Social Justice

'We just want our homes not to hurt us': Disabled people trapped in temporary accommodation

There are 104,000 people on the waiting list for an accessible or adaptable home. But not enough are being built, so many disabled people and families with disabled children are left in temporary accommodation for years

disabled/ accessible home

Image: Unsplash

Steph has lived in a room for 12 years, a decade longer than she was ever meant to be there. She sits on the toilet to shower in a bathroom no bigger than you would find on an aeroplane. She perches on her bed to eat meals because there is no space for a table or chair. 

The situation began when Steph was put on a pilot project for young disabled people, designed to help them live more independently for two years before moving on to their own homes. But because there are not enough accessible council properties, the 34-year-old is trapped. 

“It is one of the worst experiences,” says Steph, who asked not to have her surname published. “Emotionally, it’s been really hard. I have to live my life in a box. As a disabled person, my friends’ and family’s houses are not accessible. Travel is hard for me. The only way I can socialise is in my home, but my home is a box. Everything is cut off.”

Steph, who has been living in a room for 12 years. Image: Supplied

Steph has been on the waiting list for council accommodation in her local borough of Kensington and Chelsea for 15 years. She had been living with her mum, but the house was not not accessible to her. She has a number of chronic health conditions and relies on either a wheelchair, walker or walking stick and she could not climb the stairs in the property. She needed somewhere that was more accessible, and a place that she could be independent and call her own.

When she was 22, Steph was told by the council the process would be faster if she moved out of her family’s house and into the hostel. She was very unwell at the time and the thought of moving away was scary, so she faced a tough decision. But then she was offered a different solution: the council was launching a pilot project to help young disabled people learn how to live independently. 

There would be 11 of them living there with 24-hour care and support workers on site. She would be there for two years and she had already been on the housing list for three years – she thought she would be guaranteed a council property after all that time waiting. It seemed like the dream solution. 

Steph’s bathroom, which she says is like an aeroplane pod. Image: Supplied

“I thought this was going to be perfect,” she says. “But I moved in, and it’s not completely accessible. The bathroom is like an aeroplane toilet. I have to sit on the toilet to shower. There’s a step to get into the shower.” As it is considered temporary housing, the council cannot make any changes to the room to make it more accessible for Steph.

“When I moved I got a letter from housing saying they removed me from the housing list and congratulating me on my new permanent accommodation,” she adds. “So then I had to reapply to the housing list and start my journey again.”

Steph, who cannot work due to her health, has spent years bidding for council housing and fighting to be put on the right lists for an accessible home. Most of the people who live in her accommodation have learning disabilities, and she has watched many people move in and out over the years. But, because she has a physical disability, there are far fewer options. 

“Everyone deserves a safe and comfortable home,” a spokesperson for Kensington and Chelsea council says. “Housing in our borough is under extreme pressure, with more than 2,000 people on the housing waiting list. 

“Understandably people with accessibility needs and disabilities often prefer to remain near family and friends and finding suitable, local accommodation is a real challenge. We are building new homes for social rent and have recently consulted on our allocations policy to ensure we are prioritising people effectively so those most in need are first in line for a home.”

While people like Steph wait for a home, the options are either to stay living with family and friends or to move into temporary accommodation owned by the council. There are approximately 250,000 people living in temporary accommodation in the UK, according to Shelter. The charity Justlife estimates around 35 per cent of these people are disabled – meaning there are around 87,500 disabled people living in temporary accommodation, waiting for a permanent home. 

“We know that for disabled people, temporary accommodation is temporary in name only,” says Mikey Erhardt, campaigns and policy officer at Disability Rights UK. “The lack of safe, affordable, accessible housing is leading more and more of us into this dangerous system. More and more disabled people and families with disabled children are forced to choose between homelessness or inaccessible and dangerous temporary accommodation.”

There currently are around 20,000 people on council waiting lists for a wheelchair-accessible home in England, the Habinteg Housing Association has found. A further 104,000 people are waiting for an accessible or adaptable home, but not enough are being built. Only 427 wheelchair-accessible homes are currently being built each year. That means someone could be on the waiting list for 47 years.

