One of the most heart-breaking housing problems we encounter is mothers who are forced to make an impossible choice: to give up a secure social-rented home (one they may have waited years to be offered) or become homeless to protect their families from violence.
Youth violence, sometimes linked to exploitation by criminal gangs, is a now a major problem in many cities and towns. It’s particularly prevalent in London.
Last year, 30 teenagers were killed in London despite national lockdowns, the highest number since 2008. Teenagers made up a quarter of the capital’s 122 homicide victims, despite comprising only 8% of its population.
The threat of child criminal exploitation and serious violence shows no sign of abating. The Children’s Commissioner for England published a report in 2021 showing there were around 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation who had not been identified by services.
How is this linked to the housing emergency?
CJ was a bright and happy boy who loved to dance. He’d lived in temporary accommodation in various North London boroughs until finally, in 2011, his mother was offered a settled home by a housing association.
But this meant CJ, who’d been diagnosed with ADHD, started secondary school near his new home without his primary school friends. He found it difficult. By 2016, behaviour linked to his condition led to exclusion from school. He went to a pupil referral unit where he was exposed to influence from older boys. He later confided to his mother he’d been pressured into selling drugs and feared for his life.
His mother asked her landlord for an urgent move. As is usual, her landlord requested information from social services to inform an offer. But there were delays in this being received and confusion over the level of risk.
As an interim measure, CJ’s mother arranged for him to stay with extended family. She emailed social services:
“I would really appreciate if you looked at all the factors when speaking to housing, so they understand the greatness of this case…Every day my son is not with me pains me as a mother.”
She was offered temporary accommodation outside London but was worried another short-term move would unsettle CJ further. Six months later, while they were still waiting for a move, CJ was sitting with a group of teenagers in mid-afternoon when shots were fired. He was hit in the back of the head and died the following day, surrounded by his close and loving family.
The serious case review concluded there were a number of possible reasons why an offer of a suitable relocation property took so long, including the absence of timely and effective information sharing by professionals and the short supply of social housing.
CJ’s mother now campaigns to improve systemic failings, support families in similar situations and safeguard young people.
We work to help families in this situation
Our advisers and legal teams regularly help families in similar situations. People who have to apply as homeless and move to expensive, and otherwise unsuitable, temporary accommodation in order to be urgently rehoused.
In other cases, families are in this situation due to racial or religious harassment or threats of violence from a former partner.
They don’t want to surrender their secure social tenancy, aware that the destabilising effect of homeless accommodation will cause further disruption and trauma to their children. So they hope that their social landlord will urgently prioritise them for a move.
What’s the problem?
But there is no requirement for landlords to do so.
Even where the landlord is sympathetic, as with CJ’s case, requests for proof of risk can cause delays. Sometimes this proof is impossible to provide. Naturally, teenagers at risk from serious violence are very reluctant to give evidence to the police or social services until they know they’re safe.
It’s a Catch-22.
In other cases, the social landlord refuses an urgent transfer despite the clear risks (in one of our cases, a tenant was deemed ‘at moderate risk of homicide’).
Families get to a point where they’re forced to choose between returning to the secure and affordable home where they’re at serious risk or giving up the tenancy and remaining in insecure, unaffordable and expensive homeless accommodation, further destabilising children.
It’s a Hobson’s choice.
The upcoming parliamentary debate
This Tuesday 1 February, Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, will bring this heart-breaking issue to the attention of parliament, with a 10-Minute Rule Motion: Social Housing (Emergency Protection of Tenancy Rights).
Ms Hayes has been compelled to do this after one of her South London constituents had a very similar experience to CJ’s mother.
She moved her family to temporary accommodation but fell into rent arrears trying to cover the rent on both places, so was under pressure to surrender her social tenancy. It was only following her MP’s intervention that her landlord offered a new, permanent home in an area where they felt safe. But by then the destabilising effect on the family had already led to tragic consequences.
Ms Hayes believes that social housing tenants must have their tenancy rights protected in instances where they must move because of a threat to safety – and be prioritised for a move.
We also want to see something done about this.
Improvements to housing rights for families needing to escape violence must be viewed as a key part of safeguarding children and young people at risk of child criminal exploitation. Thanks to the work of Stella Creasy MP, Ministers have recently promised that the statutory homelessness guidance will be amended.
But we also need an adequate supply of social homes so offers can be made quickly. The government must invest in new, good quality and genuinely affordable social housing, so that every family has a safe place to call home.