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I’m Kenyan. I didn’t realise poverty existed in the UK

When Kenyan VSO ICS volunteer Felix Owino, 26, visited London last month as part of his new role as Youth Advisor to the VSO Board, he saw something he wasn’t expecting to see.

People with no home, living on the street in poverty. London is the world’s fifth richest capital, and yet one in every 59 people are homeless.

Having run his own project supporting 1,780 schoolgirls to access menstrual education and reusable menstrual cups, Felix was no stranger to working in communities where resources can be limited.

We caught up with Felix to find out why this is a challenge we all need to be fighting.

Winter in London: With temperatures dropping, life on the streets is even harder
© Shutterstock
Winter in London: With temperatures dropping, life on the streets is even harder

I learnt about the West through the media

I grew up forming an image of this better, richer life in the Western world through TV, film and the media. The picture we grew up believing is that people in the UK don’t live in poverty and no-one is homeless.

But the first time I travelled to London it didn’t take long before I was hit with the reality of seeing homeless people on the street begging for money and food.

Having arrived from the warm climate of Kenya, the rain and cold of December in London came as an extra shock. If I’m struggling, I thought, what is life like for those living and sleeping on the streets.

It got me thinking about my time with VSO ICS and learning about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – something that has become a core part of my life in my new role as Youth Advisor to the VSO Board.

The SDGs are special to me as they don’t discriminate. They make a pledge to end poverty all over the world. These 17 goals – from gender equality to climate change – are global issues, after all.

In Kenya we’re facing huge numbers of rural to urban migration. People are moving to our cities in search of a better, more prosperous life. A third of Kenyans now live in cities, and the population has doubled in the last 25 years. But in the process, services are stretched and unemployment is rife.

Nairobi's sprawling Kiberia slum is Africa's largest - with an estimated 75% of the population under 18
© Shutterstock
Nairobi's sprawling Kiberia slum is Africa's largest - with an estimated 75% of the population under 18

It’s often the youth who suffer the worst

There are real challenges for those living in cities like Nairobi – and those who will move in the years to come. The situation is forcing the youth – who represent an increasing percentage of the population – to be exposed to abusive work environments, lower paid jobs and substandard living conditions.

For many who find themselves on the streets, a lack of access to medical care and poor sexual health education and services means they’re giving birth while homeless, passing this cycle of poverty from generation to generation.

While on placement we discussed poverty as a team. Hearing the UK volunteers talk about their experiences of these issues in the same way as we did, I struggled to believe that the same challenges could exist. Seeing it in London was something I wasn’t expecting.

Youth Adviser and VSO ICS alumni Felix is interested in learning more about homelessness
Youth Adviser and VSO ICS alumni Felix is interested in learning more about homelessness

And now I’ve seen it

I’m eager to learn more. I want to find out how high housing costs in London, paired with unemployment rates and issues of addiction and mental health contribute to these levels of homelessness.

I want one-to-one interaction with those who are accessing services to find out more about the challenges in their day-to-day life and how the state is able to support them. I want to learn how those with lived experience of homelessness can become ambassadors for their own change.

And I want to share my experience with friends, family and my networks back at home and in the UK. With more information, more discussion, we can eliminate these misconceptions about poverty.

Felix is no stranger to working with impacted communities: his project delivered menstrual education
© ICS / VSO / Adriane Ohanesian
Felix is no stranger to working with impacted communities: his project delivered menstrual education

Poverty doesn’t discriminate

Anyone can become homeless, and that’s what I’ve had the chance to see now in the urban centres of Nairobi and London. These are problems so complex, they span the Global South and Global North.

If things are to improve, we need policymakers, governments and other organisations to develop better strategies. Solutions like affordable housing and tighter legislation on workers’ rights have the power to be part of change.

But ultimately, it’s our collective responsibility to make change happen. If we really want to end poverty by 2030 we need to hold ourselves and our governments accountable.

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Funded by the UK Government

ICS is funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) which leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty.

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