advertising their ‘pop-up’ on-demand clothes bank, run from May’s garage.
‘On-demand’ clothes bank
May told UniteLIVE how it all works.
“When someone rings our helpline or sends us an email, I ask them what items of clothing they want,” she explained.
“I’ve got everything cleaned, ironed and on hangars on clothes rails. I’ll look for the items, package them, label them and then we either drop them off at the Community Fridge or they collect. If they need them desperately I go and drop off the clothes outside their doorstep. No matter the method of delivery or collection, there’s no contact and we take extra care with people who are shielding – making sure that every single item including the packaging has been sprayed with disinfectant.”
Word of the Unite Community Cambridge clothes bank has since quickly spread, thanks to partnership working with other organisations such as Cambridge City Council, the Food Poverty Alliance and Community Fridges, among others. May also recruited a number of volunteers from her Unite Community branch, as well as her neighbourhood who are helping her iron, package and deliver the clothes.
What makes this unique is the on-demand nature of it.
“If there’s a specific item that someone wants that I don’t have in stock, I put out a call – say for a size 14 grey jumper for example. And when I do eventually run out of clothes in my garage, we’ll put calls out to meet that need. This prevents hoarding and helps people not to buy clothes. After all we’ve got clothes and they’re in very good condition, so why buy more? It’s part of the upcycling ethos that’s good for the environment.”
While physical needs such as food and clothing are absolutely vital amid this crisis when growing numbers of people are struggling, emotional needs are no less important and that’s why May has also come up with the idea of Unite Connect to help combat isolation.
“The idea is every Sunday we invite members to Zoom into a meeting with a cup of tea,” May explained. “We encourage people to come talk about anything. It gets people out of isolation; it gets them talking. It shows that as Unite Community we are there for each other. It breaks down barriers of communication among us and between officers. We’ve also just got permission from the region to extend the Unite Connect sessions to non-members so that we can really be embedded in our communities during lockdown.”
For May, a key feature of Unite Community and the trade union movement in general is that it should be member-led, something that she ardently advocates in her branch. She highlights a new branch equalities officer, who approaches people with different needs and explains how they can get help from the branch, as well as new youth officer, who encourages more young people to come forward with ideas and also moderates the Unite Connect Zoom meeting.
Under May’s direction, this member-led approach at the Unite Community Cambridge branch has already been shown to be effective, after a young member came forward during a Unite Connect session to propose a new idea that they’ve decided to take forward.
“The member said she has a lot of experience in supporting people with domestic abuse. And she said she was concerned by the increase in domestic abuse during lockdown and said she would like to do something similar to the Unite Connect Zoom drop-in to help those who may be trapped at home in abusive situations. We’re hoping to launch this project next week with the member taking the lead on it.”
May tells UniteLIVE that what’s motivated her and her Unite Community branch during lockdown is the teamwork that’s been at the heart of their success.
“It’s been very rewarding working in partnership with other organisations and realising this was all doable,” she said. “I couldn’t have done any of this alone. I also have a hand disability and it can be very hard work – the irons can be quite heavy for example but the support from others and just seeing that need in the community spurs me on.
“People are sometimes reluctant to accept new initiatives especially during the lockdown but that partnership with others has really made our initiatives take off. We also have an experienced secretary James Youd, who has years of experience in the trade union movement and founded the Unite Community Cambridge branch. He has encouraged and supported me throughout these initiatives as well as encouraging other officers and members of the branch.”
May hopes the momentum of her branch’s activism during lockdown will carry them forward after the lockdown ends. They’re hoping to submit an application for a local Unite Community Centre soon. After the lockdown the original plan for a Universal Credit advice drop-in group with the clothes bank as a long-term, weekly project will continue.
For those struggling now, May has a message of hope.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Regardless of who you are or where you come from, we’ve all gone through this together. We will continue to support each other and we will overcome this at the end. I just want people to remember that Unite Community is here for them and will continue to listen and support and reach out to them whenever and wherever we’re needed. Don’t ever give up hope. Good health and good wishes of solidarity to all our members.”
Find out more about the Unite Community Cambridge branch here. May is also now running a raffle for a special Unite GS Len McCluskey doll (pictured below) to raise money for Unite Community. You can email May directly for the tickets, which are £5 each: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Hajera Blagg