One in every 100 children in England is homeless and living in temporary accommodation provided by the local council.
To put that in perspective, that’s over 120,000 kids spending the Christmas holidays in temporary accommodation.
I know what this feels like
I know only too well the unbearable pressure that living in temporary accommodation can put on children’s health, education and wellbeing. Because I lived it as a mum, with my then teenage son, for five long, hard years. And I see it every day in my work with other families still going through it.
That’s why, along with other experts by experience – a number of them still living in temporary accommodation – I’ve been steering a landmark piece of Shelter research. This research looks into the impact of temporary accommodation on families like ours. It’s been funded by Trust for London and The Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
We’re frustrated that so few people know what this form of hidden homelessness is like. Other parents often have no idea what we’re going through, even when our children are in the same nursery or class at school.
Our research was made possible because more than 800 families living in temporary accommodation throughout England, took time out of their often hellish days to tell us about their experiences. These families included 1,600 children. They wanted their voices to be heard.
Here are some of the worst problems we want to tell you about:
Our survey found that more than a third (35%) of parents in temporary accommodation say their children don’t have a bed of their own, so have to share a bed with another family member.
This can affect children differently depending on their age. Young children might not mind sharing a bed but find it difficult to get to sleep in hostel-style accommodation, with noise from other residents, and are easily disturbed. This leaves them tired and irritable. Some parents find distressed younger children wet the bed – which isn’t easy to deal with without your own washing machine! On the other hand, teenagers can be affected by the lack of privacy, space and their own bed: you’re not allowed to have your own furniture. And what teenage boy wants their friends to know they share the same room with their mum, let alone the same bed?
Our survey found almost half (45%) of school-age children have arrived at school tired, late or hungry as a result of living in temporary accommodation.
Mornings can be very difficult. Children wake tired from disturbed sleep. Hotel rooms rarely have facilities to store or cook food – not even a fridge to keep milk for cereal. And in hostels with shared bathrooms and kitchens, there are big problems when as many as ten families are all trying to get their children showered and given breakfast.
Then there’s the commute to school. Over a quarter of temporary accommodation is in another area. So families often have to set off for school very early in the morning, waiting in the dark and rain for a series of buses to get to school on time. The long commute home means children miss after-school clubs or intervention lessons.
Finally, the lack of internet in lots of temporary accommodation can really affect homework and study. When my teenage son told a teacher he had no wifi at home, they replied that everyone had wifi at home – they had no idea.
It’s upsetting, but not surprising. Our survey found one in four parents (26%) report their child or children being often unhappy or depressed as a result of living in temporary accommodation.
I knew of parents who worried about how their children would cope if they had to stay in the hostel environment much longer. Children are very conscious that they lack the most basic things that class-mates take for granted: a secure home, their own bedroom, space to play and study, being able to have friends over, internet, a private toilet, a kitchen they can wander into to raid the biscuit tin, a familiar neighbourhood where they feel safe.
Not knowing how long they’ll have to stay in the accommodation or where they’ll end up, and frequent short-notice moves to different temporary accommodation, are extremely unsettling and lead to anxiety.
Myself and my son went into the hostel with some existing mental health issues. Imagine having previously fled domestic violence, only to hear reminders of it through the thin adjoining walls of a hostel room. There were routine checks on your rooms by hostel staff, whether you were in or not, for health and safety reasons.
Our survey found more than one in four parents (28%) say their children are finding it hard to make or keep friends as a result of living in temporary accommodation.
School-age children, especially teenagers, can feel too ashamed to tell anyone their family is homeless and living in temporary accommodation. Some parents tell us their children pretend to their friends that they still live in their former home because of the stigma they feel.
It can also be difficult to hang out with friends because the temporary accommodation is so far away from school. Or because they’re unable to have friends over due to the lack of space, privacy or strict ‘no-visitor’ rules. What teenager wants to invite a friend to a room in a hostel where the whole family is crammed in and they can’t chat in private?
This can’t carry on
I felt grateful for our hostel room because (unlike some) it didn’t have infestations or damp. I felt grateful for the next accommodation, in a converted office, because it was in a neighbouring council area, so still near my support network. But, despite all this gratitude, my son continued to suffer.
He was 12 when we first became homeless. He spent the remainder of his secondary school life without internet at home, without a place to invite his friends back, without space for a desk and homework area and (a lot of the time) without a room of his own.
He didn’t get the school grades he was capable of. We can’t get those years back.
But we can stop it happening to other families.
What can you do to help
Along with other families living in temporary accommodation, I joined a Temporary Accommodation Action Group to fight for better standards, facilities and a better service from our accommodation provider.
I’m now an Involvement Officer, supporting other families to get their voices heard.
But families shouldn’t be homeless in the first place – or left stuck in damaging temporary accommodation for months and years at a time. They need a secure home.
Without urgent government action, thousands more families like mine will become homeless this winter as the lack of social housing, frozen local housing allowance and the cost of living crisis all take their toll.
Please support us to help families facing homelessness this winter holiday:
- Donate to help Shelter advise and support families in this situation
- Campaign by calling on the Prime Minister to take urgent action to protect people from homelessness this winter
Shelter has carried out the largest ever survey of homeless households living in temporary accommodation, funded by Trust for London and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Read our briefing to find out more about our findings.