At least 210,000 children are officially homeless, according to a shocking new report from the Children’s Commissioner for England who said something has “gone so very wrong” in the country’s housing system.
Children caught up in the housing crisis are finding themselves living in B&Bs, converted office blocks and, in some cases, even shipping containers.
The small containers are often moved to land that is earmarked for future development and left there until it begins. They can get uncomfortably hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.
Even more common is the conversion of run-down old office blocks and warehouses into temporary housing that can bypass planning regulations and, crucially, are difficult for local councils to object to.
More than half of all new homes being created in Harlow are office block conversions – that’s 13 office blocks so far, resulting in 1,000 individual flats which are mostly small studios far from meeting national space standards.
It’s a number that doesn’t even include a group of highly vulnerable children who have been put in temporary accommodation by children’s services rather than by council housing departments. That means families who authorities have deemed to have made themselves “intentionally homeless” and those with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status.
The government doesn’t hold any public data on how many of these families there are.
The Bleak houses: Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England research published by Anne Longfield broke down the figures to show that 124,000 children in England are living in temporary accommodation, with around 92,000 more forced to sofa-surf with their families.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks. 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.”
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In 2017, around 4 in 10 kids in ‘temporary’ accommodation (around 51,000 children) had been there for at least six months – with one in 20 there for at least a year.
Many families are forced to accept temporary accommodation in areas far from their home council area, disrupting their lives further. For some children it meant going to a new school and no longer being able to see their friends.
Big Issue editor Paul McNamee called it a “disgraceful situation”.
He added: “Nearly a quarter of a million children are living in terrible conditions, preventing them enjoying the sort of life we all agree children should enjoy, and setting up issues for years to come. This is Britain in 2019. It’s more than the population of Milton Keynes! Where can they play, or develop properly? What kind of life do they face?
“There has been a fundamental failure across national and local government to address this growing crisis. We should not accept that ANY children should be in homeless accommodation, never mind this number.
“At present we have a government wrapped up in nothing but Brexit. They need to show a willingness to admit there is a massive problem, and do something meaningful about it.”
In the report, the Commissioner warned that a lot of temporary housing is unfit for children to live in due to poor quality and a lack of space (especially in B&Bs where families are often forced to share one room). This can stop children being able to play, both because of the cramped conditions and often because the family doesn’t know the area well enough to be comfortable letting children go outside.
It also highlighted the lack of social housing and the need to increase housing benefit, according to housing charity Shelter.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “This report is a damning indictment of the government’s catastrophic failure to address the housing emergency. It should act as a wake-up call to the new government that is it failing to deal with the homelessness that is 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.”
Beyond the sobering homelessness figures, as many as 375,000 children live in households that could soon be at risk of homelessness after struggling to keep up with rent or mortgage payments.
Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and author of the report, said: “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.”