Cold comfort for homeless families

The weather is turning and the nights are drawing in.  It’s the time of year we begin to look forward to returning to a warm and comfortable home.

But there is cold comfort for the increasing number of families who have only one room in a B&B to return to.  Today’s homelessness statistics show that, while the overall number of households accepted as homeless has slightly dropped again this quarter, the number in B&B has increased to an 11 year high.

As Shelter’s 2013 investigation into families living in B&B illustrated, the strain of living in one room, and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with a steady stream of strangers can be intolerable. It can put relationships under severe stress and put bewildered children at risk of witnessing the fall-out of other peoples’ homelessness.  As the festive season looms, not being able to tell your children where they’ll be waking up on Christmas Day is a gut-wrenching prospect for any parent.

Sadly, living in a B&B room is just the start of it. The number of households placed in temporary accommodation in another council area is at the highest level since records began in 1998.  And a quarter of temporary accommodation is now out of area.


For children, this means not just the loss of a home, it means the loss of a neighbourhood, friends, playgrounds and familiar faces.  It means having to set off at 6 in the morning and standing at a succession of chilly bus stops in order to get to school – arriving for the school day already tired and hungry.  For households pushed to their financial limits, living ten or fifteen miles from school, family and friends requires a back-and-forth trek on expensive and often infrequent public transport – highlighted earlier this week by Sir Peter Hendy, head of Transport for London but even worse in rural areas.

So why is this happening?  Why is it that ordinary families can no longer find a home in our towns, cities and villages?  Why are councils having to spend so much on expensive B&Bs, and to source accommodation in areas outside their jurisdiction?

The answer lies in another aspect of the statistics:  loss of a private sector assured shorthold tenancy is now the cause of a third of all homelessness acceptances.  Private renting is now the only hope for many families in need of a home – and for councils attempting to assist them.  But rents remain shockingly high while wages are failing to keep pace.  For those having to turn to welfare payments to bridge the gap, the limits on Local Housing Allowance mean that fewer landlords are willing to let to claimants.  The days of ‘No DSS’ are back – despite councils offering sweeteners like ‘finders fees’ and deposit guarantees.

The statistics are clear that the end of a private tenancy is increasingly the cause of homelessness. What the stats can’t tell us is how many of these households have actually been homeless and had help from the council before.  Shelter’s advisers hear more and more stories of families trapped in a revolving door of short-term tenancies and homelessness.

As our summer investigation showed, in London increasing numbers of families are experiencing longer and longer stretches in temporary accommodation, never knowing how long they will be there, and unable to make long-term plans for themselves and their children.

And these statutory statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.  The number of households accepted as homeless – 52,270 in 2013/14 – are dwarfed by the 227,800 cases of homelessness prevention and relief dealt with outside the statutory framework, over half of which involved assistance to obtain alternative accommodation.

So what can be done?  We must build the homes that families need and can afford, particularly in London where the housing crisis is in epidemic proportions.  We must address the problems ordinary families face in finding a decent, affordable and stable family home to rent from a private landlord.  And, in the meantime, councils must continue to use their budgets to secure decent temporary accommodation for homeless families to avoid the use of B&Bs, and prevent families being shunted out of their own neighbourhoods.