When the housing crisis falls on our most vulnerable children

Caring for a sick child is enough for any family to have to cope with. But my recent visit to Great Ormond Street Hospital highlighted how some families are having to contend with a devastating combination of ill-health requiring, hospital care, and issues such as homelessness, poor conditions and overcrowding.

Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH for short) is one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals. Social workers at the hospital told me how housing is fast becoming a top issue for their families – and one that they are encountering all too often. Above all, I heard how poor housing conditions – like damp, mould and overcrowding – are increasingly stopping doctors sending children home to live with their families.

‘Bed-blocking’ – a crude term that refers to patients who no longer need to be in hospital, but can’t be sent home – is thought to be costing the NHS £900 million a year. A recent report suggested that 1 in 10 hospital beds are taken by someone who is medically fit to be released. It is commonly associated with elderly patients, and a lack local care to support people when they leave hospital. But there is clearly a link between bed-blocking and families living in unsuitable housing.

It’s no surprise that doctors are facing the challenge of not being able to discharge their patients because of poor housing conditions. A third of homes in the private rented sector are not of a decent standard, and 6 in 10 renters have experienced either mould, damp, electrical hazards, animal infestations or gas leaks in the last year. The private rented sector is home to a growing number of families – 1.5 million at the last count – none of whom should have to live in poor housing. But this is an even greater issue if you’re caring for a sick child.

It’s not just poor conditions that lead to bed-blocking. A shortage of the right sort of housing means that patients with specialist requirements can’t be sent home.
Private rented housing is not designed to meet specific needs, like those that arise from receiving hospital care. As an example, I heard of cases where patients leaving GOSH required wheel chair access. Something as simple as a family’s flat not being on ground floor can mean that accommodation isn’t suitable. And it means keeping a patient in hospital for longer until the right sort of housing becomes available that meets their needs. But a shortage of social housing means this can be a long (and costly) wait.

My visit to GOSH was also a vivid reminder that homelessness can happen to anyone. Something like the sudden need for hospital treatment – and the disruption it causes to the wider family – can be it all it takes to force a family into homelessness.

I heard of cases where parents suddenly had to give up their job to care for a sick child. With rents so high, this can be all it takes to start to fall into debt with your landlord, putting people at risk of eviction and homelessness. In some cases a parent can be forced to share a hospital cubicle with their child for months on end. There are no extra beds, so this means sleeping in a chair or a fold-out bed as the hospital while the family is homeless.

And sometimes families working with GOSH are being let down by their local council. I spoke to Lucy, whose son was born with breathing difficulties that required specialist care from GOSH. At the same time, Lucy was going through homelessness, and was constantly being moved by her council across different parts of East London. Shortly after giving birth her council moved her to a flat in on the South coast, with no explanation and no support. That’s a 5 hour round trip that Lucy had to make on a weekly basis. But it was crucial so that her son received the care he needed.

These are quite specific examples, but the likes of which we’re hearing of all too often at Shelter. My visit to Great Ormond Street helped reinforced some important points in my mind:

Firstly, homelessness and bad housing aren’t isolated issues. They effect other services, some of which, like the NHS, are already under considerable strain.

Secondly, homelessness can happen to anyone. I was amazed by how many families were plunged into housing crisis as a result of one of their children developing a long-term condition.

Thirdly, a year after a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the issue, local councils are still falling short in their duty to provide suitable housing, even to the most vulnerable of homeless families. For example, I heard several cases of families being moved far away from GOSH, despite one of their children receiving routine, specialist care.

The good news is that if you’re affected by any of these issues, then you’re not alone. Our advice line is open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. We urge you to get in contact on 0808 800 4444, or by visiting our online advice pages.