It’s been a tough few years. The pandemic swept aside so many assumptions and presumptions about what ‘normal life’ was like. And just as most of us finally seem to have moved into a post-COVID world, economic problems have returned. With inflation at more than 10%, the cost-of-living has moved from being a background concern to a central crisis for many Brits. Young people, who bear no responsibility for the underlying causes of inflation, sadly feel the effects as much as adults.
Here at Unitas, we’ve seen more and more young people needing free entry and/or asking for free meals. We’ve also seen increased requests for clothing and other household essentials. It’s a microcosm of what we see on the news, requiring us as an organisation to be extremely sensitive and discrete.
This summer, we ran two schemes to financially support our young people and their families. The first was the government-funded Holiday Activity Fund. 488 free Holiday Club places were provided over the summer, representing 69 individual young people who enjoyed the amazing fun and engaging opportunities Holiday Club provides. This provision, available from 8am until 6pm and including breakfast, lunch and snacks, was a lifeline for many families over the long summer break, especially those with working parents or carers.
The second was the Summer Hunger Grant made possible thanks to the support of Ajaz Ahmed MBE, through his foundation Ajaz. This funded 640 free entries and free meals for Seniors whose families are in financial challenge. Throughout the summer, Unitas topped this up and, in fact, gave away more than 700 free entries (50p) and meals (£1). On average, this translated into approximately 30 young people on every Senior session we ran over the summer coming in for free and having a proper, cooked, hot meal on us. £1.50 might not sound like much, but it can be the difference between heating and eating for too many families at the moment.
As I write this article, the weather is still pleasant, but the evenings are drawing in and soon, there will be a nip in the air. The winter is going to be very hard for very many families. The government’s recently-announced price cap will certainly help, but the bare fact is that the average family’s energy cost will have more than doubled in a year. We anticipate further increases in demand for a warm space to come in the evenings and a hot meal – two things that Unitas and all the other Youth Zones can guarantee. We can’t solve all of society’s problems, and inflation poses enormous challenges for Unitas as well. Our energy costs will more than double this year, and our staff are feeling the pinch. I’ve had more requests to work from home (to save on petrol from the commute) and more staff have been opting to eat the £1 meal on session. These, and other similar ‘signals in the noise’, cause me, as the Chief Executive, considerable worry.
In the longer term, the impact on the life chances of an entire generation of young people is unknown but cannot be good. Mental health problems are increasing, and resilience is often low. Schools will struggle as staff pay increases and energy bills strain their limited budgets. At least 763 youth centres have closed since 2012. The current crisis may mean more will follow, their only option being to shut up shop entirely. A key lesson of austerity in the 2010s was that when the social safety net (as provided by the public and not-for-profit sectors) is reduced or taken away, the broader social fabric strains and sometimes even breaks. The communities here in Barnet are incredible in many ways, but they are being challenged like never before. The role of the Youth Zones, Unitas included, has perhaps never been more vital or urgent.