Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home”, according to the old song. That chimes with the feelings of most of us fortunate enough to have a place to call home. But for people who are homeless and without even the most basic of places to call their own, there is no such haven from outside pressures.
These families face a multitude of other problems too, such as accessing health care, work and education. For homeless families there is also the potentially long-term damaging impact on the development of their children, who are forced to spend long periods of time in cramped and unsuitable conditions with few opportunities to play and little chance of finding a quiet corner to do homework.
So what is the extent of the problem, and what is being done to help homeless families to get back on track?
Government statistics show that 101,070 households in England, many of them families with children, are officially defined as homeless and forced to live in temporary homes.
Since April 2004, local authorities have been obliged to ensure that no homeless families with children will be housed in bed and breakfast accommodation for longer than six weeks.
So many end up in homes on long-term leases from private landlords. Housing Associations lease and manage these and councils allocate people with housing needs to properties. Most are funded by housing benefit and many rents are very high. The council funds the difference for homeless people who are unemployed. But those in work must pay the extra, leaving many people unable to seek work and trapped in poor housing.
Four years ago, Leicester Council set up its family support service to support homeless families and work with them to ensure they have the skills to live independently, or semi-independently. Four family support workers, one manager and one assistant manager are based at Border House, a direct access hostel that provides emergency, temporary accommodation for homeless families. They provide immediate help to families in the project and to those based in the dispersed accommodation on the neighbouring estate. There are also outreach services for families who have moved on to live in semi-supportive or independent accommodation.
The team members have individual specialisms, such as domestic violence or drug and alcohol dependency, and each worker has a caseload of up to 20. They assess the families’ needs and work out individual support plans. The team tries to keep the children at their original school, where feasible, with the help of a bus pass or taxi. If that is not possible, they are placed in new schools once they arrive at the hostel, and a learning mentor based at the hostel supports them.
There are groups for parents and children to keep them occupied and improve their skills. Interpreters are on hand for families where English is not their first language. Importantly, there is access to primary mental health care for children and adults too, with a three-month temporary registration.
Most families who go to the hostel have fled domestic violence and are cut off from all their networks, says Panos Vostanis, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Leicester University and honorary consultant director of the Greenwood Institute of Child Health. “The family support service tries to unravel the problems that go with this – family breakdowns, child protection, being out of school.”
Vostanis believes that, without the help of a project like this, families tend to go into a hostel where no one knows their names, are given help with housing, and then they move on – unsupported – to another part of the country. In the process, they fall through the links between housing and social services and become trapped in a downward spiral outside all the supportive networks.
He praises the approach taken in Leicester of following the homeless families into the community after they have been rehoused to ensure they are properly supported to stay in their own homes.
One measure of the project’s success is that few families reappear in the hostels once they have been rehoused, says family support service manager Jacqui Francis. “Another is that we have feedback from all the other services that the children are happy in school,” she adds.
‹ 101,070 households in England, many of them families with children, are officially defined as homeless and forced to live in temporary homes.
‹ 46,500 of these homeless households are in private sector-leased temporary accommodation. More than four out of five of these have dependent children and /or are expecting a child.
‹ Homelessness charity Shelter estimates the UK needs an extra 55,000 extra social homes a year over and above current levels to meet newly arising needs.
‹ London has the highest proportion of homeless people, with 62,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation.
‹ Homelessness in remote rural areas in England increased by nearly 30% between 1999/2000 and 2002-3, an increase almost 50% higher than in urban areas.
Jacqui Francis joined Leicester Council’s family support service as manager three months ago. She explains the team’s holistic approach to helping homeless families straighten out their lives:
“When the families with children come into the hostel they are referred to the family support team. A family support worker visits the family within four days, making sure they are settled in and have everything they need. After talking to the family they write a support plan to ensure that their needs are met during their stay.
The children are our priority. We do all we can to ensure they remain at school. However, if they are not attending school for any reason, they can access education sessions every morning in the hostel. The staff who run the sessions liaise with the schools to ensure they meet the curriculum.
There are lots of facilities for children in the hostel including breakfast clubs, crèches, play sessions and a youth club, as well as study support for the older children. We also have support groups for parents on subjects such as behaviour management, stress and baby massage.
Our main focus is making sure that the families have access to relevant health care, such as being registered with a doctor, and that the children are up to date with their immunisations. And mental health is a big concern. We can fast track psychiatric assessments for both adults and children if we feel they’re needed.
Among all this chaos we want children to be happy and to make sure they don’t look back on this as an unhappy time. It’s about helping to straighten their lives out, seeing them move into their own tenancy – and seeing them stay there.
We don’t know everything here, but we do have contacts and, a lot of the time, we can get things moving very quickly.”