The Change it! campaign, supported by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), is publishing new research into the lives of homeless children growing up in temporary accommodation. In this guest blog, Maria Stephens, Participation Manager at CRAE, writes about some of the harrowing stories that arose from the research – and about what might be driving the problem.
‘I’ve given up hope’
‘Living in B&B is like serving a prison sentence; I’ve almost given up hope. I’m 14 and my sister is 11 and we have to share a bed.’ says Michael, age 14.
It’s shocking to hear a child compare the place they call home with life inside a prison. What’s even more alarming is that Michael’s experience is not unique. A child’s home should be somewhere they can grow, develop and feel safe – yet thousands of homeless children in England are growing up in unsuitable, unsafe bed and breakfasts (B&Bs).
The law states that children in homeless families should only be placed in B&Bs for up to six weeks. But last year numbers of homeless households with children placed in B&Bs rose by 10% and are now 250% higher than in 2009. A total of 2,050 households with children or headed by a child were housed in B&Bs at the end of 2017, and of these nearly 45% (900) stayed longer than six weeks. Children in care aged 16 and 17 should never be housed in B&Bs, even in an emergency. Yet recent Freedom of Information requests found that 40% of local authorities confirmed rare or occasional use of B&Bs to house teenagers of that age, and 30% reported increased use of this type of accommodation.
The real faces of B&B temporary accommodation
Over the last two years, I’ve been working with an inspiring group of children and young people – many of whom have lived experience of growing up in a B&Bs. Together, we run Change It!, a campaign to stop children being housed illegally in B&Bs for extended periods. Our new report, ‘Children speak out on homelessness’, presents ground-breaking research with children – and reveals a disturbing picture of the degrading, filthy, conditions in which they’re living…
‘I saw blood on the sheet when we arrived, I pulled the sheet off and the mattress was covered in blood. After a few days, me and my dad started itching, we were getting bitten by bed bugs. We told the owner and he said we must’ve brought them in.’ Carl, 16
‘My little brother is disabled. The B&B had steps at the entrance but the wheelchair lift was broken. I had to carry him every day. We were there for six months when I was 16.’ Fowzia, now aged 19
‘It’s so cold at night. Sometimes I have to wear all my layers, including my jacket. There is no heating.’ Deanna, age 11
‘I felt at risk, constantly’
For children aged 16 and 17, living in this kind of accommodation also places them at risk of sexual exploitation…
‘I was in a B&B for 19 weeks when I was 16. I should have been in care. There were lads aged 17, and older men who visited for work or holiday. I was the only girl. I couldn’t imagine what the men I was living with would do if I walked in in my school uniform. I felt at risk constantly. One of the men grabbed my ass when he was drunk.’ Hannah, now aged 19
Adequate housing is a human right, recognised under international law including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is more than just a roof over one’s head, but ‘the right to live somewhere in security, peace, and dignity’. Living in B&Bs affect a child’s right to education, health, protection, play and nutrition. Extended periods in this kind of accommodation damage children’s mental, physical and emotional well-being. Children are regularly housed alongside adults who often have alcohol and drug problems, in areas with high levels of crime, and far away from school, friends, and family.
‘Other people living there drank alcohol, and sometimes they would be very loud. There was nowhere to study. It made me feel so stressed because I had to move again and again.’ Ellen, age 12
Welfare reform is a key driver of the growing numbers of homeless families, alongside a decline in social housing and spiralling unregulated private rents. Following its examination of the United Kingdom in 2016, the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child raised concern about the increase in homeless households with children, the number of homeless families staying in temporary accommodation, and the impact of welfare reform on children. In the same year, similar concerns were raised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The government must take urgent action to address these concerns, and ensure the safety and security of children is paramount when decisions are made about where to house them. Ellen, aged 12. perfectly sums up why: ‘If I could give the government a message, I would tell them living in B&B is causing bad things for children, self-harming, committing suicide, because children get really stressed when they have nowhere decent to live.‘