“Not many people realise that social housing is given completely unfurnished. That doesn’t just mean no furniture; it means no white goods, no flooring, no window coverings – literally empty shells,” says Emily Wheeler. “People think that if you’re given housing and you’ve got a roof over your head that the problem is solved, but really, it’s just the beginning.”
Wheeler, who has worked in frontline social services in London for the past 20 years, launched charitable initiative Furnishing Futures in 2019, in response to the growing problem of furniture poverty. The project aims to fully furnish the homes of families — particularly women living in temporary accommodation who are the victims of domestic abuse.
When social housing is allocated, Wheeler explains, it is often council policy to strip it out completely, from flooring to white goods. But buying furniture, even second-hand, is costly, and there are significant barriers to accessing furniture for free. This leaves potentially vulnerable occupants without basic items: pots and pans, beds, wardrobes, bed linen, fridges. “People are surviving in a rudimentary way – it is surviving, not really living, if you don’t have those basic items.”
A 2021 report by End Furniture Poverty, the campaigning and social research arm of a group of charities, found that just one per cent of social rented lets in the UK were furnished, while an additional one per cent were partly furnished. Social housing tenants, they concluded, were also more likely to experience furniture poverty than private renters and homeowners — something that has been compounded by cuts to local authority budgets under austerity measures.
This is something that Wheeler has seen first-hand throughout her work in social services. Working with domestic abuse survivors, for example, she’d seen how being unable to furnish an empty flat could drive women back to the —often dangerous— situations they’d just fled. “When you’ve escaped and left everything behind — often, even your access to your finances— it’s very difficult to see a way forwards, starting from zero, if you can’t afford furnishings.”
Under austerity, Wheeler says she has seen in-house and independent projects which would have provided furniture to council housing tenants “almost disappear” in London. According to End Furniture Poverty, 32 local authorities in England no longer offer 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 extremely seriously. It is not possible to check and ensure the safety of a previous tenant’s belongings before moving in a new household in most circumstances, except where these are of high quality and we can be assured they are safe.
“Our top priority is the safety and wellbeing of our residents.”
They added that there is some assistance available through the Household Support Fund that can be used for household essentials.
Wheeler now works as a Child Protection Conference Chair, managing her own case load and chairing meetings between agencies and families at risk. However, in 2009, after she’d had children of her own, she took a career break 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 commonality between them is the importance of feeling safe and comfortable in your own home,” says Wheeler. “I started to furnish families’ homes in my spare time outside of my social work job, just going around in my car on evenings and weekends and delivering second-hand furniture to women and children who were in empty homes and needed it.”
Using her interiors connections, Wheeler began to collect donations from furniture companies and collaborate with other designers to furnish women’s homes. Today, she works with Soho House, DFS, Dunelm, Cox & Cox and Olli Ella, amongst others.
“What was really important to me was not to start another furniture project in the same format as the ones that I had seen disappear — that we did something different and that we created a home,” says Wheeler. “I set out to fully furnish the homes. We provide everything and we treat it like an interior design project.”
Furnishing Futures, Wheeler explains, provides everything that families need, from flooring, to sofas, to bed linen. Having a bed or cooker is helpful, she points out, but only if you have the pots, pans and bedding to go with it.
Wheeler operates in Waltham Forest, taking referrals from local domestic violence charity Solace Women’s Aid and helping families who are 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-informed, taking into account factors which make a space feel safe.
“The thing that makes the key difference is empowering the women to have choices about the things they have…Often when all your choices have been taken away, to be given that choice is really important. That gives people ownership over their home and helps them to feel connected with it, and to show pride in it.”
Soft furnishings, plants and personal touches like photographs can also help to make a house a home, says Wheeler. Collectively, these can create a sense of wellbeing, and make the accommodation feel safe, cosy 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 assisted a woman who had been offered a new flat, but could not afford a bed or somewhere to sit down. Despite having a disability which meant that she walked with a frame, she had been sleeping on blankets on the floor for six months — something that was not only uncomfortable, but which had become a source of shame.
“It really affects your physical and emotional wellbeing. It’s incredibly stressful to be in a home and not to be able to sit down and relax, or cook a meal for your children. Or not be able to have friends over, because there’s nothing in there,” says Wheeler. “There was a huge sense of relief when she got that furniture and she could be comfortable in her own home.”
Wheeler also talks about a young woman who was given an empty flat just days after giving birth in traumatic circumstances. She was expected to go straight to the housing office from the hospital after giving birth, and to bring her newborn home to a flat without a fridge, washing machine, cooker or curtains.
“[She] was extremely relieved to have this support and had been in the flat for a little while when she was referred. The stress that she was experiencing and the home not being comfortable and safe for her baby had affected his development, and she said that he had started crawling after they got the furniture. That was quite amazing,” says Wheeler.
She adds: “It’s a real privilege to be let into people’s lives. For them to trust me to be able to do that for them is amazing and rewarding. I’m very grateful to all of the women who 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 funding — and the warehouse and van,” she says.
Furniture donations are stored in a two-foot container in Dagenham, a Safestore in Chingford, in Wheeler’s own home and in furniture company LuxDeco’s warehouse, as part of a temporary arrangement. Wheeler is currently raising money for a van and for her own warehouse space, which will allow her to build up stock, furnish homes more quickly, and help more women.
“I can’t pretend it hasn’t been hard — I’ve got two kids; I was working full-time in frontline child protection and doing this every evening and weekend from my house,” says Wheeler. “But I knew that it was making such a difference, so I’ve kept going — and it is working…I’m hoping that if we can raise enough money, we should be able to support many, many more families.”
She adds: “Your sense of home roots you in everything — I feel very passionate about that. If you have a home that meets your needs, that is the foundation for you to go out and function in the world.”
To support Furnishing Futures, visit their Crowdfunder.
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