“Sometimes my daughter would ask me: ‘Daddy, can we get these toys?’ – but I didn’t have any money. Being a father, I don’t want to show the sad expressions on my face to my children. This kind of support means at least I can give things to my kids, like clothes and toys.”
It is a chilly Monday afternoon in north London and a father in his 30s is talking about the help he has received from Little Village.
The family, who are asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and asked to remain anonymous, are among thousands of people being assisted with the cost of childcare essentials by the baby bank charity.
A baby bank is a broadly similar concept to a food bank. Families are typically referred by midwives, doctors and health visitors, and the charity provides items such as feeding equipment, clothes, toys, nappies and buggies, plus help and advice.
Little Village is a network of baby banks supporting families in London. It typically gives service users various items of secondhand clothing for each child up to the age of five. The average value of goods – if they were new – for a newborn baby is £1,100, while support bundles for older children are typically worth about £750.
I visited the charity’s site in Wembley, north-west London, which serves the entire borough of Brent, this week. According to Trust for London data, 39% of children in the area live in poverty. The site – the first to use a “family shop” format to allow people to come in and browse products by appointment – opened in November 2021 and was visited by the now Princess of Wales earlier this year.
The Sri Lankan family were introduced to Little Village through a migrant support organisation the week before my visit.
The father moved from Sri Lanka to the UK in April 2021 before he was joined by his wife and two children, now aged five and 19 months, in September that year. The couple are expecting a third child in January.
As asylum seekers, they are eligible for section 95 support, meaning they receive £40.85 per person a week from the government. They are now living in temporary accommodation: a studio flat where all four of them have to sleep on two single beds pushed together.
“It is not big enough, especially as we’re soon to be five. We don’t have any space to put the cot or anything,” the father says.
“We do struggle sometimes. There are people fighting when we go to the laundry room – it is difficult … We try to avoid those kinds of things; they scare my wife and children.
Life can change any time. It was really comfortable and then it changed to zeroA 37-year-old father
“My first priority is my kids and my wife. I make sure they don’t have an empty stomach, that is the main thing. We are close, we sit together, we eat together, we try to stay together all of the time.”
He has chosen to speak about the hardship his family is facing, and the support offered by charities such as Little Village, because “things can change any time – it happened to me.” He wants to help the baby bank, and let others know that support is out there.
View image in fullscreenToys, shoes and clothes on offer at the Little Village baby bank. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
“These things help us to stay strong – it gives us some hope. Life can change any time. It was really comfortable and then it changed to zero and my mind was not fit enough, with depression and anxiety. I couldn’t think,” he says.
“We have to support [the charity] in some way. We can’t support in a financial way but at least we can say something to help people.” Despite the difficult situation they are in, he is keen to emphasise that they are happy with the support they receive from the government and charities, saying: “We can’t complain because some people have nothing”.
The Little Village chief executive, Sophie Livingstone, says the charity has capped its numbers at 145 families a week to help staff and volunteers cope with a rise in demand. When the limit is reached, the referral form is closed until the following Monday. The charity is reaching that threshold earlier and earlier each week during the cost of living crisis.
View image in fullscreenThe chief executive, Sophie Livingstone, says Little Village has a cap of 145 families a week to help staff and volunteers cope with a rise in demand. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
However, they always try to respond to emergency cases. “A maternity ward might call and say: ‘There’s a mum on the ward with nothing,’” and the charity will offer support. Little Village has helped more than 1,000 newborns so far this year.
There are no specific criteria that make someone eligible for a referral to Little Village – just that “they’re on a low income and they wouldn’t be able to buy these items themselves”.
About 11% of service users come from domestic abuse situations “and have fled with nothing and need to start again”, while 25% are refugees and asylum seekers. The charity supported 800 Afghan children living in hotels earlier in the year.
It is now frequently supporting parents who work but are struggling with the rising cost of food, childcare and energy bills.
“We had a couple who are both working in the NHS and about to have their second baby. They didn’t think they’d need this type of support but they just can’t make their money go far enough,” Livingstone says.
“If a baby is on the way and you were just about managing, all of these things together will tip you over the edge.”
She adds: “We’ve had families saying: ‘My child hasn’t been to nursery for ages because the buggy broke and we couldn’t get out of the house.’ Or a child can’t go to the park because they’ve outgrown their shoes and they can’t afford to get any more.”
View image in fullscreenThe now Princess of Wales met staff during a visit to Little Village’s hub in Brent in June. Photograph: Paul Grover/The Daily Telegraph/PA
Little Village also signposts other sources of support, such as helping households claim benefits they may not realise they are eligible for. However, staff and volunteers are finding that people are already accessing all of the money they are entitled to, and it simply doesn’t go far enough.
Sonia Amado, 29, a student nurse, received help from Little Village when she gave birth to her son, Noah, in 2018, and later went on to volunteer at the charity as part of her university placement.
She is expecting her second child in May and will probably have to lean on Little Village for support again, as her bursary and universal credit do not stretch far enough, while living costs continue to rise.
Amado, who lives in Brent Cross, north-west London, previously worked at McDonald’s but could not fit the shifts around her studies and childcare.
View image in fullscreenSonia Amado and her son, Noah, play with toys at Little Village’s baby bank in Wembley. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Rising food and energy bills are the greatest financial worry at the moment, she says.
“The way things are getting so expensive, sometimes you have £10 and you go to the supermarket and the money just flies. What makes me very worried is the gas – it’s very expensive. I put £20 [on to the prepayment meter] every two days,” she says. “A few months ago it would last me a week and a half, or two weeks, and now it just disappears. When you have children you need to make sure the house is nice and warm. Electricity isn’t too bad but the gas – it’s crazy. I have no words.
“But you survive. You just have to learn to survive.”
Baby banks explained
What is a baby bank?
Parents can be referred to a baby bank if they are struggling to pay for childcare essentials such as nappies, clothes and toys. There are now about 200 baby banks in the UK, run by charities and social entrepreneurs.
View image in fullscreenHave you thought about donating items to a baby bank? Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
The Labour MP Stella Creasy recently called for the government to back funding to set up a baby bank in every constituency in the next five years.
As well as providing direct support, baby banks will signpost users to other services where they can access help.
How can I access a baby bank?
Each organisation has its own rules but most can only help people who have received a referral from a community partner, such as a doctor, social worker, health visitor or midwife.
Little Village offers support to families living in 22 London boroughs and is in the process of creating a national network with Baby Bank Network Bristol, Save the Children and Ark.
Until that network is up and running, families can find their local organisation by searching online, asking referral services or checking the list on the Little Village website.
How can I help?
View image in fullscreenBiyon, 2, plays with toys at the Little Village baby bank in Wembley. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Baby banks need donations of good-quality secondhand children’s clothes and shoes, toys and books, and buggies. Brand-new donations of hygiene products are often appreciated. Check with your local group before donating to see if there is anything in particular they need. Cash gifts are also usually accepted, and there will often be volunteer opportunities available.