As temperatures drop and prices rise, the chief executive of an organisation on the frontline of the cost-of-living crisis spends a morning assessing the impact on vulnerable people...

HAVING grown up in a County Durham pit village, Angela Lockwood knows all about the impact of poverty on communities.

Now, as Chief Executive of one of the region’s leading social housing providers, she is on record as saying that the cost-of-living crisis is the worst she has seen in a career spanning more than 30 years, with her staff encountering “acute destitution”.

This morning, with winter fast approaching, Angela is out and about, assessing the impact of the crisis on the elderly, young people in care, the homeless, and women fleeing from domestic violence.

“There’s no doubt that the situation is worsening, and it’s going to be a very hard winter for a lot of our tenants,” she says.

As well as being North Star’s Chief Executive, Angela is a board member of the National Housing Federation, and a Non-Executive Director of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, which has this year warned that seven million low-income households are going without essentials, including skipping meals or being unable to heat their homes.

In this region alone, 38 per cent of children – more than 37,000 – are living below the breadline, according to the North East Child Poverty Commission.

Her day of visits to North Star services begins at Levick Court, a Middlesbrough  independent living unit where elderly residents are given safe accommodation and support.

The building is owned by Middlesbrough Borough Council but operated by North Star, a not-for-profit housing association managing 4,000 rental properties and five women’s refuges, as well as supporting school breakfast clubs, and those facing mental health challenges.

Angela joins some of the residents as they enjoy their weekly coffee morning, have a natter, and wait for the raffle to be drawn to see if they’ve won the £15, £12, and £10 prizes in the pot.

Much of the chat is about rising energy and food costs, and Babs Pemberton tells the others about a friend whose grandchild has just lost his first tooth.

“He got £5 from the Tooth Fairy, and offered to give it to his Nanna so she could put the heating on for a bit longer,” laughs Babs.

Support Officer Brenda Pugh, who's on site three days a week, is seeing the crisis starting to take its toll: “One gentleman, who took great pride in never having failed to pay his way, came to me because he was worried sick about not being able to make ends meet for the first time in his life. It can have a real impact on their mental health,” she explains.

However, another resident, who’s 84 and only wants to be identified as Jean, describes those at Levick Court as “the lucky ones”.

“Yes, you have to think twice about what you buy at the shops but the flats here are very warm, so I don’t have to use up a lot of energy,” she adds. “We feel very protected from the worst of it – I did a little dance when I got my flat here.”

As well as warm, safe accommodation, North Star offers a welfare rights service to all of its residents, with dedicated staff advising on financial matters, including benefits and debt.

The housing association even bought a bingo machine to add to the sense of community.

Next stop for Angela is Rainham House on the other side of 'the Boro'. It's a central point for a network of support services for vulnerable people, including 50-year-old Paul Roxby, left, who found himself sleeping rough after losing his way through drugs.

Thanks to North Star, Paul is now benefitting from a two-year service designed to be a stepping-stone back to independent living. He lives in a two-bedroomed property, with his rent paid through the benefits system, plus discounts on his council tax and water rates.

“Sometimes, it’s still a choice between being warm or going hungry but I’m in a much better place than I was,” concedes Paul.

“The cost of living is getting worse, with the price of everything going through the roof, and I have friends who are still on the streets. North Star has been brilliant for me. It’s changed my life, given me the possibility of finding some stability, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Paul has come to Rainham House for his weekly meeting with Dianne Eddison, North Star’s service co-ordinator for rough sleeper services, who's giving him advice, mainly focused on helping him clear his debts.

“There’s a big, big problem with homelessness in this area and the cost-of-living crisis will obviously increase the pressure,” says Dianne.

At least Paul now has a chance, and he’s smiling broadly, having just received news that he’s got a job, working 20 hours a week as a supermarket cleaner.

“You’re doing great,” Angela tells him, reassuringly. “Keep going – you can get there.”

Her third visit of the morning is to Parkfield Hall, in Stockton, were young people leaving the care system are given supported accommodation en route to living independently.

They include Amelia Walsh, 17, who receives £60 a week, from the local authority, towards day-to-day essentials.

Amelia works full-time at McDonald's and rides her bike to get there. She's too young to know why, but Norman Tebbitt would approve.

Despite her best efforts, it's still hard to pay the rent and keep up with the cost of food, so she's one of the beneficiaries of an emergency fund North Star has set up for tenants – claiming a £30 grant for food and £20 towards her electricity.

The emergency fund used to be £10,000 but has been increased to £200,000 this year in the light of the economic turmoil.

The young residents have recently been put on pre-payment electricity meters because some were ending up in debt.

"The aim was to help them to budget more effectively, but we are seeing them running out, and, as a result, they are having to make a difficult choice between staying warm or eating while sitting in the dark," explains support worker, Lisa Dodds.

Nevertheless, Amelia – confident and articulate – knows it would be a whole lot worse without North Star's support.

"I was sofa-surfing before but at least I have a secure place to stay now, and the staff are always there to help," she says.

"In the end, I just want the things I've never had: a good job, enough income to support myself, my own car, and my own house.

"But for now, this is the closest thing I've had to a home for a long time."

It's been a busy morning and Angela Lockwood knows all too well that the widespread work of the team she leads has never been more vital.