Whether they’re languishing in shipping containers dressed up as a ‘homes’ or trapped in overcrowded one-bed flats, children are paying a cruel price for a place in England’s failed state of housing
By Mark Cantrell
THE cost of a ‘home’ these days is evidently a broken childhood. Far too many children are being damaged for life as they are forced to pay the price of England’s chronic failure to provide adequate social housing.
The terrible conditions endured by hundreds of thousands of children were laid bare recently by two reports; one from the Children’s Commissioner for England, the other from the National Housing Federation (NHF).
Between them, they present a damning indictment not only of an ongoing failure to deliver genuinely affordable housing, but also years of Government austerity and increasingly punitive welfare policies.
Bleak Houses: Tackling the Crisis of Family Homelessness in England, from the Children’s Commissioner, highlighted the “terrible reality” of children growing up in converted shipping containers and office blocks, in B&Bs, often in cramped conditions and miles away from their schools and social support networks.
The NHF, meanwhile, focused on the plight of the 130,000 families squeezed into one-bed flats; just a tip of an iceberg, as its briefing paper revealed that 1.3 million children from 600,000 families are stuck in overcrowded conditions because they can’t afford a more suitable home.
“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.”
Official statistics show that 124,000 children in England are living in temporary accommodation, but the Commissioner’s report says this figure does not include the hidden homeless, such as the 92,000 children it estimated were living in ‘sofa surfing’ families during 2016/17.
The Commissioner further warned 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 deemed to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, along with those who have been left with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status.
Meanwhile, as the report points out, temporary housing can be anything but. The analysis suggests that in 2017 around four in 10 children – an estimated 51,000 children – had been in such ‘stop gap’ accommodation for at least six months. Around one in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year.
More could well be on their way to this housing purgatory. The Bleak House report claims that an estimated 375,000 children are in households that have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, putting them at risk of becoming homeless in the future.
As for the NHF’s research, which followed hot on the heels of the Commissioner’s report, it finds that overcrowding has now reached record levels, with 96,000 more children living in overcrowded homes compared to a decade ago.
Homes are deemed ‘overcrowded’ if a child must share their bedroom with two or more other children, sleep in the same room as their parents, or share with a teenager of the opposite sex. Understandably, this leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the wellbeing of the child.
The NHF’s report found:
- Just under half of children in overcrowded homes are forced to share a bedroom with their parents – this could affect as many as 627,000 children
- In more than a quarter of overcrowded homes, children must share a bed with a parent or sibling – this could affect as many as 368,000 children
- More than a quarter of parents in overcrowded homes are often forced to sleep in kitchens, bathrooms or hallways because of the lack of space – this could affect as many as 380,000 people
- More than half of parents in overcrowded homes worry that their children aren’t coming home because of how overcrowded it is – this could affect as many as 695,000 children
- Around half of children in overcrowded homes struggle to do their homework because of the lack of space – this could affect as many as 750,000 children. This includes 14% (as many as 190,000 children) who find it totally impossible
“This research shows yet another devastating impact of the broken housing market,” said Kate Henderson, the NHF’s chief executive. “All across the country, whole families squeeze into one-bedroom flats, children sleep three to a bed, and parents are forced to spend their night in the kitchen or a hallway.
“This is having a huge impact on more than a million children, seriously affecting their start in life. For decades, successive governments have failed to invest in social housing, and families are paying the price.
“The only way to fix the problem is by building enough social housing, which requires a radical public spending programme – there is simply no other way. By investing £12.8 billion in affordable housing every year, the Government can finally put an end to the country’s housing problem.”
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On Bleak Houses:
“The Children’s Society know through our own research the profound impact that living in temporary or poor-quality accommodation can have on children. They not only grow up feeling unsafe and anxious, but face barriers to making the most of their education, and damage to their health and psychological wellbeing.
“Additionally, many are forced to move again and again, leaving them disconnected from their neighbourhoods and schools. They are also left feeling exhausted as they are forced to travel great distances to stay in education or in contact with family, friends and other support services.
“The Government urgently needs to ensure that help with rent through housing benefit reflects local costs, so that families are able to find a decent place they can afford to live, within their local community.”
Dr Sam Royston, policy and research director, The Children’s Society.
“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…
“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 three 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.”
Polly Neate, chief executive, Shelter.
“Councils desperately want to find every family a good quality, secure home, and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. 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.”
Councillor Martin Tett, housing spokesperson, Local Government Association.
“The cost of housing means that for many families, work does not bring enough money to provide a decent life and the kind of childhood we all want for our children. Poverty doesn’t just mean that families can’t access the housing they need, but it can affect health, education and life chances in ways that can last decades.
“A home should be an anchor against being swept into poverty but for parents bringing up children in overcrowded conditions it adds an extra strain. This can be fixed if we invest in building the low cost rented homes which low income families rely on and which can be their stepping-stone to a better life.”
Darren Baxter, housing policy and partnerships manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
“These figures show the impact of Conservative ministers’ cuts to housing investment at a time when new social housing has never been needed more. The country is now building 30,000 fewer social rented homes each year than in 2010, while there are over a million households stuck on council waiting lists. Labour will build a million genuinely affordable homes, including the biggest council housing programme in a generation.”
John Healey MP, Labour’s shadow housing secretary.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #6 October 2019