Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Childhood Trust interviewed 75 people who had experienced temporary accommodation across the English capital between May and October 2021 and heard horror stories of toxic mould, cold temperatures and overcrowding.
The resulting report – titled “I Want Us to Live Like Humans Again” – found persistent policy failures by central and local government. HRW is calling for a right to housing to be enshrined in domestic law to allow people to challenge and improve their housing situation.
“The government needs to urgently address this hidden aspect of the housing crisis by reducing reliance on temporary accommodation and tackling the issue of housing unfit for families to live in,” said Alex Firth, senior coordinator at HRW. “If the government is really committed to its agenda of ‘levelling up’ every part of the UK, then giving families a safe and decent home to live in should be the foundation of its efforts.”
A UK government spokesperson told The Big Issue ministers plan to strengthen councils’ enforcement powers to “tackle overcrowding and social housing waiting lists”.
Local councils are obligated by English law to provide people who are threatened with homelessness, or have recently become homeless, with temporary accommodation. The number of families in temporary accommodation has increased 65 percent since 2011. As of October 2021, there were 42,290 families living in temporary accommodation in London.
HRW heard stories from some of those families, many of whom had been stuck in temporary accommodation for a number of years.
In the report, the NGO details the story of pregnant mum-of-three Amaka, who lived in a Lambeth studio flat for six months in 2020 as London went into lockdown. Amaka told HRW the space was at such a premium in the room that she was forced to share a double bed with her three boys aged four, seven and nine. She said: “It was very, very hard for me in that small flat. When Covid started I saw hell.”
Elsewhere in the report, Layla claimed the three-bedroom house in Croydon she shared with her four daughters, aged between six and 26, between 2017 and 2019 left her youngest child Israa with respiratory issues due to toxic mould in the house. She described the situation as “unimaginable”.
Another social housing tenant, Patricia Leatham, said she wrapped her 14-year-old son up in blankets to keep warm after moving into a tower block in Waltham Forest in October 2019.
For the first month, she said there were no working cooking facilities and only one working heater.
Leatham said: “They will give you a shell of a place, that’s it. Regardless of whether you’ve got food, whether you’ve got chairs, whether you’ve got beds, they’ve given you somewhere to live and you can’t say no.”
HRW also reported that housing situations also affected children’s education with a lack of space to study and internet connection issues both causing problems, particularly as Covid forced children to study at home.
The NGO said a decade of austerity between 2009 and 2019 has seen a 37 per cent cut in local authority funding that has seen councils forced to spend cash on short-term fixes rather than addressing root causes of homelessness.
Meanwhile, a lack of social housing has also driven families into temporary accommodation, the report said, with some boroughs having a waiting list of more than 10 years.
A right to adequate housing is part of international law but successive UK governments have failed to recognise and implement the right, according to HRW.
“Successive governments have utterly failed to fix the housing crisis,” said Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust. “Children are suffering appalling abuses of their rights with devastating consequences for their health, education, and life chances. This report is a wake-up call to the government that this abuse has to stop.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, insisted £4bn has been allocated to London to deliver 35,000 homes over the next five years to tackle short supply.
“All children deserve to live in a safe and decent home, and we’re strengthening councils’ enforcement powers to tackle overcrowding and reduce social housing waiting lists,” the government spokesperson said.
“We are driving down the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs, with over £2 billion committed to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping over the next three years.”
A spokesperson for mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the key to reducing a reliance on temporary accommodation is tacking the root causes of homelessness such as a lack of social housing, “draconian welfare reforms” and cuts to council budgets.
The spokesperson added: “Despite having no statutory powers over this area, the mayor is committed to working with local authorities and other partners to improve the quality of temporary accommodation and ensure that more genuinely affordable homes are delivered to meet demand in London.”
Meanwhile a spokesperson for London Councils said: “Boroughs do their best to support and find suitable accommodation for homeless families, but London’s extreme housing pressures and many years of reductions to council budgets have made this work harder and harder.
“Every child deserves a permanent home. The government needs to do much more to tackle family homelessness, including using the welfare system to help Londoners meet their housing costs and boosting funding for the affordable homes the capital urgently needs.”