For children in the United Kingdom living in stable and secure homes, waking up in their own beds, this holiday season will be a welcome distraction from a bleak year. But many children across the country do not feel the same safety and stability when they wake up. The number of homeless children living in temporary accommodation in England is estimated to be a shocking 136,000, 80 percent more than in 2010.
This number represents children currently living in hostels, bed and breakfasts, temporary rented houses, and converted units. It does not include the countless homeless families forced to sofa-surf or stay with friends.
The government outlines that temporary accommodation must be “suitable” in terms of space, location, and affordability. However in reality these accommodations are often inappropriate for children, being of poor quality, too small, or even dangerous. In many hostels and bed and breakfasts, children might share bathroom and kitchen facilities with non-family adults. In other cases, families might live in poorly designed spaces such as converted office buildings where whole families are squeezed into single rooms the size of a parking space or in converted shipping containers which become freezing in the winter.
Moreover, this temporary accommodation is often not temporary at all, as shortages of social housing or affordable rents mean that families are spending longer periods living in limbo. It starts out as just a short-term solution, but families are increasingly having to watch their children grow up in these placements.
Inadequate housing affects children’s health, development, and education, and may reinforce patterns of socio-economic inequality. A recent study by the homelessness charity Shelter revealed the negative effect homelessness has on children’s education. Teachers reported children missing school, sometimes as a result of being moved far away or fatigue because their poor accommodation makes it difficult to sleep. The situation worsened during Covid-19-related school closures, with teachers reporting that homeless children often don’t have the space, privacy, or equipment to concentrate on schoolwork.
Children have a right to adequate housing and this should be enforceable in law. The government should develop better housing solutions for homeless families, ensuring sufficient quality and minimum length of stay requirements. The government should also plan to build more affordable homes. Only then will children of all economic backgrounds have a chance to wake up on Christmas feeling safe and secure in their own beds.