Thousands of children are growing up in office blocks, B&Bs, and even shipping containers, a shocking new report from the Children’s Commissioner for England reveals.
More than 210,000 children in England are estimated to be homeless – 124,000 officially homeless and living in temporary accommodation, plus around 90,000 children living in “sofa-surfing’ families”, according to the report. Officials believe the total could be even higher due to a lack of data on the number of children placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services.
In the “Bleak Houses” report commissioner Anne Longfield warns changes to planning regulations mean thousands of children are being housed in temporary accommodation that is frequently not fit for them to live in, dangerous due to drug dealers and prostitutes living nearby, and often far away from family, friends and their school.
Her report warns that a further 375,000 children in England are in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.
The label “temporary” is sometimes anything but: the analysis suggests that in 2017 around two in five children in temporary accommodation – an estimated 51,000 children – had been there for at least six months. Furthermore, around 1 in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year. 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.
Ms Longfield said she is particularly concerned about the recent development which has seen the “repurposing” of shipping containers for use as temporary accommodation. Often they are located on “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 instead.
‘They failed me in so many ways’
Lucy is in her early twenties. Her son Jake is 2. When she became homeless they were placed by her local authority in a converted office block far from home. Although this was considered an emergency placement, they were there for 11 months.
“They put me in a small room in an office block which had been converted into flats. It was in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. The cars and lorries would whizz round really fast. It was very noisy and it felt unsafe to walk to the shops,” Lucy said.
“There were a lot of people congregating at the entrance who didn’t live there and I felt unsafe. I was approached to buy drugs during the day on the way to the shops with my son.”
It took six months and a formal complaint before Lucy’s local authority completed its assessment and found that it had a duty to find the family a permanent home – but she was then placed on a waiting list. Lucy then had to submit yet another complaint in order to be moved back to her local area. This took a further three months.
Eventually Lucy was able to move back to her local area, where she was offered a self contained flat – up 3 flights of stairs with no lift. She still does not know when she and her son will be offered a permanent home, what it will be like or where it will be.
“They failed me in so many ways. The fact that they get away with it is so, so bad.”
Ms Longfield 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.”
‘Trapped by rents’
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.”
A Government spokesperson said: “No child should ever be without a roof over their head and we are working to ensure all families have a safe place to stay. If anyone believes they have been placed in unsuitable accommodation, we urge them to exercise their right to request a review.
“We have invested £1.2bn to tackle all types of homelessness, including funding a team of specialist advisors which has, in two years, helped local authorities to reduce the number of families in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks by 28 per cent.”
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