No place like home

The lack of affordable homes, coupled with more frequent
relationship breakdowns, has led to a surge in the number of
homeless families. Sarah Wellard looks at what is being done to
remedy the situation.

There are about 80,000 families in England living in temporary
accommodation arranged by local authorities under homelessness
legislation, of whom 6,700 are living in bed and breakfast
accommodation and a similar number in hostels. These figures
exclude families in temporary accommodation not covered by
homelessness legislation, such as asylum seeker families and
families placed by social services.

Around a third of people are accepted as homeless when parents,
relatives or friends are no longer willing or able to accommodate
them and a further quarter following relationship breakdown. Some
15 per cent of families become homeless after living in private
rented accommodation, and 2 per cent after mortgage arrears.

In 2001, 53,000 homes were sold under right-to-buy but only
18,000 affordable homes were built. In London, 11,000 council homes
were sold. Only 3,000 were built.

Not only key workers in London and the South East are struggling
to find somewhere to live. One of the less publicised aspects of
the overheated housing market and the shortage of affordable
housing is the rise in the number of families without a permanent
home. Last year there were 78,620 families living in temporary
accommodation, an all-time high. Many more are not included in the
official statistics because they have placed themselves in
temporary accommodation, are asylum seekers or are judged to be
intentionally homeless.

Stephanie Mullen, project worker at the NCH Open Door Family
Support Project in Salford, sees at first hand the severe strain
which living in temporary accommodation places on family
relationships. She says: “There’s a stigma about being in a
hostel and families don’t want people to know. Parents and
children become isolated from friends, family and the
neighbourhood. Usually the children are out of school and they are
with their parents all the time. They are all living in the same
room and fuses get short. Parents can’t even send the
children to their room and they end up shouting at them.”

Families may feel unsafe because hostels and bed and breakfast
accommodation are often shared with people who have drug or alcohol
problems. Mullen says: “Families would rather hang around
Tesco’s all day or walk the streets than be in the hostel.
They try to stay out all day and only use it as a place to sleep at

Policy changes to be implemented over the next 12 months are
aimed at easing the difficulties faced by homeless families. Under
the Homelessness Act 2002 families assessed to be unintentionally
homeless will have priority in social housing allocations,
reversing changes made by the Conservative government. Barbara
Roche, minister for social exclusion, has also announced an extra
£250m to support families in temporary accommodation and
pledged that by 2004 councils will no longer be allowed to use bed
and breakfast accommodation to house homeless families – generally
regarded as the worst form of temporary accommodation. The only
exception will be in emergencies and then for a maximum of six

John Reacroft, secretary of the London Homeless Children and
Families Projects Network, welcomes the move but says that fewer
than half of families in B&Bs will be covered. “It only
includes families classed as in priority need,” he says. “Some of
the worst B&Bs are full of asylum seekers. No asylum seeker
family or family placed by social services will be re-housed.”

Reacroft also points out that the pledge does not cover
accommodation which is local authority-owned. He points out that
B&Bs are defined as non-self-contained private sector
accommodation. Those owned by councils are not counted as B&Bs.
Some London councils own large buildings where families are placed
in similar conditions to B&Bs, with one family to a room.

As well as chairing the London network, Reacroft is manager of
Barnardo’s Families in Temporary Accommodation project which
provides support to families in four London boroughs. The project
offers welfare rights advice and family activities.

The rationale behind the work is to support parents, enabling
them to create a better childhood experience for their children. By
doing this, says Reacroft, “we help alleviate the social exclusion
and people feel better about themselves”. He cites the example of a
woman with an eight-year-old daughter who came to the project after
her flat, which she had owned, was burned down. “She was very
depressed. She didn’t feel safe in the hostel. She
didn’t want her daughter to use the bath because of who else
was sharing it. We gave her practical help and she felt she could
cope a lot better.” Her daughter also began to flourish.

The Barnardo’s project has been running for 10 years and
is entirely voluntarily funded. However, service planners are
increasingly looking to the Children’s Fund to finance work
targeted at homeless families. In Newcastle for example, the
voluntary organisation Children North East runs a project for
families who have been temporarily housed on a rundown estate.
Shirley Chambers, Children’s Fund programme manager for the
city, explains that the idea for the service came out of
consultation with the local community and agencies working in the
area. The project runs an after-school club for children and
provides outreach support for parents, including helping them
settle if they are offered permanent accommodation.

Chambers says: “People who have been homeless find it hard to
get back into settled accommodation. Families may be sent anywhere
in the city where they don’t know anyone. Providing a
befriending service after they move on means they can settle and
get on with their lives.”

Reacroft sees little evidence of the so-called “revolving door”
of homelessness. “We see very few families who have brought it on
themselves. The people we work with are homeless for all sorts of
reasons. The real issue is that there just aren’t enough
homes families can afford.”

How homelessness affects children

Research published by the charity Shelter highlights the impact
of homelessness on all aspects of children’s lives. Their
physical and emotional health may suffer through living in damp,
cold, dirty and overcrowded conditions with shared and inadequate
cooking facilities and bathrooms. Being homeless also has a major
impact on children’s education. Families reported children
being out of school, having to change school or making long
journeys. Children often fall behind with their work and have
difficulties finding somewhere to do their homework. Many lose
friendships and are bullied by other children.

One mother said: “If any of the children woke up while I was
gone they’d be on tenterhooks the whole time, waiting for me
to come back. They were insecure about whether I would come back. I
suppose with a change as big as losing your home, you could lose
one of your parents as well.”

According to a father of a four-year-old boy “He did things like
refusing to go to school, sometimes crying all the way to school,
not wanting to go back to the hostel… It stopped a few days after
we left.”

Source: Shelter, Where’s Home? Children and Homelessness
in Bristol, Shelter, 2002.

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