There were 92,000 children living in sofa-surfing families in 2016-17, according to a report by the children's commissioner for England.
Official statistics show 124,000 children in England living in temporary accommodation, but Anne Longfield warns that this does not include the hidden homeless who are ‘sofa-surfing’, often in very cramped conditions.
As a result of a shortage of good quality, self-contained temporary accommodation, many families are being placed in accommodation which is poor quality and too small including B and B's, office block conversions and shipping containers.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks. Children have told us of the disruptive and at times frightening impact this can have on their lives. It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, or to sofa surf.
“It is essential that the government invests properly in a major house-building programme and that it sets itself a formal target to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation," she added.
The report states that the term “temporary” in temporary accommodation is sometimes anything but. The analysis suggests that in 2017 around 4 in 10 children in temporary accommodation – an estimated 51,000 children – had been there for at least six months and around 6,000 children had been there for at least a year.
Anne Longfield warns that temporary accommodation is often unfit for children to live in yet huge demand and a shortage of accommodation means children are frequently spending years living in temporary housing while they wait for an offer of permanent accommodation. As a result of a shortage of good quality, self-contained temporary accommodation, many families are being placed in accommodation which is poor quality and too small. This includes:
B&Bs which are not self-contained and often include a shared bathroom and kitchen if there are any cooking facilities at all. Other residents might be families, but could include vulnerable adults with mental health or drug abuse problems, creating intimidating and potentially unsafe environments for children.
Recently, former office blocks and warehouses have been converted into temporary accommodation under permitted development rights which bypass planning regulations and restrict the ability of local councils to object on the grounds of quality of accommodation. Many of the flats are small, single studios which do not come close to meeting national space standards. In fact, some flats in Templefields House in Harlow measure as little as 18 square metres and may be shared by a whole family, with parents and children living and sleeping in the same single room. Inhabitants have also been subjected to crime and antisocial behaviour.
Shipping containers have also been repurposed for accommodation. Typically one or two-bedroom and small in size, the units are really hot in summer and too cold in the winter. Antisocial behaviour has also been a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside, forcing them to stay in cramped conditions inside instead.
Furthermore, 23,000 of families in temporary accommodation in 2018 were living away from their home council area. Children and families spoke about how moving away from an area can have a deeply disruptive impact on family life. Moving area might mean a new school, no longer being able to see their friends or go to the places they are used to. Travel costs might also increase as children have to travel further if they stay at the same school.
Simone Vibert, Senior Policy Analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, and author of the report, said: “Trapped by increasing rents and an unforgiving welfare system, there is very little many families can do to break the cycle of homelessness once it begins.
“Preventing homelessness from happening in the first place is crucial. Yet government statistics fail to capture the hundreds of thousands of children living in families who are behind on their rent and mortgage repayments.
“Frontline professionals working with children and families need greater training to spot the early signs of homelessness and councils urgently need to know what money will be available for them when current funds run out next year," she concluded.
Read the ‘Bleak houses’ report
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