Homeless children often have to cope with a chaotic family life
and an absence of play opportunities, trips, and other sources of
enjoyment. Sylvia Shatwell listens to young people in temporary
Living in temporary accommodation can have devastating effects
on the well-being of children. Research has shown the negative
effects in terms of school attendance and educational attainment,
health and access to health services. These factors are compounded
by the trauma of sudden and often repeated moves and isolation.
While the support needs of homeless people without children have
been increasingly recognised, those of homeless families have
received much less attention. There has been a tendency in the past
to regard homeless families as simply being in need of
accommodation to resolve their problems.
One of the main tasks of the Leeds Homeless Families Project has
been to collect and record evidence about the impact of
homelessness on children.
To achieve this has involved getting to know children and
families and gaining their trust over time. Children and their
parents have talked openly about painful experiences, losses and
difficulties, and staff have witnessed at first hand the stresses
and frustrations faced by families living in temporary
accommodation and observed the effects of these on children of all
The views, opinions and experiences of the children and young
people were gathered from tape-recorded and written materials and
from my own recorded observations and some are presented here. The
key issues that emerged from consultations with children and young
• Loss of belongings, friends, family and a “normal”
• Many children have experienced or witnessed
• Disruption to education and involvement in after-school
• Lack of play and leisure activities for children and
• Anxiety about parents and about the future.
• Impact of depleted family budgets on many aspects of
children’s lives including clothing, transport to school,
leisure and holiday activities.
Trauma as normality
A striking observation was the matter of fact way in which
children talked about deeply disturbing experiences.
“I’ve been in a couple of hostels but my mum kept going
back to her boyfriend. On and off we’ve been here about three
months this time. We’ve not been in hostels all the time.
She’s gone back to her boyfriend and then he’s booted
us out” (boy aged 13).
“My dad had trouble with guns and that. Someone tried to shoot
him and they put a knife to his throat” (girl aged eight).
“My mum went to hospital after she’d been beaten up and
when she came out we didn’t have a house so we got sent to
Leeds” (boy aged nine).
“We should all think we’re lucky to live in a hostel
because if we didn’t have hostels we’d all be on the
streets” (girl aged 12).
“I was upset because I was the second to last to know. I
can’t say what happened but I was very upset over it” (girl
“We had to leave our dog behind” (girl aged eight).
“I don’t want my friends to come here. I don’t want
them to know where I live” (girl aged seven).
“There are times when I feel really mad. Once I pushed my mum on
the floor and I was going to hit her but I stopped myself. I
‘twocced’ a car once, but we didn’t really nick
it, it was already nicked” (boy aged 13).
“We were sleeping in the streets ‘cos I didn’t want
to sleep at my mum’s with him there. I went to sleep at my
mate’s but he had a fight with his mum and she kicked him
out, so we went out at night time and wandered around” (boy aged
One day Katy came to see me in the playroom She talked
about school and about the book her class is reading at the moment
– The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Katie is enjoying
the story and we talked about the characters. I later learned that
the family may have to move to another hostel following an incident
at the weekend. This would mean another school move for Katie.
Rebecca told me that she’d not been to school that morning
because her dad had been “carrying on”. When I asked her what she
meant she said that he’d been out drinking until the early
hours of the morning and she and her sisters had been up with her
mum, who was worried about what would happen when her partner
returned from the pub.
Rebecca is eight and is already aware of the strain that her
dad’s drinking and violence is having on her family.
“Sometimes I don’t go to school ’cos we sleep in”
(girl aged 7)
“I don’t go to school on Mondays ‘cos my mum has to
go and get her money” (boy aged 12)
“I go to Brownhill but I used to go to another school.
I’ve settled in and made some friends. Most of them are from
the hostel” (girl aged eight).
“I’ve not been to school for three months or something
like that ’cos we’ve been moving around and ’cos
I haven’t got a school uniform and ’cos of living far.
School don’t really know what’s going on ’cos I
haven’t rung them” (boy aged 13).
“There’s nothing to do here”
All of the children consulted, without exception, felt
that there were too few play or activities opportunities at their
hostels. Older children and teenagers felt that there was nothing
for them to do and that the scant activities provided were aimed
exclusively at young children.
Many children complained that they were “bored” and that
“there’s nothing to do here”. Many more asked repeatedly
“when’s the playroom open?” or told me that “it’s not
fair that we can’t go on the trips” or “there’s nothing
for the older kids to do”.
I observed a general air of boredom and listlessness among
children, hanging out in the courtyard, poking round in the scrubby
grass or kicking an illicit football over the wall.
While it is almost a cliché for children and young people
to complain of being bored, it is a very real experience for
children in temporary accommodation. Their choices are severely
restricted; their environment is impersonal and unfamiliar; their
parents lack the money, and often, due to their own distress, the
motivation to provide occupation for their children. As one
13-year-old girl puts it: “It’s different in here. At least
when you’re at home you’ve got your friends and your
things around you. Here there’s nothing. Absolutely
– This article is based on research undertaken by Sylvia
Shatwell for Leeds Homeless Families project, funded by Leeds
Full reports are available from Leeds Children’s Fund,
191-193 Chapeltown Road, Leeds LS7 4DG, telephone 0113 2626362.
Sylvia Shatwell wrote this as
development worker at Leeds Homeless Families Project. She
now works for Sure Start.
‘There should be more to do’
Children from Richmond Court and Nowell Court were asked what
services or support should be available for children. Included in
their answers were the following suggestions.
“A children’s keyworker so that they could talk about
children’s problems, how they’re feeling, living here
and things like that.”
“I think there should be more for us younger ones to do. I
don’t like doing washing and shopping with my mum”
“Maybe a computer so we can go on the Internet… more trips
out and tickets for the pantomime and stuff”.