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Children raised in shipping containers due to shortage of temporary accommodation

Children's commissioner warns that children are living in unsuitable, cramped conditions in converted office blocks, B&Bs and shipping containers

Published on 22nd August 2019

Children are growing up in repurposed shipping containers, the children's commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield's report on homelessness reveals the terrible reality of how some children are living in converted shipping containers and office blocks, and B&Bs, in cramped conditions, often miles away from their schools.

Anne Longfield 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."

While official statistics show 124,000 children in England living in temporary accommodation, this does not include the hidden homeless who are ‘sofa-surfing’, often in very cramped conditions. New analysis estimates a further 92,000 children were living in sofa-surfing families in 2016/17.

The children's commissioner warns that the official figures fail to capture a small but highly vulnerable group of homeless children who have been placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services rather than by the council’s housing department. This includes families who have been deemed to have made themselves “intentionally homeless”, and those with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status. There is no publicly available data on how many families are being housed in this way.

Furthermore, children are being placed in "temporary accommodation" which the report warns is "sometimes anything but [temporary]. Around 4 in 10 children in temporary accommodation – an estimated 51,000 children – had been there for at least 6 months in 2017 while around 1 in 20 – an estimated 6,000 children – had been there for at least a year.

An estimated 375,000 children are living in households that have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.
Anne longfield warns that the temporary accommodation used is frequently "not fit for children to live in". Due to the level of demand and shortage of accommodation, children are frequently spend 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:

- Repurposed shipping containers, often located on “meanwhile sites” – land that is earmarked for future development but currently not in use. The units are typically one or two-bedroom and small in size, meaning that overcrowding can be an issue. They can become really hot in summer and too cold in the winter. Antisocial behaviour has been a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside.

- B&Bs where often the bathroom is shared with other residents in the building, along with the kitchen (if there are any cooking facilities at all). The other residents might be families, but might also be vulnerable adults, such as those with mental health or drug abuse problems, creating intimidating and potentially unsafe environments for children. Of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third had been there for more than 6 weeks, despite this being unlawful.

- Office block and warehouse conversions devloped 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. Some of the 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 also containing their cooking facilities. There have also been areas suffering from crime and antisocial behaviour.

In 2018, 23,000 families were housed in temporary accommodation away from their home council area where children and families discussed how moving away from an area can have a deeply disruptive impact on family life. For children, 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.

The risks associated with poor temporary accommodation can also reduce some of the most basic aspects of childhood such as a child’s opportunity to play. A number of children and parents spoke about the cramped, overcrowded conditions, which leave little room for furniture and possessions, let alone space in which children could play. The school holidays can be challenging as families lack space inside, but are reluctant to let their children play outside and may be miles away from friends, parks or leisure facilities.

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 added.

Anne Longfield concluded: "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.”

Bleak houses

 

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