Interior designer Emily Wheeler tells James Cracknell about her mission to furnish the homes of those most in need
What do you do if you need new furniture but you can barely afford to feed your family? How are you supposed to be able to buy a sofa if you’re on welfare support?
This is a problem Emily Wheeler decided to help solve, after realising she had a unique set of skills that put her in an ideal position to do so.
Emily was previously a social worker for Waltham Forest Council, a job that gave her an insight into the conditions people in poverty are living in across the borough. But she is also an experienced interior designer – having even written a book on the subject.
“In my job as a social worker I met families struggling in poor-quality housing and suffering from austerity,” Emily says. “It is difficult for them to meet their children’s needs and it has an impact on their physical and mental health.
“There are an estimated half-a-million children in England who don’t have their own bed to sleep in – 65% of private tenancy homes are furnished but less then 2% of social tenancies are furnished. These are the people who need the most support.
“Sometimes they have teenagers with no space to sleep or do their own homework. They might have no oven, no washing machine. It is very difficult for families reliant on welfare to be able to furnish their homes.”
Emily saw an opportunity to use her skills as an interior designer to help affected families, not just by finding furniture for them, but by helping them to make a home that they felt happy in.
“I knew people who had got the courage to flea domestic violence situations, but were put into empty flats and couldn’t afford to look after their children, so ended up going back [to their abuser].
“I realised I could bring the two parts of my experience together. When I bought my first family home and I was able to furnish it through family donations and freebies from Facebook, I realised it was possible.”
Emily launched her social enterprise, Furnishing Futures, last year, working with one family at a time to provide everything they need.
“The furniture we provide is of no cost to the family. They need to be referred to the project and then we find everything they need for their home. If you can create a home that is welcoming, safe and comfortable for everyone it gives you that foundation for better mental health and self-esteem, and ultimately a better quality of life.”
In the long-term Emily wants to become a service that can form partnerships with local authorities and service providers, supporting families in need, and operating an interior design shop that would generate the money needed to fund the project. In the short-term, she desperately needs to find storage space for all the furniture she is accumulating.
“I would like to work with social services to support children who are in care, getting commissioned to help them. But at the moment I am just looking for storage space and a logistics company so I don’t have to keep everything in my kitchen!”
Emily has worked with four families to date, furnishing their homes with items such as bunk beds, televisions and bed linen – all items donated to her. “As soon as I started asking people in the community, people were so generous, and I have had more offers than I needed.”
The project caught the attention of UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, which is now supporting Emily to find a storage unit in the William Morris ward of Walthamstow.
“This is a problem that is literally hidden behind closed doors – people don’t realise this happens and what challenges some families face.”
For more information about Furnishing Futures:
This article is supported by William Morris Big Local in association with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. To find out more about UnLtd:
Call 0207 566 1100