A government spokesperson says: “Temporary accommodation is always a last resort and councils must ensure it is suitable for families who have a right to appeal if they think it does not meet their needs. Local councils manage their social housing waiting lists, and must give people who need to move for medical or welfare reasons priority.”

The government has invested £11.5billion in an Affordable Homes Programme which the spokesperson claims “will deliver thousands of affordable homes to buy and rent, including new supported housing for disabled people”. But so far there has been a low priority given to social rent homes. The Chartered Institute of Housing review found just 13 per cent of new homes delivered in 2021/22 were for social rent.

The government also promised to bring together social care and supported housing in the social care white paper, with funding of £300million. But now the plan has been revealed, and the funding has been massively scaled back with no mention of the £300million in a move the National Housing Federation called “deeply disappointing”.

“We need to change the way councils think about homes for disabled people,” Steph says. “For us, an accessible home might be the only safe space we have that we know works for us. It is more than just a home. It is a place where our family and friends can socialise. It’s a place where doctors can come over, and carers. 

“Twelve years in a room is unacceptable for anyone. When we have additional needs, it’s horrible. They don’t think about the mental health effects that it has on me and the way it changes my life. I can’t plan anything in my life. I don’t even have a place to keep my clothes properly because there’s no space. I don’t have a place for things that I’ve wanted to keep. When I’ve been given gifts, I’ve had to give them away.”

The mental health impacts of living in temporary accommodation have been felt deeply by Ali, a single father who fled domestic violence with his disabled son. He had no option but to turn to the authorities for help, but the accommodation the family were placed in was inaccessible for Ali’s son, who is epileptic, severely visually impaired and autistic.

“We went through the homelessness procedures and we ended up in temporary accommodation,” he explains. “You don’t get a say in where you’re placed. I have a child who doesn’t know how to climb stairs, and I was placed up two flights of concrete stairs. There was also a set of steep internal stairs. I was carrying him and his wheelchair up two flights of stairs. There was a bath with no shower. It was not accessible at all. We are not allowed to make any adaptations because the place is temporary accommodation.”

Ali, who is going by a pseudonym to protect his identity, says his son had a few accidents while living in the property. “When he was having seizures, I did have to take him up and down the stairs with a very stiff, shaking body. That was not great. It is hard to watch this happen to anyone. 

The balcony of Ali’s previous temporary accommodation, showing how high up they were. Image: Supplied

“But my 10 year old child didn’t need any of this. This doesn’t need to be happening to him. It’s an injustice for him. He didn’t need all these injuries and things to happen. He didn’t need the scars on his chin. People like myself are constantly ignored. If there are any complaints made, they are shut down. The system is not just broken. It doesn’t exist.”

Ali and his son were living in temporary accommodation for three years before they finally managed to move into a permanent council house, but even that isn’t wholly accessible. 

Erhardt, of Disability Rights UK, adds that better regulation of the housing sector is needed so councils stop renting unsuitable and dangerous homes. He says: “The way out of this mess is clear – build more affordable, accessible social rented homes, improve the avenues through which disabled people can get our homes adapted, and create a minimum accessibility standard reflective of the needs of the local population.”

Erhardt says temporary accommodation should only ever be a preventative measure that protects people from the dangers of homelessness, “not a route for landlords to profit from renting out the worst properties they can find”. He calls on councils to “stop subsidising landlords’ bad practices and focus on the housing needs and demands of disabled people”. 

For Ali, it is a deeply personal battle and one which will continue to haunt him. His son’s childhood has been marred. “It is horrific,” Ali says. “I battle with my mental health, specifically regarding the safety and security of my son. He is someone who cannot speak, so I am literally his voice. 

“He just needs a home that won’t hurt him. It is as simple as that. We just want our homes not to hurt us. We want to open doors that aren’t so heavy that our spine hurts. We want to be able to use our wheelchair inside our home freely without hurting our fingers when we’re turning corners. These seem like things that should happen. But it’s always a battle.”

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