Government failing London’s homeless children

Ruth and her then 6-year-old daughter suddenly became homeless when their landlord evicted them from their London flat in 2012 to convert the property into a large house. Unable to find anything affordable within walking distance of her work and her daughter’s school, she sought help from her local council and was placed in temporary accommodation. Eight years later they have remained in ‘temporary’ accommodation, with the council moving them several times between various flats and hostels across London.

That’s eight years of sharing a bed, eating on the floor for lack of space for a table, getting cold air through the cracks in the walls, struggling to cope.

Ruth, whose full name I don’t use to protect her privacy, has worked this whole time, but told me she still couldn’t help but feel like she wasn’t providing for the needs of her child. She said the experience was like holding her breath for eight years. Her daughter, now 16, told me that her last happy memory was of the house she had when she was 6 years old.

A new report recently released by Human Rights Watch and Childhood Trust documents how the rights of children from families living in temporary accommodation are violated – rights to housing, education, health and play. We found that London’s children are growing up in substandard and uninhabitable conditions due to persistent political failures.

London currently has 86,450 children in temporary accommodation, experiencing some of the same failures of state support that Ruth and her daughter experienced. London has the highest child poverty rate of any English region, and the child poverty rate at least doubles when housing costs are taken into account in 26 of the 33 boroughs.

Housing has become increasingly unaffordable for low-income families, partly due to government measures such as freezing housing allowances for four years between 2016 and 2020, and again from 2021 families feeling squeezed as rents go up but the perks don’t.

If a family loses their home, local councils are required under English law to provide temporary accommodation until something more permanent is found. Over the past decade, the number of families living in temporary accommodation in England has increased by 65%, the majority in London.

The protections put in place in response to Covid-19, such as the eviction ban and the Universal Credit boost, have played a crucial role in keeping a roof over people’s heads as well as ensuring the right to health during the pandemic. However, with these protections now removed and with the rising cost of living, low-income families are in the midst of an uncertain winter.

A recent estimate found that more than 200,000 children living in privately rented homes are at risk of becoming homeless, with the family having received an eviction notice or being in arrears with rent.

Local authorities in London are under immense pressure to find suitable accommodation, and children who grow up in temporary accommodation suffer the consequences in crowded spaces, places where cold air seeps in or places with toxic mold is due to a lack of ventilation. The name “temporary accommodation” belies the way the state uses it as a long-term political solution, to the detriment of children’s rights.

New legally enforceable standards are desperately needed to define what constitutes safe, secure and decent housing for families in temporary accommodation. These standards should be drafted in consultation with local authorities, housing providers and residents. A similar effort is already underway in Scotland, with a standards framework drafted and a commitment from the Scottish Government to make the standards law.

It is also imperative that the government focus on moving families out of temporary housing into permanent housing. Quality social housing can provide stability for low-income people. However, government policies have drastically reduced the number of social housing units nationwide. The government must prioritize a sufficient supply of housing to meet current needs.

After eight years in ‘temporary’ accommodation, Ruth and her daughter finally moved into social housing in April 2020. I asked Ruth about the difference the last two years had made and she told me it was huge. Ruth said they felt like they were on a healing journey. Her daughter is also much better now: “She makes friends, and when we go to the park, she runs, she is happy. She suddenly seems free, like she’s that 6-year-old again.

About Franklin Bailey

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