‘That’s when I first realised – and I no longer assume children have beds.’

In Britain in 2015, teachers feel that it’s no longer possible to assume that every child has a bed to sleep in, let alone a safe and secure home to live in. We spoke to teachers and learning mentors in London schools, and the stories they shared shone a light on the consequences of the housing crisis. One told us:

‘One boy [with poor attendance], I was asking him where he lived – and he was so vague. He drew one room, sparse furniture. Everything was in one room. I said “Have you missed anything?” He said “No.” And I said, “But where is your bed?” And he looked at me and he said “I don’t have a bed, I sleep there,” and there was this dot on the page where he was at night. That’s when I first realised – and I no longer assume children have beds.

Homelessness in Britain is on the rise. And this includes an increasing number of children who do not have a stable home to call their own. This Christmas over 100,000 children will be homeless. To understand what this means for the children behind the figures, Shelter conducted research with twenty homeless families. We also spoke with six teachers and learning mentors in particularly badly affected schools.

Insight from school workers is invaluable – removed from the immediate situation, but uniquely able to see the impact of homelessness on the child involved. The teachers we spoke to don’t represent the experience in all schools. But they do offer a unique perspective on what some children are going through as a result of our housing crisis.

They told us about the type of places families were living in, and the impact of homelessness on the children themselves. Councils have a duty to find children somewhere to sleep. But increasingly councils are having to house families in one room of a shared property just to keep them off the streets. Teachers reported that many children were struggling with severe tiredness, whether due to poor quality and disturbed sleep, or simply having to get up early to make the longer journey to school. This had knock-on effects on behaviour, punctuality and attendance. Children would appear restless, irritable, and distracted in lessons. Others were extremely anxious about their situation. Despite parents doing their best to keep their worries from their children, children would pick up that something was wrong.

‘I’ve had experience of children trying to take on the burden and responsibility of it. They want to please Mum because she’s so stressed. They know too much. They can talk to you from a young age about their mum’s depression. They have to look after Mum… actually they’re too young to be having anxiety around finance and [running] a household.’

Secondly, staff reported that these schools are becoming a support service. They talked about the impact on school resources. Schools provided food, equipment for doing homework, and second-hand uniform. All of this costs money, and they spoke of the difficulties of funding such measures, especially if the children involved weren’t eligible for extra support, as their parents were working.

In addition, learning mentors listened to children’s worries, taught them coping strategies – and also just gave them the time to play and relax. Children saw schools as a place of security and predictability while their home environment was in turmoil. Children relied on this to the extent that some even became distressed at the prospect of weekends and holidays.

‘I’ve had children who don’t want it to be the weekend. I’ve had children who are really devastated when school holidays come. It’s such a contrast with other children.’

Homelessness also affected other children. Many of the school workers had seen children forced to move schools due to their housing situation. This caused great distress to children left behind, who struggled to understand what was going on, and why their friend had gone away. And for the children moved, it meant they lost their last connection with stability and normality. Learning mentors spoke of children having to drop out of extra-curricular activities like kung fu or the school play, and friendships being broken by homelessness.

‘It was like mass hysteria out in the playground [when a family were saying goodbye] … the older sister who should be in year 6 was just bereft.  So they departed mid-morning and then there was a group of year 6 girls sobbing in the medical room.’

Finally, it was interesting that all of the mentors felt this was a new phenomenon – although they had previously seen children made homeless by eviction due to rent arrears or anti-social behaviour, they were increasingly seeing families made homeless for reasons well beyond their control. They spoke of landlords evicting in order to either sell their property, or to charge prohibitively higher rents. They saw the demographics of their area changing quickly – and that before long, even more families would be priced out of their own homes.

‘It’s really increased because, a couple of years ago, an eviction was if the family hadn’t been paying the rent, this is a new thing. This is where the housing stock is being depleted from that group of families. These are some of the people that work as cleaners, that work in coffee shops, you know, where are they going to live? Security guards. Where are these people meant to be living to service the needs of London?’

Increasingly, it’s children who are bearing the brunt of the housing crisis. Schools and local authorities are doing their best to provide help and assistance – although it’s clear to see they’re overstretched and underfunded. Services such as those provided by Shelter are vital too – and we need your help, to help more families going through homelessness.

But in the long run? The only way to truly fix the problem is to build the affordable homes that these families so desperately need.

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