Mum-of-three’s heartbreak as she can’t afford £5 to send daughter on school trip

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As little Codie-Leigh celebrated her fourth birthday last year she shared her “sweet tea” – cakes from Lidl and biscuits bought for 30p a pack at the same store – with family and friends.

And while Codie’s previous parties certainly haven’t been lavish affairs, this year even that is out of the question.

“It’s Codie’s birthday soon but she won’t be able to have a party and she looks forward to that so much every year,” says mum Rebeka Stewart.

Her baby sister Harper-Jae will also miss out as she turns two a few days before. But the cancelled parties aren’t the only blow the pandemic has brought the family as it applies an even greater strain on finances already at breaking point.

Rebeka’s government ‘Budgeting Loan’ has been stopped as a result of Covid and the pizza shops where she earnt a little money, cash-in-hand, can no longer afford to take her on.

Mum Rebekah was heartbroken at not being able to pay £5 to send one of her children on a school trip

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The 28-year-old lives with Codie-Leigh, Mya-Lou, three and Harper-Jae, one, in a cluster of six streets in the centre of Middlesbrough, North Yorks which has the highest rate of child poverty in the UK.

Child poverty has risen most sharply in the North East and parts of the Midlands over the past four years, according to new research by Loughborough University and End Child Poverty. Middlesbrough and parts of Tyneside have seen child poverty rates soar by over 10% since 2014/15.

In Rebeka’s small part of a town deprivation is stoically accepted as a fact of life and 76% of children are living below the breadline.

Despite the challenges they face, Rebekah tries to stay positive. Her cheerful disposition only drops once.

“We smile and a laugh a lot in this house but there are days when I really really struggle, you can’t help it” she says. “No matter how hard it is scrimping and saving, borrowing and going without I don’t have the option of caving in and going under, giving in to my anxiety and depression.

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“If I did that what would happen to the girls? They’d be taken into care.

“And don’t get me wrong, there are some dark days where I think maybe that’s the best thing for them, they’d have more stuff if they were in care.

“But I make sure my girls know they are loved, that they are everything in this world to me, and I know that is worth more than a few extra presents at Christmas."

She knows it is going to be a hard month, however, even before the prospect of Christmas.

“Going without” isn’t unusual for Rebeka of course. Recently her kitchen tap broke and, getting little response from her private landlord, she had to buy a new one for £22 from a local hardware store and pay a plumber £40 to install it.

Mum of three Rebeka Stewart, 28, with daughters Harper-Jae, 1, Codie-Leigh, 4 and Mya-Lou, 3

The money had to be raked back somehow so for three days Rebeka didn’t eat a single meal.

She says: “There was hardly anything left for the food that week, about £15 which doesn’t go far for a family of four.

“The gas and heating stayed on and the girls got fed, even if it was only beans on toast. It meant that I didn’t eat anything for three days and when my family found out they went mad at me for not saying anything.

“They have their own problems, they don’t need mine piled on top, but my aunty forced me to go and have a meal at hers. She said I’d end up in hospital otherwise.”

She does her best to spare the girls similar indignities, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Rebeka has come to dread her children's birthdays

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She looks at the floor as she says: “Codie had to miss her school trip, it was awful when her friends were going and she couldn’t but I’d been robbing Peter to pay Paul that week and we just didn’t have the money.

“I tried to make it up to her but I could tell how disappointed she was to miss out.”

The trip Codie couldn’t go on cost £5 and was to Newham Grange Farm across town, but on this meagre budget it was as unattainable as a skiing break in Val-d’Isere.

Rebeka receives £128 a fortnight income support, child benefit of £117 and child tax credit of £48 a week.

She received £13.78 to support Harper-Jae, because being a third child born after April 2017 she falls foul of the Tories’ austerity measure that hammered parents with more than two children.

After buying food, her pre-paid gas and electricity of £20 per week and the luxury of an £18-a-month TV subscription she normally managed to break even.

Rebekah once had to walk 5 miles to the nearest Asda for a school uniform

But she has come to dread birthdays, especially when two of her children were born in December.

Occasionally she has been forced to use the local food bank, the last time being in January.

That week Codie needed a new school uniform which meant an expensive visit to Asda, a five mile round trip on foot pushing a double buggy.

“Things like that can push you over the edge financially,” Rebeka says. “Normally I manage but that week I didn’t have any money left at all, we had nothing – in fact I owed money to my mum and uncle, I was in debt.

“I had no choice but to go to the food bank and they were so nice and helpful, it was an absolute Godsend and just to know it is there if things really fall apart is comforting.

“I’m so often juggling debt that it becomes a way of life. I had to take a taxi to a hospital appointment recently, which means I can only pay my Mam a tenner of the £20 I owe her and that’s how it goes on and on and on. You live with it, that’s life.”

The girls’ dad lives nearby and has a good relationship with his daughters but doesn’t work and isn’t able to contribute, putting the onus on Rebeka to keep the plates spinning.

Her small home is at the end of a terraced street with a few boarded up houses and a park at the end where the girls like to play when the warm weather comes.
She says one day she’d like to save for a deposit to move, but realises that’s unlikely to happen.

Mum Sarah Barber is struggling to support her 8 children

“It’s horrible round here,” she says. “We had to isolate when Mya-Lou was wasn’t well and the council delivered a food parcel to me because I couldn’t go out. In the time it took for me to walk to my doorstep to pick it up someone had nicked it.

“The lady who dropped it off hadn’t even got back into her car. We just stood and looked at each other. I had to laugh.”

Rebeka’s plight isn’t unusual in the Gresham area where she lives. In fact in the streets that lead off the town’s bustling, multi cultural Parliament Road, the kids who aren’t living in child poverty are part of a small minority.

Luigi Enriquez and partner Sarah Barber

Roman, 6, Cody, 11, Paul 10, dad Luigi, mum Sarah, Jerome, 2, Bethany 18, Tara, 7, Amy 13 and Lucas 3

Sarah Barber knows this all too well. The strain of living under the savage restraints of a sudden cap on her monthly benefits is written all over her care-worn face.

The 34-year-old lives alone with her eight kids Bethany, 18, Amy, 13, Cody, 11, Paul, 10, Tara, seven, Roman, six, Lucas, three and Jerome, two.

Before the introduction of Universal Credit, Sarah was receiving £500 a week in income support, child benefit and tax credit. She now receives £1000.29. Her privately rented terraced house in Gresham costs £650 per month, leaving her £350.

Sarah said: “I’ve lost three stone because I have to deny myself food so that the kids can eat. The longest I’ve gone is five days and I know it’s having an affect on my physical and mental health. But I’ve no choice but to keep going and trying to keep us all afloat."

Sarah has lost 3 stone due to not having enough food

Sarah’s 74-year-old mother Mary Barber is an anxious and frequent visitor to her home.

Sarah said: “I don’t know what I would do without my mum, she does so much for us.

She should be enjoying her later years and not worrying about keeping her daughter and grandchildren fed. But if she didn’t come over and bring us food and cook for us we’d be in a really worrying state."

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