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Dispossessed: Mother of 11 lives on just £7 a day per child

The movies? Have I ever taken my kids to the movies?” Barbara Harriott repeats my question with a sense of incredulity and by way of reply flings open the door of her musty living room where six of her youngest children sleep. “Three of them share this double bunk, two are on single beds and one uses that pull-out settee,” she says, beginning the grand tour, her baby on her hip.
“The two older boys sleep up here” — she heads up the uncarpeted wooden stairway — “and I sleep with the baby across the hall from my oldest girl. Can you imagine,” she says, “how much it would cost if I took all of my kids to the movies? I'd have to save for a year!”

Ms Harriott, 44, has 11 children, nine boys and two girls, ranging in age from 25 years to six months. They all live, bar the oldest, in an overcrowded house in Lewisham with four bedrooms, two lavatories, one bath and a small kitchen where they eat in shifts. Their home is a picture of poverty: peeling walls, damp mouldy ceilings, bare bulbs, heating turned down to save on gas bills, and clothes stuffed into plastic bags and piled on landings like the back room of a charity shop. This week the Evening Standard is publishing a series of articles highlighting the plight of London's dispossessed, the 41 per cent of the capital's children who live below the poverty line, and today we focus on a type of family often stigmatised as “spongers”.

 We often take a critical view of women such as Ms Harriott whose children have been fathered by five different men, none of whom married her or stuck around to help. In her case, it's costing the taxpayer a small fortune, the state funding her housing costs, council tax, and daily living expenses to the tune of £38,844 a year. Yet seen from her children's point of view, after housing costs, the family are left with £543 a week to live on, the equivalent of just £7 a child per day, and well below the poverty line for a family like theirs of £689 per week.

Born in south London, Ms Harriott never knew her father and was brought up by her Caribbean mother who worked on the production line of a toy factory. “I lived with my mother and younger brother in the spare room of my aunt's house, and my aunt looked after us while my mother was at work,” she begins. “For a while we were a happy family but my childhood ended when I was six and my aunt, who had her own husband and children, threw us out and we ended up on the street.

 “But you also have to give me some credit because despite my shortcomings, I have created a happy household and I am a very good mother. My eldest has a solid job working for a clothing company, the next two are in college, none are in jail, none are on drugs, and none are on the child protection register. I also realise that ending up like me, living off the state, is no example, and so I tell my children, do well at school, have goals, have a career before you have children'

She begins to cry and says: “I love this country, I owe everything to this country, but it's so difficult in London living off £7 per child per day. I don't drink, I don't smoke, everything goes on essentials and yet by the end of the week, the cupboard's bare.” She opens her fridge to reveal a bunch of carrots, some celery, and a loaf of bread.
She points to the kitchen units falling off their hinges. “Every piece of furniture in this house is second-hand or donated. It's impossible to save. We still don't have a computer. The children haven't had Christmas presents or a meal out for years. The only time we go out as a family is to church on Sunday. Recently my 14-year-old Asher needed new school shoes, but I couldn't afford them. His teachers had a whip round to raise the 50 quid.”
She outlines her weekly budget: £95 for utilities, £17 for a bus pass, £20 for telephones, £3 for her TV licence, £10 for Sky (“our only luxury”), £350 on groceries (“strictly no-name brands from Iceland or Tesco”), and £30 for debt repayments.
It leaves her less than £20 for essential clothing and, crucially, nothing to cope with emergencies like last year when Lewisham council mistakenly cut off her housing benefit for four months. Source of Story MORE

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