Shelter stories: The human impact of poor housing and mental health

Shelter’s new research highlights the link between poor housing and mental health problems. We surveyed GPs and members of the public and found one in five adults in England has had a housing issue in the last five years that has negatively impacted their mental health. Hannah Lee is a Family, Health and Housing Advisor in east London and works with clients with mental and physical health challenges. She explains here how housing problems can impact on families’ well-being.  

“Sadly, Shelter’s recent research on the link between mental health and housing did not surprise me. I work as a Family, Health and Housing Advisor at Shelter, helping clients whose health and housing issues are exacerbating each other, and I see this link every day at first-hand.

Most of my clients are struggling parents, whose issues rarely fit neatly into one box – although sometimes their lives have to.

With the scarcity of affordable properties, cash-strapped local authorities are unable to provide temporary accommodation until absolutely necessary. Families holding eviction notices have to wait for the bailiffs to come, and feel unsure whether emergency accommodation will be provided and where it may be.  The uncertainty can be crippling; “what if they won’t help us, where will we go then?”

When accommodation has been secured, the location can be another worry; “Where will they send us?”, “how will we get there?”, “will my kids have to change schools?”. Questions left unanswered until the day of eviction, when they leave their homes, children, suitcases and lives in tow.

Many of my clients have been living in temporary accommodation for years, with the insecurity permeating all aspects of their lives; they feel stuck and depressed, unable to make plans – their whole lives on hold. They’re apprehensive about transferring their health services or their children’s schools to their new area, for fear of having to move again.

Almost all of the families I work with live in overcrowded conditions. Parents wipe away tears as they tell me of three children to a bed, five people to a room, families on top of each other with no room to breathe.

One mother shoes me photos of the sole corner she has in her flat for storage, boxes and clothes are piled so high she fears they will fall onto her baby when he learns to walk. As she talks, it seems she sees the pile is a metaphor for her fragile mental health; challenges ever building and on the brink of collapse.

Another tells me of her teenage son, who has to do his homework in the bathroom as this is the only place he can get five minutes on his own. He shares a bed with his younger brother, who can’t sleep through the night. He is exhausted at school, unable to concentrate on his classes, and his grades are slipping. He had hoped to study medicine but she can’t see this happening now, with their situation as it is. She worries constantly for his future, wondering if these years spent in temporary accommodation will have hindered his path in life.

Rent increases and benefit caps render too many families’ homes unaffordable, and the pressure mounts as quickly as their arrears. The struggle to stay afloat is a constant battle, and their search for somewhere cheaper is marred with obstacles; they don’t have any money for rent in advance, they can’t find any lettings agents who accept tenants on housing benefit. When they do, the rent is far higher than the amount of housing benefit they can claim. If something affordable is found, it is miles away, and they will only let to people with a guarantor. How will they find a guarantor? It’s a fruitless task, and one that often yields only stress. The anxiety of looming eviction, can prove too much for some. “I just can’t cope”, is sadly, the phrase I hear more than any other.

All my clients want is somewhere safe and secure to unpack their boxes, before they topple.”