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Children’s Commissioner report highlights thousands of children growing up in homeless families 22/08/2019 Labelled as Scrutiny, Legislation, Tenants

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has published new research which shines a light on the thousands of children growing up in homeless families.


The report, " Bleak houses: Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England", reveals the reality of how some children are living in converted shipping containers and office blocks, and B&Bs, in cramped conditions, often miles away from their schools.


The report shows that while official statistics show 124,000 children in England living in temporary accommodation, this does not include the hidden homeless who are 'sofa-surfing', often in very cramped conditions. New analysis conducted for the Children's Commissioner for England estimates that in 2016/17 there were 92,000 children living in sofa-surfing families.


The Children's Commissioner's report publishes national estimates of the numbers of children living in temporary accommodation for extended periods, showing that the label "temporary" is sometimes anything but. This analysis suggests that in 2017 around 4 in 10 children in temporary accommodation - an estimated 51,000 children - had been there for at least 6 months. Furthermore, around 1 in 20 - an estimated 6,000 children - had been there for at least a year.


Further analysis conducted for the Children's Commissioner has found that an estimated 375,000 children are in households that have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.


The Children's Commissioner also warns that temporary accommodation is frequently not fit for children to live in. Due to the level of demand and shortage of accommodation, children are frequently spending years living in temporary housing while they wait for an offer of permanent accommodation. As a result of a shortage of good quality, self-contained temporary accommodation, many families are being placed in accommodation which is poor quality and too small.


The Children's Commissioner is particularly concerned about:


  • B&Bs:This type of housing is not self-contained and often the bathroom is shared with other residents in the building, along with the kitchen (if there are any cooking facilities at all). The other residents might be families, but might also be vulnerable adults, such as those with mental health or drug abuse problems, creating intimidating and potentially unsafe environments for children. Of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third had been there for more than 6 weeks, despite this being unlawful.
  • Office block conversions:A more recent development has been the conversion of former office blocks and warehouses into temporary accommodation under permitted development rights which bypass planning regulations and restrict the ability of local councils to object on the grounds of quality of accommodation. Some areas have become hotspots for conversions, in particular Harlow where more than half of all new homes being created are office block conversions. At least 13 office blocks have been converted, resulting in more than 1,000 individual flats. Many of the flats are small, single studios which do not come close to meeting national space standards. Some of the flats measure as little as 18 square metres and may be shared by a whole family, with parents and children living and sleeping in the same single room also containing their cooking facilities. There have also been areas suffering from crime and antisocial behaviour.
  • Shipping containers:Another recent development has been the repurposing of shipping containers for use as temporary accommodation. 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.


The report also shows how 23,000 families being housed in temporary accommodation in 2018 were living away from their home council area.


Children and families spoken with by the Children's Commissioner's Office talked about how moving away from an area can have a deeply disruptive impact on family life. For children, moving area might mean a new school, no longer being able to see their friends or go to the places they are used to. Travel costs might also increase as children have to travel further if they stay at the same school.


The risks associated with poor temporary accommodation can also reduce some of the most basic aspects of childhood such as a child's opportunity to play. A number of children and parents spoke about the cramped, overcrowded conditions (particularly in B&Bs where families often share one room), which leave little room for furniture and possessions, let alone space in which children could play.


Read the Children's Commissioners full report "Bleak houses: Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England".


ARCH Chief Executive John Bibby comments:


"The Children's Commissioners report highlights what everyone working with homeless families knows - that homelessness causes severe distress for those involved and for children in particular.


The Government acknowledge that the housing market is broken and the only long-term answer to the homeless crisis is to increase the supply of good quality social rented housing.


Councils want to play their part by delivering Theresa May's promise of a new generation of council housing. Whilst the recent removal of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap should enable a significant increase in council house building it is only "permission to borrow" and expected rent income will limit what councils can prudently borrow to build.


Treasury estimates suggest that lifting the HRA borrowing cap will deliver around 10,000 new homes a year which falls short of the number of council homes being sold each year under the Right to Buy. 


ARCH argues that the steps so far taken by Government to enable councils to build, although welcome, fall short of what is needed to create "a new generation of council housing"


It is therefore disappointing that little has been said so far about the need to invest in council housing in the various spending announcements made by the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson since coming into office.


We will be making the case for more investment in council housing in our submission to the recently announced Government spending round."

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