Room for improvement

Thousands of homeless families are being forced
to live in single rooms in bed and breakfast hotels at huge expense. Rachel
Downey reports on how the conditions test their mental health to the limit.

Home for the Al-ali family is one room in a bed
and breakfast hotel in north London. Nassier, his wife Ikhlas, 10-year-old
Zeinam, seven-year-old Haydar and four-year-old Husam live in a high-ceilinged
room which contains four beds, a sofa, an armchair, a sink, and two wardrobes.
One radiator running just two hours a day fails to make any impact on the cold.
Water seeps through windows, the ceiling and the large pipe running the length
of one wall.

The Al-alis are regarded as lucky by many as
they do not have to share bathroom facilities. Instead, they have a shower and
lavatory partitioned from their room by flimsy walls. The condensation is
severe and the extractor fan switches off as soon as the door closes instead of
remaining on to remove the steam. It smells and there are black spots covering
the walls. Downstairs is a kitchen that they share with other residents. A
window to a garden area serves as the fire exit but the iron grill is
padlocked. The parents have tried to make some privacy for themselves by using
the wardrobes as a screen separating their bed from the children’s but these
are not large enough to form a barrier.

There is nowhere for the children to dress so
they take it in turns to go behind the wardrobes. A spring sticking out of one
of the beds cut Husam’s face, just missing his eye. “Everything is broken,”
says Zeinam. Homework has to be done on the floor. “There’s no space for our
toys,” says Haydar. “We cannot play here – we are all squeezed,” adds Zeinam.
“We do nothing – just watch TV. I cannot read here.”

The children cannot sleep and are always tired.
There is constant noise in the corridors as residents use them as another space
for their children to play. Haydar’s bed keeps collapsing. “It’s not nice,”
says Haydar, “because if you live in one room sometimes you get a bit squeezy
and my brother cannot sleep. There’s no hiding place for hide and seek and we
are not allowed to hide in the closet.”

Nassier admits he feels under pressure and
takes it out on the children. “I get depressed. My wife is getting angry. We
control ourselves sometimes but sometimes we lose control.”

The family was evicted from their privately rented
flat and forced to seek help from the local homeless unit. They have been told
they will have to stay in the one room for a minimum of six months and up to
two years. This is the average length of time homeless families stay in B&B
hotels, according to Shelia Laslett-O’Brien, who manages the Bayswater Families
Centre in central London, run by children’s charity NCH. And it is this
uncertainty and insecurity that intensifies the stress they feel.

“It is a terrifying experience for them to be
in a B&B hotel. It is not a normal existence and it creates great anxiety
as they do not know how long they are going to be there. Most of the families
we see are suffering from depression,” she says. “The longer people are in

breakfast accommodation, the more depressed
they get. When they arrive, all they have is the address of the hotel. They are
very anxious – about their housing, money, their physical health and their
children. The mothers become very depressed and the children become very
hyperactive and angry. They are restless. Their school performance is very
poor. The parents cannot have the TV on because the children are trying to
sleep. They become very frustrated and start hitting their children.”

Her colleague housing adviser Keith Hall, who
is seconded by housing charity Shelter to the centre, agrees. The physical
surroundings are grim. But it is the psychological effect of living in
insecure, cramped and often substandard accommodation which affects the mental
health of the parents. “Practically all of the families I see are on
anti-depressants or are seeing counsellors.”

The stress cannot but have an impact on their
children’s mental health. “Parents find it difficult and hard to cope but
children find it more difficult,” as Hall puts it. “Parents are depressed and
that is instilled in their children.”

The centre provides counselling, a wide range
of services including a specialist service for refugee children with mental
health problems. It also sets up further psychotherapy for those who need it.

According to Shelter, living in B&B
accommodation has negative effects on the health and well-being of children,
including a high prevalence of infectious respiratory and gastrointestinal
diseases, and impaired development. Education suffers: living in one room makes
it difficult to do homework. Moving suddenly from one area to the next destroys
any continuity of schooling. And families living in temporary accommodation
have to struggle to get their children into school in the first place. “It
totally disrupts their education,” says Hall.

About half the families the centre sees are
living in B&B hotels, the others are in temporary accommodation provided by
London local authorities. Just under 50 per cent are refugees. Primarily it is
London boroughs and a couple of authorities in the south east of England that
use B&B accommodation.

The statistics are stark. A record number of
people are being housed in temporary accommodation in England, 75,320 as of two
months ago, and 11,340 are in B&B as of the middle of September – a 25 per
cent increase on the same period last year. The figure for December 2000 of
nearly 10,000 was almost double that of 1993. Shelter estimates that more than
100,000 children are officially homeless.

Hall argues that housing homeless families in
B&B accommodation should only be used in exceptional circumstances and then
only for a short period of time. Using B&Bs is hugely expensive for local
authorities and that money would be better spent renovating empty council
properties for homeless families. A room in a B&B costs £300-£400 a week.

Moving homeless families around within London
or in some cases to the south east coast is disastrous, Hall says. Helen Dent,
chief executive of the Family Welfare Association, agrees. “Do these families
want to move out of London where all their networks are?” she says. “For many
it is second best.”

Families living in temporary accommodation are
the hidden homeless – and Dent says many are unknown to social services, so are
missing out on crucial services. There are no formal mechanisms whereby housing
staff tell social services colleagues that homeless families are being placed
in temporary accommodation, whether dingy hotels or empty flats, which are
often as bad and can be even worse. “They are getting lost. Homeless families
are not a priority for social services because they are more interested in
child protection. And we have lost track about how important arguing for
housing really is.”

But these are children in need. The Children
Act 1989 specifically states that all children in homeless families are defined
as children in need. Yet there is no system for keeping tabs on them. “Local
authorities should be taking their responsibilities towards families who are
homeless more seriously,” says Dent. “These are clearly children in need but,
on the other hand, social services frankly are only dealing with child

She suggests improved liaison between
authorities and within authorities to ensure that children are on the caseload
list. She has no hesitation in placing children living in temporary
accommodation on the child protection register but says this is unnecessary. A
caseload list is sufficient.

For the Al-alis the future is uncertain. The
government’s new B&B unit, headed by Ashley Horsey, has been welcomed, but
whether or not it reduces their problems is uncertain. Eradicating homelessness
for families is essential if homeless families are to see an improvement in
their housing circumstances. That requires major changes to housing policy.

Over to you, Mr Horsey.

The way forward

Homeless charity Shelter has proposed a range
of solutions:

– Adopt an overall target and

action plan to reduce the number

of households in B&B.

– Increase the supply of

high-quality, temporary accommodation.

– Increase the leasing of private sector
accommodation by local authorities or housing associations to reduce reliance
on B&B hotels.

– Local authorities with high use

of B&B hotels should review their policies.

– Improve housing benefit arrangements for
homeless households in temporary accommodation.

– Improve grant regime for leased temporary

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