Education

‘I’m always tired, Miss’: the sleepless children of Leeds’ bed poverty crisis | Poverty

Real heroes don’t wear capes, but they do bring duvets. Such as Bex Wilson and her dad, Mark, who spent the night before Christmas bringing beds and duvets to children who would otherwise have been sleeping on the floor or in a bathtub.

“It surprises people how many kids in Leeds don’t have beds. It surprised me,” said Wilson.

On Christmas Eve alone, the pair delivered beds to 17 children across Leeds. It would have been 21 beds but one family had a bug infestation so bad it was better to wait before delivering new ones.

The week before Christmas, the charity Wilson founded with friends delivered 50 beds. Since 2018 the organisation, Zarach, has given more than 1,400 beds, mattresses, duvets and sheets to families and children who had little prospect of getting them any other way.

A teacher at a primary school in Burmantofts, Leeds, Wilson was stunned to find that children in her classes were living in such desperate circumstances.

“There was a little boy who was normally fine, and he was having a bad morning, being moody and short with his classmates. So I said to him at the end of the lesson, are you OK? Are you tired? And he just said: ‘I’m always tired, Miss, I don’t have a bed.’ That’s exactly how he said it.

“I couldn’t believe it and said, what do you mean you don’t have a bed? And he pulled up his jumper and showed me infected sores on his stomach that were bed bug bites, from him and his brother and his sister sharing an infested sofa cushion on the floor in his house.”

Not able to believe the lack of support, even in a city such as Leeds with all its resources, Wilson decided to act. Her father had a van and a connection to a bed factory, so after consulting her headteacher and the pupil’s mother, she set off.

Preparing mattresses for delivery
Wilson preparing mattresses for delivery. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“I honestly thought then that I’d go into this house and there would be a space in each bedroom where the beds should go, and that I’d feel like a super teacher for delivering these beds,” she said.

“But when we went in the house to deliver the beds, the only thing in the house was one white plastic garden chair. There was no other furniture. I thought, they must have just moved in. But the mum explained that they had been there for months.

“It was quite late when we got there. The mum got up on the white plastic chair and took the lightbulb out of the socket in the downstairs living room, and she went upstairs and put it in there because she only had one working light bulb.”

The mother, a single parent, had been the victim of fraud and moved to an unfurnished house to save money. Wilson found there was no food in the house other than some milk. “I left absolutely shell-shocked, that a child I’d been teaching for weeks and known for a long time, that this was what he was living through. It changed the rest of my life.”

A few weeks later the mother appeared at the school gates and pressed some cash into Wilson’s hand. “I said I don’t want paying back, and she said: ‘No, I’m giving you this so that you can buy them for some other families like mine.’”

Wilson said she resisted the idea of starting a charity to provide beds. “I thought: there can’t be that many kids without beds, it’s 21st-century Britain. How bad can it be?”

But previous research by the Buttle UK trust ranked Leeds as one of the worst areas for “bed poverty” in the UK, with more than 5,000 children in the city living without beds.

A nagging feeling that something needed to be done led Wilson and some friends to set up Zarach, but they found themselves having to make difficult decisions: “There were many times when we were weighing up, well this child is sleeping in the bathtub or this child is sleeping on a beanbag, but we’d only got money to buy a bed for one.”

While Wilson remains a committed full-time teacher and deputy head, support for Zarach has grown so that it can afford to pay a small number of staff and has expanded to offer food clubs, emergency gas and electricity supplies, a school uniform exchange and holiday projects.

The Covid pandemic has led to an increase in demand, in particular from the number of families fleeing domestic abuse, according to Wilson.

Bex Wilson with her father, Mark
Bex Wilson with her father, Mark. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“I went to a house last week, there was no carpet, no furniture, no curtains on any windows, just nothing, a couple of bin liners of clothes, and that was it. But the parent was so happy – she said: ‘I feel like I’ve won the lottery, I’ve been living in a hotel for six months with three children in one room, because I fled domestic abuse, and I’ve just been given this house by the council in time for Christmas.’”

While local authorities do their best, Wilson says they are overwhelmed by the demands they face.

Zarach has now expanded outside Leeds, to Dewsbury in West Yorkshire and Romford in east London, where it hopes to apply the lessons Wilson and her colleagues have learned.

Zarach, Wilson explains, is the Hebrew word for rising light, from a verse in the book of Isaiah that helping the hungry and oppressed rises a light in the darkness. The inspiration came from the first mother, who needed to move her only lightbulb for the bed delivery.

“She said: ‘You were the light in my darkest day, and I’ll never forget that.’ And that’s what I wanted everything that Zarach did to try and be, to bring hope in desperate situations.”

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