1248 GMT September 23, 2019
Anne Longfield said it was scandal that at least 210,000 young people in homeless families in England were put up by councils in temporary housing and bed and breakfasts or forced to “sofa surf” with friends, often for long periods, the Guardian reported.
Such accommodation could be unsafe, disruptive and overcrowded, with no room for children to play or do homework. It was frequently in poor condition, far from family support networks and schools, and often in isolated locations dogged by crime or antisocial behavior.
“Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks,” said Longfield.
“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.”
Launching a report on family homelessness, she said the main causes were a lack of affordable housing and financial instability created by welfare changes, cuts to universal credit and a four-year freeze on housing benefit.
The report cites the case of Lucy, a homeless woman in her early 20s, and her two-year-old son, who were placed in a converted office block an hour away from their local area in London. The room had no basic furniture. Supposedly an emergency placement, they ended up staying for 11 months.
“They put me in a small room in an office block which had been converted into flats. It was in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. The cars and lorries would whizz round really fast. It was very noisy and it felt unsafe to walk to the shops,” Lucy said.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said such conditions were harmful to children.
“These descriptions of pokey, dangerous conditions belong in a Dickensian novel, but instead they paint a picture of life in the 21st century for many families,” said the charity’s head of policy, Almudena Lara.
The report says one in 10 new homes created in England and Wales since 2016 are in former office blocks, rising to more than half in hotspots such as Harlow in Essex. A government rule change in 2013 means such developments no longer have to seek planning permission. Councils have called for the rule to be revoked.
Many of the conversions fail to meet official size standards for a one-bedroom home, which is 37 square meters. The report cites single-room flats of 18sq meters converted from offices, and one of 13sq meters – barely larger than a parking space.
Office-block conversions are often located on or near industrial estates, far from shops, schools and other amenities. Some children who live in them are reportedly stigmatized by peers as “office-block kids.”
The report says 124,000 homeless children were recorded as living in temporary accommodation in England at the end of 2018, an 80 percent increase since 2010. On top of this, it calculates there were 92,000 homeless young people in families who sofa surfed with friends or relatives.
These estimates do not include a further group of children who have been placed in temporary housing by social services, for which there is no publicly available official data. Of those young people in temporary homes in 2017, more than half had been there for longer than six months, and one in 20 for more than a year.
The report says an estimated further 375,000 children live in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, putting them at risk of becoming homeless.