Meet the woman helping tackle London’s furniture poverty problem

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Few people realize that social housing is given completely empty. This doesn’t just mean no furniture; that means no appliances, no flooring, no window coverings – literally empty shells,” says Emily Wheeler. “People think that if you’re given accommodation and you have a roof over your head, the problem is solved, but in reality that’s just the beginning.”

Wheeler, who has worked in frontline social care in London for the past 20 years, launched the Furnishing Futures charity initiative in 2019, in response to the growing problem of furniture poverty. The project aims to fully furnish the homes of families, especially women living in temporary accommodation who are victims of domestic violence.

When council housing is allocated, Wheeler says, council policy is often to phase it out altogether, from flooring to appliances. But buying furniture, even second-hand, is expensive, and there are significant barriers to free access to furniture. This leaves potentially vulnerable occupants without basic items: pots and pans, beds, wardrobes, bed linen, refrigerators. “People survive in a rudimentary way – it’s surviving, not really living, if you don’t have those basics.”

One of the houses Emily helped furnish

/ Furniture of the future

A 2021 report by End Furniture Poverty, the campaigning and social research arm of a group of charities, found that just 1% of social rentals in the UK were furnished, while a further 1% were partially furnished. Social housing tenants, they concluded, were also more likely to experience furniture poverty than private tenants and landlords – which has been made worse by local authority budget cuts as part of austerity measures.

It’s something Wheeler has seen first-hand throughout his work in social services. Working with survivors of domestic violence, for example, she had seen how not being able to furnish an empty apartment could lead women back into – often dangerous – situations from which they had just escaped. “When you’ve escaped and left everything behind – often even your access to your finances – it’s very hard to see a way forward, starting from scratch, if you can’t afford to furnish yourself. .”

Under austerity, Wheeler says he has seen in-house and freelance projects that would have provided furniture for council housing tenants “almost disappear” in London. According to End Furniture Poverty, 32 local authorities in England are no longer offering support, leaving one in four people unable to access help finding essential furniture and white goods.

A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council, where Furnishing Futures operates, said: “Waltham Forest takes the safety of social housing tenants very seriously. It is not possible to check and ensure the security of a former tenant’s belongings before moving into a new household in most cases, unless these are of high quality and we can be assured that they are safe.

“Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our residents.”

They added that there is aid available through the Household Support Fund which can be used for basic necessities.

Emily Wheeler launched Furnishing Futures in 2019

/ Furniture of the future

Wheeler now works as a child welfare conference chair, managing her own caseload and chairing meetings between agencies and at-risk families. However, in 2009, after having children of her own, she took a break from her career and trained as an interior designer, working as a stylist and journalist before returning to social work.

“For a while I struggled to see how they had anything in common, but I think the common thread between them is the importance of feeling safe and comfortable in your own home,” explains Wheeler. “I started furnishing families’ homes in my spare time outside of my work as a social worker, just driving around in my car on evenings and weekends and delivering second-hand furniture to women and children who were in empty houses and needed it.”

Using his connections to interiors, Wheeler began collecting donations from furniture companies and collaborating with other designers to furnish women’s homes. Today she works with Soho House, DFS, Dunelm, Cox & Cox and Olli Ella, among others.

“What was really important to me was not to start another furniture project in the same format as the ones I had seen disappearing – that we did something different and created a home,” says Wheeler. “I undertook to completely furnish the houses. We supply everything and treat it like an interior design project.

Furnishing Futures, says Wheeler, provides everything families need, from flooring to sofas to bedding. Having a bed or a stove is helpful, she points out, but only if you have the pots, pans and bedding to go with it.

Before and after photos of a property furnished in collaboration with Jojo Barr of House Nine Design

/ Furniture of the future

Wheeler operates in Waltham Forest, taking referrals from the local charity Solace Women’s Aid and helping families in emergency or temporary accommodation.

“Using the combination of social work and interior design skills is really powerful,” says Wheeler, whose designs for the homes of the women she works with are trauma-friendly, taking into account the factors that make a space feels safe.

“What makes the biggest difference is allowing women to have choices about the things they have…Often times when all your choices have been taken away, it’s really important to have that choice. It gives people ownership of their home and helps them feel connected to it and proud of it.”

Soft furnishings and personal touches help make a home feel like home, says Wheeler

/ Emily Bowden Photography

Soft furnishings, plants and personal touches like photographs can also help make a house feel like home, Wheeler says. Together, these elements can create a sense of well-being and make housing safe, comfortable and comfortable.

So far, Furnishing Futures has furnished the homes of 18 women, most of whom are vulnerable. Last month, for example, Wheeler says she helped a woman who was offered a new apartment but couldn’t afford a bed or a place to sit. Despite a disability that required her to walk with a frame, she had been sleeping on blankets on the floor for six months, which was not only uncomfortable, but had become a source of shame.

“It really affects your physical and emotional well-being. It’s incredibly stressful to be in a house and not be able to sit down and relax, or cook a meal for your children. Or not being able to invite friends over, because there’s nothing in there,” says Wheeler. “There was a huge sense of relief when she got this furniture and was able to be comfortable in her own home.”

Furnishing Futures aims to fully furnish every home they work on

/ Jemma Watts

Wheeler also tells of a young woman who was given an empty apartment just days after giving birth under traumatic circumstances. She had to go straight to the hospital’s housing office after giving birth and bring her newborn baby home to an apartment with no fridge, washing machine, stove or curtains.

“[She] was extremely relieved to have this support and had been in the apartment for a little while when she was referred. The stress she felt and the home that was not comfortable and safe for her baby affected his development, and she said he started crawling after he got the furniture. It was pretty amazing,” Wheeler says.

She adds: “It’s a real privilege to be able to enter people’s lives. For them to trust me to be able to do this for them is amazing and rewarding. I am very grateful to all the women we support.

Despite its impact, Furnishing Futures is still run by Wheeler alone, who continues to spend her evenings and weekends furnishing women’s homes. “The missing link is the funding – and the warehouse and the van,” she says.

The furniture donations are being stored in a two-foot container at Dagenham, a Safestore in Chingford, Wheeler’s own home and the warehouse of furniture company LuxDeco, under a temporary arrangement. Wheeler is currently fundraising for a van and for her own warehouse, which will allow her to stock up, furnish homes faster and help more women.

“I can’t pretend it wasn’t difficult – I have two children; I worked full-time in frontline child protection and did that every night and every weekend from home,” Wheeler says. “But I knew it made such a difference, so I kept going – and it works…Hopefully if we can raise enough money, we can support many, many more families.”

She adds: “Your sense of home grounds you in everything – I’m very passionate about that. If you have a home that meets your needs, that’s the basis for going out and functioning in the world.

@furnishingfutures

To support Furnishing Futures, visit their Crowdfunder.

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