Britain’s hidden homeless kids: how children are being failed by our broken housing system

Britain’s hidden homeless kids: how children are being failed by our broken housing system

‘Temporary accommodation is the worst thing, it’s like a workhouse.’

These are the words of Yaqub, one of three primary school-aged boys who feature in Channel 4’s recent ‘Dispatches’ show, entitled ‘Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Hidden Homeless Kids’.

Yaqub shares a bunk bed with his mum and younger sister in a hostel room in Luton. He knows he needs a home if he’s going to realise his dreams. Despite only being in Year Four, Yaqub has ambitions of becoming an engineer one day. But he’s held back by the day-to-day reality of life as one of Britain’s 120,000 homeless children.

Every child has a right to a childhood. Those precious early years of play, learning and imagination are vital to a child’s development and their life chances. It’s appalling that we have children as young as nine spending all day worrying about the cost of rent and their families being thrown out on the streets.

Biggest worry is housing costs

We hear from parents every day who are struggling to keep a roof over their children’s heads. Housing costs are almost every family’s biggest outgoing – and their biggest worry.

Without enough social homes that people on low incomes can afford, hundreds of thousands of families instead live in overcrowded rentals. There’s no space for their children to play or concentrate on their homework. And the constant threat of eviction hangs over their heads.

There are also thousands of families like Yaqub’s, who’ve been tipped into homelessness and are trapped in unsuitable emergency accommodation. Not just for a few weeks, but sometimes years at a time. No child should have to share a bathroom with strangers, eat from foodbank carrier bags on their bedroom floor or share a single bed with their parent or sibling.

Our broken housing system fails children across the country. Teachers tell us how homeless children and those living in bad housing suffer from hunger, tiredness, poor hygiene and absenteeism. There are children like Qasim, who features in the Dispatches show. He lives in overcrowded temporary accommodation, where he cannot get a good night’s sleep and is then him late for school. Qasim is only nine but worries that if he’s too tired to learn enough at school, he’ll never get a good job.

Homeless children hit hardest

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hurt children’s education through missed school days. Homeless children were hit hardest. Many don’t have a desk at which they can study. Others don’t have access to the internet in their temporary accommodation to join online classes. This harm may never be undone for the children whose families are still struggling.

Three young boys outside together in a playground
The boys playing together at school. Credit: Channel 4/True Vision TV.

Far too many children are unfairly held back because there aren’t enough social homes. They’re locked out of the affordable, stable homes that would allow them to grow and thrive. Like the third schoolboy who appears in ‘Dispatches’, Kai’s mum has been on the social housing waiting list for eight years. They are one of over a million families stuck on waiting lists, chasing too few social homes.

Councils that are already overwhelmed can barely cope with the number of people coming to them for housing help. Families who were just about surviving before the pandemic are under increasing pressure and may not be able to weather the storm ahead.

With food and energy prices soaring and the cut to the Universal Credit sinking in, we risk failing even more children if we don’t do something drastic about the cost of housing today.

Build social homes

The government’s £65 million rent relief fund for renters facing eviction is a vital lifeline for some. But it won’t protect every family at risk of homelessness this winter. We need more than just a sticking plaster to mend the gaping wound left by the housing emergency.

We owe it to Yaqub, Qasim, Kai and the many homeless children just like them to do everything we can to undo the damage inflicted by bad housing. Now is the time for the government to level up for the next generation and build the decent social homes that families really need today.

Watch Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches ‘Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Hidden Homeless Kids’’ online on All 4.