THOUSANDS of children are being damaged for life as they are made to pay the price of England’s enduring crisis in the provision of social housing, according to a damning report from the Children’s Commissioner.
The new research reveals the “terrible reality” of children growing up in converted shipping containers and office blocks, in B&Bs, and in cramped conditions, often miles away from their schools.
Bleak Houses: Tackling the Crisis of Family Homelessness in England, released today, offers a clear indictment not only of an ongoing failure to provide genuinely affordable housing, but also years of government austerity and increasingly punitive welfare policies.
The report claims that while official statistics show 124,000 children in England living in temporary accommodation, this does not include the hidden homeless who are ‘sofa-surfing’, often in very cramped conditions.
New analysis conducted for the Children’s Commissioner for England estimates that in 2016/17 there were 92,000 children living in sofa-surfing families. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Commissioner also warns that official figures fail to capture a “small but highly vulnerable group” of homeless children who have been placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services, rather than by the council’s housing department.
This group includes families who have been deemed to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, and those who have been left with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status. There is no publicly available data on how many families are being housed in this way, the report says.
Furthermore, today’s report publishes national estimates of the numbers of children living in temporary accommodation for extended periods, showing that the label ‘temporary’ is sometimes anything but.
This analysis suggests that in 2017 around four in 10 children in temporary accommodation – an estimated 51,000 children – had been there for at least six months. Around one in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year.
“Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks,” said Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England.
“Children have told us of the disruptive and at times frightening impact this can have on their lives. It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, or to sofa surf.
“It is essential that the Government invests properly in a major house-building programme and that it sets itself a formal target to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation.”
Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, and author of the report, added: “Trapped by increasing rents and an unforgiving welfare system, there is very little many families can do to break the cycle of homelessness once it begins.
“Preventing homelessness from happening in the first place is crucial. Yet government statistics fail to capture the hundreds of thousands of children living in families who are behind on their rent and mortgage repayments.
“Frontline professionals working with children and families need greater training to spot the early signs of homelessness and councils urgently need to know what money will be available for them when current funds run out next year.”
While the current situation is bad enough, it could also become even worse, according to the report. Further analysis conducted for the Children’s Commissioner claims that an estimated 375,000 children are in households that have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.
The Children’s Commissioner also warns that temporary accommodation is frequently not fit for children to live in. Due to the level of demand and shortage of accommodation, children are frequently spending years living in temporary housing while they wait for an offer of a permanent home. As a result of a shortage of good quality, self-contained temporary accommodation, many families are being placed in accommodation that is poor quality and too small.
The Children’s Commissioner expressed particular concerns about:
- B&Bs: This type of housing is not self-contained and often the bathroom is shared with other residents in the building, along with the kitchen (if there are any cooking facilities at all). The other residents might be families, but might also be vulnerable adults, such as those with mental health or drug abuse problems, creating intimidating and potentially unsafe environments for children. Of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third had been there for more than six weeks, despite this being unlawful
- Office block conversions: A more recent development has been the conversion of former office blocks and warehouses into temporary accommodation under permitted development rights, which bypass planning regulations and restrict the ability of local councils to object on the grounds of quality of accommodation. Some areas have become hotspots for conversions
- Shipping containers: Another recent development has been the repurposing of shipping containers for use as temporary accommodation. Often they are located on so-called ‘meanwhile sites’ – land that is earmarked for future development but currently not in use. The units are typically one or two-bedroom and small in size, meaning that overcrowding can be an issue. They can become really hot in summer and too cold in the winter. As with some office block conversions, antisocial behaviour has been a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside, forcing them to stay in cramped conditions inside
The report also shows how 23,000 families being housed in temporary accommodation in 2018 were living away from their home council area. The Children’s Commissioner Office said that children and families it had spoken with talked about how moving away from an area can have a deeply disruptive impact on family life. For children, moving area might mean a new school, no longer being able to see their friends, or go to the places they are used to. Travel costs might also increase, as children have to travel further if they stay at the same school.
The risks associated with poor temporary accommodation can also reduce some of the most basic aspects of childhood such as a child’s opportunity to play. A number of children and parents spoke about the cramped, overcrowded conditions (particularly in B&Bs where families often share one room), which leave little room for furniture and possessions, let alone space in which children could play.
For such children, the school holidays can be challenging as families lack space inside, are reluctant to let their children play outside and may be miles away from friends, parks or leisure facilities. Even if there are activities close by for the children to attend, the prices can be prohibitive.
The Local Government Association (LGA), responding to the report, urged the Government to use the upcoming Spending Round to provide councils with the long-term “sustainable” funding they need to prevent homelessness. It also called for the “tools they need” to resume building homes with the right infrastructure the country needs, citing a lack of social housing as a major problem for councils facing the issues highlighted in the report.
“Councils desperately want to find every family a good quality, secure home, and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place,” said the LGA’s housing spokesperson, Councillor Martin Tett. “However, the severe lack of social rented homes available in which to house families means councils have no choice but to place households into temporary accommodation, including – in emergencies – bed and breakfasts.
“With homelessness services facing a £159 million funding gap next year (2020/21), the Government needs to use the upcoming Spending Round to ensure councils have long-term sustainable funding to prevent homelessness, and give councils the tools they need to resume their historic role of building homes with the right infrastructure that the country needs. This includes allowing councils to keep 100% of receipts of council homes sold under Right to Buy, so that they can be reinvested in new replacement homes, and the ability to set Right to Buy discounts locally.
“It should also scrap the permitted development right which is taking away the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in, ensure homes are built to high standards with the necessary infrastructure in place and have resulted in the potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “This report is a damning indictment of the catastrophic failure to address the housing emergency. It should act as a sharp wake-up call to the new government that spiralling homelessness is now robbing hundreds of thousands of children of a decent childhood.
“No child should be spending months, if not years, living in a converted shipping container, a dodgy old office block or an emergency B&B. But a cocktail of punitive welfare policies, a woeful lack of social homes and wildly expensive private rents mean this is frighteningly commonplace. We constantly hear from struggling families forced to accept unsuitable, and sometimes downright dangerous accommodation, because they have nowhere else to go. The devastating impact this has on a child’s development and wellbeing cannot be overstated.
“The message to this government should be clear: to stop more children from suffering we must urgently increase housing benefit so families can at least afford the basic cost of rent, alongside a long-term commitment to build 3 million more social homes. This is the only way to guarantee the next generation can have the stability of a safe roof over their head.”