Children experiencing homelessness are too often “invisible” and “overlooked”, an expert has said, as analysis showed stark differences in the picture across England when it comes to families in temporary accommodation.
The total number of children in temporary accommodation is at its highest level since records began almost two decades ago, with 131,370 children in this situation as of the end of March this year.
While less visible than someone sleeping on the streets, being in temporary accommodation is considered a form of homelessness.
Analysis by the PA news agency of figures published in July shows the number of households with children in bed and breakfast (B&B) hotels in England on March 31 was more than double the figure at the equivalent point in 2022 – up from 1,700 to 3,930.
This is the biggest year-on-year percentage increase since data was first recorded for this category in 2002.
Under legislation that came into force in 2004, the use of B&Bs for families is prohibited except in an emergency, and even then it should not be used for longer than six weeks.
But PA analysis shows the number of households with children who have been in B&Bs for more than this length of time nearly trebled from 670 as of March 31 2022 to 1,840 by March 31 this year.
While households with children account for 30% of all households in temporary accommodation in north-east England, the figure soars to 76% in the West Midlands – the highest for any region.
Yorkshire and the Humber (45%) and south-west England (46%) are the only other regions where the figure is below 50%.
In London, 66% of households in temporary accommodation have children, though data for the capital is incomplete.
It is a similar picture for households placed in B&Bs, with 60% of such households in the West Midlands having children, compared with just 6% in north-east England.
More than a third (35%) of households in B&Bs in the West Midlands not only have children but also have been in their accommodation for more than six weeks.
This is well above all other regions, with London (16%) having the next highest figure.
Dr Nadia Svirydzenka, a psychologist with specialist experience in child mental health, said she is troubled by the rise and described the term temporary as “a misnomer, generally”, with some of the families she has worked with spending years – “so for children under five – almost the entirety of a their life” – in such circumstances.
Dr Svirydzenka is a co-investigator on the Champions project – a collaboration between University College London and De Montfort University looking at the impact of temporary accommodation on the health and wellbeing of children under five in England.
She said there is a “discourse of neglect” around the issue that must be pushed back on, with some people thinking “these families need to try harder and do better”.
She told PA: “I think we really need to challenge that. This isn’t parental neglect. From our evidence what we see is that families are doing the best they can in the circumstances. No family wants to be in temporary accommodation or living in the environment they are in.”
She said “any of us could find ourselves in this situation”, with things like illness, redundancy, a family death or caring responsibilities suddenly putting an additional financial burden on a family.
Recent research by housing charity Shelter suggested half of working private renters are only one paycheque away from potentially losing their home.
Dr Svirydzenka said it is not an “‘over there’ and ‘those people’” problem, adding: “I think there are different pathways in which people end up in temporary accommodation but I think only few are safe from it.”
Temporary accommodation can sometimes be cramped, lack cooking facilities and clean spaces, she said, and frequent moves can lead to feelings of instability, which can impact a child’s wellbeing in later life.
She said: “If you grow up with a sense of ‘I’m not safe, we move a lot, this isn’t my space’, it threatens that sense of belonging that we need for our well-being, for our mental health. And that can create anxiety around when we go about the world because our fundamental sense of stability is threatened.”
The rise in families in need of temporary accommodation “is really troubling for all the consequences it has for child development and for their school preparedness, what they’re exposed to, what they experience”, she said.
She added: “Too often children in temporary accommodation are invisible and their needs and experiences are overlooked. You see advocacy for rough sleeping, but not children experiencing homelessness.
“There is this ‘oh, you’re lucky to have a roof over your head, what are you complaining about’ type of mentality towards families in temporary accommodation, but that is problematic as it overlooks how the temporary accommodation environment, frequent moves and lack of integrated system around the needs of the child experiencing homelessness can limit their life opportunities and impact their health and development long term.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists said while young people tend to be resilient, some might need professional help due to the impacts of homelessness and accommodation moves.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the college’s child and adolescent faculty, said children can be “particularly susceptible” to the pressure on families from the uncertainty of living in temporary accommodation and potential threat of homelessness “and may struggle with feelings of anxiety or stress under such circumstances”.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, described the numbers as “completely unacceptable” and said she was “particularly worried about the number of children living in B&Bs for long periods of time”.
Her office was launching research “which will reveal other hidden groups of children not in appropriate accommodation”, focusing on 16 and 17-year-olds “who present as homeless and are inappropriately treated as young adults who are only in need of a temporary roof over their heads rather than care”.
Charities have long called for more more social housing to be built.
When the July figures were published the Government said it had given £2 billion over three years to help local authorities tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, targeted to areas where it is needed most and is improving the availability of social housing, committing to delivering 300,000 new homes per year and investing £11.5 billion “to build the affordable, quality homes this country needs”.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said they worked “incredibly hard to prevent the tragedy of homelessness from happening” but that “increasingly complex homelessness pressures, combined with depleting social housing stock and an unaffordable private rented sector feels like a perfect storm for already stretched council services”.