Bleak house, bleak future
The statutory framework for how councils should support homeless children is good, but the overall housing and welfare system and council cuts risk failure to make it a reality, says Enver Solomon
The shocking findings of the Children’s Commissioner’s report, Bleak houses: Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England, didn’t come as a surprise to us. The commissioner’s report says some 62,000 homeless families are living in temporary accommodation (TA) in England, including 124,000 children. These numbers belie the scale of the problem – official figures don’t include sofa surfing families or children housed in TA by children’s services rather than housing departments. Families who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status are especially vulnerable to homelessness. Increasing reports of children living in bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation, former shipping containers and converted office blocks, and even tents and caravan parks, represent an absolute failure to uphold children’s basic rights to decent housing and safety and security. The commissioner’s report echoes our own findings from working with children and young people. For many years, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), part of Just for Kids Law, has been documenting the experiences of children housed in unsafe and unsuitable TA.
In our most recent report on the state of children’s rights in England we highlight how local authorities continue to break the law by accommodating children in B&Bs for much longer than the six-week legal limit. Temporary accommodation is often anything but temporary, with families living in precarious housing for months or even years – or being moved multiple times. The right to adequate housing is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (which the UK government ratified in 1991) and other human rights treaties that the government is party to. But the young activists from our Change it! project (a group of children who campaign on housing) have described living in overcrowded, dirty and dilapidated places where they felt at risk, with no room to study or play, where families struggled to prepare food, and where kitchen and bathrooms were shared with strangers with drug and alcohol problems. Unsurprisingly, such living conditions affected their wellbeing and mental health and had a detrimental impact on their education. Their report, It’s like being in prison: Children speak out on homelessness, echoes the experiences of homeless families documented in the commissioner’s report. Shockingly, council-owned B&Bs and other hotelstyle accommodation are not subject to the six-week maximum limit. In December 2018, we made freedom of information requests to 353 local authorities.
The limited responses we received revealed 1,641 families with children were held in this type of accommodation in 2017, with almost two thirds (1,056) for longer than six weeks. The true figure is likely to be much higher. The code of guidance for local authorities on homelessness states that B&B accommodation is never suitable for 16 and 17-year-olds, even on an emergency basis. Despite this, through our casework we see young people in particularly vulnerable situations – care leavers and looked after children living independently – not getting the statutory support they are entitled to and being turned away or illegally housed in B&Bs. The current crisis in local authority funding means authorities are often unable to discharge their statutory duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the Children Act 1989.
Time and again our youth advocates fight to get local authorities to give young people the support to which they are entitled. In many ways, the statutory framework setting out how local authorities should support children and young people facing homelessness is good. But the tragedy is that the overall housing and welfare system, combined with councils being crippled by funding cuts, is failing to make it a reality. We will continue to hold government to account for failures to uphold the rights of children and young people and highlight the urgent need for more social housing, a welfare system fit for purpose, and policy change to ensure children and young people are not housed in accommodation that causes harm.