On Monday we published new research on the rise in the number of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation outside of their home area. Over the next few days we’ll be discussing the findings in more detail.
As we set out, almost half of homeless households from London are now placed outside their home local authority. But reassuringly, most are moved to areas nearby (for example, in three quarters of cases, a neighbouring borough) and the vast majority are still within London. However a substantial proportion do require a household to uproot themselves to an entirely new, far away area.
But data alone doesn’t show us the impacts moves have.
For example, as one parent shared with us, even what looks on paper to be a short move can effectively sever ties. (In this case a move to a neighbouring borough, albeit out of London).
‘its forty minutes by bus from our house to the station here and the buses are once every hour. Then it’s an hour on the train to [terminus]. Then it’s another hour from there to my Mum’s. There and back is thirty pounds. Maybe once a month I can afford that… no not even that’
And the type of households that become homeless may be particularly affected by moving. Almost three quarters of statutory homeless households are families: Unlike the stereotypical young, transitory London renter, families have networks of support in their local area. They have health visitors, vaccination schedules, parent-teacher conferences and a band of friends and family who they have built up enough trust in and goodwill with to occasionally rely on to step in when a car breaks down, a child becomes unwell or a job interview comes up. Some could be in contact with multiple health and social services.
What do we know about the impact of an out of area move on homeless families?
Through the course of the project we spoke in detail with eight families who had experienced an out of area move. We combined this with a review of relevant literature. Our analysis is illustrative. But it confirms that even short moves can destabilise families. And badly managed moves can have devastating impacts.
Firstly, for some households, the effect was limited. It was a move, but one they were able to cope with:
It’s not where I was before, I don’t know why. But its fine as we can still go to my Mum’s from here.
But for others, it required them to remake their life in another place.
Families reported that the biggest impact was being far from friends and family. This left households isolated and had a number of knock on effects: Local networks (‘who you know’) are critical to finding job vacancies. They are an essential source of childcare. They help people link into formal support or help them navigate systems. Not having access to this made everything harder. As one mother (who was moved across the capital) shared with us:
I have to take the children with me wherever I go. To the doctors, to interviews, to the shops… It isn’t a luxury leaving your children with a friend or someone else you can trust.
And losing these social connections took a heavy emotional toll. Many of the households described how being away from family and friends left them feeling unable to cope.
It was a really, really difficult time. If you’re not strong, it’s very hard to not have quite dark thoughts. I was there in a room with three children. Completely on my own. I lost my mind at times.
Others were able to choose to spend time and money commuting back to where they were based before.
One family travelled back to a school in North London from South West London. They were eventually moved back to a neighbouring borough, but the journey to school was still long and tricky. For them though, this was the best option.
My son really struggles with (the death of his mother). He has behavioural issues… the teachers at his school give a lot of support… They know how he responds, they know what he needs. They’ve arranged the counselling. He’d lose all of that if I moved him… It’s hard on him.
But commuting like this had its own impacts. Children were tired, days were long and spent on buses. It adds another level of complication if you are living out of boxes and missing the basic facilities taken for granted by people who aren’t homeless.
The communal kitchen is closed when we leave… and by the time they get to school the breakfast club is over. It’s tiring. Before she was quite a calm child now she’s getting upset for nothing
Our interviews laid bare how for some households, a move to an area far away is not at all suitable.
One mother we spoke to had a new-born baby with a condition that needed treatment in a specialist London hospital. She clearly should not have been moved out of London and was offered a London home when an advocate got involved with her case.
Every week I had to travel three and half hours from the house to the hospital. It was a six-seven hour round journey with a sick baby. I never would have said ‘that’s ok’ had I known (where the accommodation was).’
We focused on understanding the everyday strains that moves cause. But out of area moves can have serious consequences. They have been cited as a factor in at least two serious case reviews. As one from last year described:
The family’s mobility is one of the most significant issues in this case… there is a gap in current arrangements for ensuring that health and children’s services are notified when children move across London Boroughs
Making moves work
It’s clear that out of area moves are becoming an everyday occurrence in the support provided to homeless families. As long as the move is suitable for the particular household, that’s Ok.
But councils across the country should consider the major effects that uprooting a family can have when assessing suitability, considering what support they can put in place to help families adjust to a move and ensuring that there is no danger of families falling through cracks in support.
In preparation for welfare cuts to come, we’re recommending all councils refer to best practice guidance on out of area moves that the national homelessness advice service has also published this week.
It’s clear that most councils are trying to keep families close to their home area. And as we will show later this week, this is despite incredible pressures. Ultimately, this issue won’t be resolved until councils have the resources required to help families in need. This means more affordable housing in the right parts of the country.