The ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ suitcase wedged tight behind the camp bed seems completely out of place in this tiny, damp, cold and mouldy room.
The nearby double bed shared by Katarina and her youngest daughter is surrounded by possessions stuffed in carrier bags. A little dining table is the only place the kids can eat and do homework.
Nearby is a small fridge, a microwave with a stove on top, a kettle sitting on the floor, a narrow wardrobe, a cupboard with broken doors where the shoes live, a tiny heater, school uniforms hung over the back of chairs, toothbrushes on a shelf.
A lone toilet roll sits in the corner, but there is no bathroom in sight. That is down a long corridor and shared with 10 strangers.
Sunshine seems a very long way away for this little family.
But this is the reality of life – perhaps more an existence – for the single mum, her nine-year-old daughter, also called Katarina, and six-year-old Hedwig.
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This one room in a townhouse in Reading, contains all they own.
“We do everything here – we sleep here, we cook here, everything is done in this room” mum Katarina Taaru, 36, says: “There’s nowhere else to call home.
“You don’t call a room ‘home’, you call a house or a flat ‘home’. For the past two years I have not felt ‘home’.
“We are stuck in this room 24/7. There’s no privacy. The kids have grown up having to see Mum go to the bathroom and dress while they are there.
“It’s like a prison to me.”
Mum Katarina's heartbreaking story comes as the Daily Mirror launches our Give Me Five campaign today in a bid to end the scourge of child poverty in the UK.
Read more about our Give Me Five campaign here
Working with End Child Poverty , we are calling on Boris Johnson to hike child benefit by £5 a week to help struggling parents. Without action the number of kids in poverty in the UK is set to rise from 4.1million to 5.2million in the next two years.
Katarina – who has a degree in accounting and finance – is a carer with an agency on a zero hours contract and sometimes finds work in finance. She receives Universal Credit but the payments vary depending on how much she works.
She pays £356 a month in rent but is left feeling “locked in a system where you have no way out.”
She budgets just £20 a week for food for herself and her daughters and says there are occasions when all she can afford is a loaf of bread.
“People in power don’t see this – a lot of us are struggling” she says. “It’s poverty – you are just surviving.”
To sign our petition calling on Boris Johnson to increase child benefit click here
She also says her daughters "can’t have their friends over for playtime or sleepovers".
She added: "Even if I take the kids out I then come back to the same environment, we can’t escape it. Sometimes, when it’s evening time, especially the youngest gets so scared to get up and use the toilet because it's shared.”
The impact of such an existence is hard to imagine for a parent.
Even more incomprehensible for the children.
Katarina jr, who wants to be a doctor when she’s older, says: “When my friends ask me ‘do you want to come round my house or can I come to yours’, I say I can’t. Where I’m living I can’t show them because I feel like when I show them, I’m weird.
“I feel like I really want a house. I have seen people having fun and all of this space is really cramped up. I can’t play anywhere.”
She adds: “We live with strangers and sometimes somebody is already in the bathroom and we have to wait and some days we don’t wash and just wash our faces.”
The trio have lived in the private rented room since October 2017.
Katarina says doing casual shifts puts her in a vicious cycle as it means her Universal Credit payments drop.
Her monthly Universal Credit payment has varied from £1,000 to £400 depending on her income, she says.
But taking out £356 rent, bills, the £200 a week to put her girls in after school and breakfast clubs while she’s working, and a weekly £20 she spends on food, she says she ends up having to borrow money and falls in arrears.
“I’m working just to pay bills,” Katarina says. “I have never taken them on holiday, I can’t afford it, it’s as simple as that.”
And just keeping going is a struggle. “Being a single parent and having to look after the girls, I have no time to think” the mum adds. “I have to get up, get them ready, take them to school, pick them up, there’s no time, I have to get on with it.
“If you dwell on it, you will destroy your life. If I end up having mental issues, no one will care.”
Katarina said when they first moved into the room there was mould everywhere.
She said Hedwig had to be treated for a chest infection twice and her teacher said she’d been coughing in class.
Katarina budgets £20 a week to buy bread, milk, eggs and some of the things the girls like including “cheap” pizzas and burger buns.
“I try by all means to make sure the kids have eaten – and they will ask for their food – but I have to budget.”
And she admits: “I have had times where all I have is a loaf of bread.”
Despite everything, she remains positive their present situation won’t be their future, and the smiley family photographs on the walls along with a copy of the Bible on a bed signifies her hope.
“I don’t believe the way the girls are growing up now is their destiny.
“With faith you live in hope that your tomorrow is better than your yesterday.”
Mirror Online has contacted Reading Council for comment.
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