Story of a divorced mum-of-two reveals dark times of hygiene poverty

A divorced mum-of-two reveals the 'dark times' she suffered after falling into hygiene poverty that left her feeling ashamed and embarrassed. 

Caroline Gandy-Brown, 54, spiralled into debt after a divorce and found herself having to sacrifice her own hygiene for the sake of the children.

She laid bare the reality of hygiene poverty as new figures show single adults need an annual income of £31,536 to afford essentials - almost £2,000 more than the average £29,669 salary.

Caroline would clean her teeth with the same old toothbrush for a year, sometimes with just water, so her kids wouldn't run out of toothpaste and when on her period she would reuse sanitary towels with toilet paper stuffed in them.

She admitted: "I thought I had totally failed as a mum. You do feel that you are absolutely an utter failure when you can't provide for your own family. When I was struggling and I was experiencing such poverty, I knew the decisions I had to make every day at the supermarket in order to survive and I chose my children over myself."

Caroline, who worked part-time in retail sales, racked up £11,500 of debt in just over two-and-a-half years as she struggled to make ends meets.

She said: "My wages didn't cover the cost of my bills so I took out four credit cards. We were on an electric meter and it stopped because I had run out of money and so I went to the bank and just burst into tears and they gave me an overdraft but that money soon went. 

“I maxed out the £200 overdraft within three days because I took it and put £30 on the electricity key and used the rest to buy food and stuff for the house and stock up the freezer. We were then left with just running down the freezer and cupboard contents again and so I started doing shops on credit cards and store cards and it was a downward spiral.

"My priority was my children. I'm always fearful of how children can bully other children in the playground so I always made sure my children had fitting clothes and food on the table. They were my priorities making sure they came first."

As a result Caroline was forced to go to extreme lengths to save money.

She said: "I remember thinking 'how am I going to survive the day with no deodorant?', so I'd sometimes have to run into the work toilets and discreetly wash under my arms and my more intimate parts to make sure I was fresh and clean because I was conscious of smelling. I made sure that I changed out the kids' toothbrushes every three months and I would buy a tube of value toothpaste every week. 

“When that was going at the end of the week, I'd be cutting it open and getting the toothbrush in there to make sure the kids had enough to clean their teeth twice a day. There were plenty of times when I would just run my toothbrush under the tap and just rinse and spit without toothpaste.

"But because I was drinking so much tea, my teeth were going yellow. I ended up not smiling and covering my mouth with my hand when I was talking because I didn't want people to see my teeth.  I was embarrassed and ashamed it had come to that. I was ashamed that I couldn't support myself, that I couldn't look after myself. There was an element of failure and I had failed." 

1 in 4 are struggling with the current financial crisis1 in 4 are struggling with the current financial crisis
1 in 4 are struggling with the current financial crisis | Essity/SWNS

The importance of community

Caroline hit rock bottom when she was served with an eviction notice after surviving on just leftover toast crusts and reused tea bags for a few days to ensure her young daughters could have breakfast before school.

She said: "I came close to losing our home and had a breakdown. That really was one of the darkest days."

With the average salary at £29,669, the latest research, commissioned by hygiene and health company Essity, in partnership with, Unilever, Haleon, Kimberly Clark and Edgewell, shows that one in four people are struggling to afford essentials including hygiene products.

They have launched an in-store promotion in Tesco stores where customers buy two products and a hygiene product will be donated to charity In Kind Direct.

Caroline knows only too well how important charity donations to community projects are and now works as a service and volunteer manager at The Abbey Centre in South Westminster, which receives donated hygiene products from In Kind Direct.

The Abbey Centre is run as a social enterprise, with income from conference and meeting room hire, fundraising activities, and the Wash House Cafe supporting their much-needed community work.

Caroline got the job after being "put back together" by her friend and another charity and after eight years working there Caroline has finally paid off all her debts.

She said: "It's not until you start talking to others and have the courage to open up and admit to people the situation you’re in, that you realise you’re not alone. I was obviously not masking my feelings very well and a friend caught me unawares and said 'oh my God, are you ok?' I said I didn't want to talk but they took me to a cafe and we had a strong cup of tea. 

“She got me volunteering with her at a community centre so I wasn't on my own at home.  She then got me some training and slowly but surely helped build me back up and put me back together to the point where I felt I could apply for jobs and that's how I joined the Abbey Centre."

Carline Gandy-Brown at The Abbey Centre, Community Pantry, Westminster, London.Carline Gandy-Brown at The Abbey Centre, Community Pantry, Westminster, London.
Carline Gandy-Brown at The Abbey Centre, Community Pantry, Westminster, London. | Simon Jacobs/PinPep

Paying it forward

The Abbey Centre occupies an area of Westminster that used to be known as Devil’s Acre - once described by Charles Dickens as ‘the most deplorable manifestation of human wretchedness and depravity' and believed to be behind the inspiration for Oliver Twist.

“We never judge a book by its cover nor should society,” said Caroline.

“We’ve seen a 31 per cent rise in the number of households starting to use our Community Pantry and a steady rise in the number of fully employed, self-employed households applying for help and support. We offer a holistic approach to the way we support everyone who comes through our doors. We don't just deal with one need. People often come to us for one thing but need help in other areas. It's all about looking behind the initial problem.”

Incredibly, Caroline credits her 'dark times' with giving her the tools to now help others in similar situations.

She said: "It gave me some really good insight and has allowed me to see and spot the things people are going through. I'm never going to regret those times because it put me in a unique position to help others. 

"You learn to spot signs so I'm able to share my experiences with the volunteers that work at the community pantry looking at indicators to where people are really struggling. It was a horrible time but community is the one thing that got me through it. 

“Hygiene poverty has such a stigma attached to any household, that this can impact whether people allow family or friends into their home. The impact can have so many and very far-reaching consequences. It can also be unpleasant for other people around them. This can then lead people to feel invisible and have long-term impacts.

“The type of questions to ask are really important.  Instead of 'are you alright?' it needs to be 'what's happening in your world today?' and 'what are your plans?', encouraging people to have a safe space to talk. I tell people all the time 'you must talk'. Not everybody is living the rose petal life despite what they put on the outside.”

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