Thousands of homeless children in London are being placed in “uninhabitable” accommodation that violates their rights, a damning report said today.
They blamed “persistent policy failures” by central and local government for the crisis, in a joint report released today.
It comes as HuffPost UK spoke to parents of young children in temporary accommodation and a medical expert who described reports of rats and cockroaches in some properties.
Meanwhile, councils admitted to us they had families living in “severely overcrowded” conditions as they called on the government for help.
Temporary accommodation is meant to be a stop-gap for families and other vulnerable people before they are placed in permanent social housing but because of a lack of suitable homes many are left in dire conditions.
Consultant paediatrician Monica Lakhanpaul described the children as “invisible” and said their situation had worsened due to the pandemic.
“We hear stories of rats being in the rooms, cockroaches in the cupboards.”
– Consultant paediatrician Monica Lakhanpaul
The professor warned of the “trauma” many children faced in temporary accommodation, adding: “We’re finding that some of the internal rooms have mould on them, fungus, which then has an impact on breathing problems, such as asthma.
“A number of the rooms are quite unhygienic. We hear stories in our own work, we’ve seen it as well, of rats being in the rooms, cockroaches in the cupboards.
“That’s not acceptable, not only because it’s traumatic for a child to see it but also because it’s a risk of infection for these children, and some of them who are sleeping on floors on mattresses.
“And then that gives them diarrhoea. You can see where the pattern is going here – you have asthma, you’ve got respiratory problems, you’ve got diarrhoea and it puts this child at physical risk from infections.”
Professor Lakhanpaul said she had heard about rats getting into a baby’s cot and a pregnant mother who days after a caesarean section had to sleep on a floor before moving property again. She said her work had found some families did not have fridges in their rooms, no cooking facilities and dirty toilets in shared accommodation.
“The child is then scared of going to the toilet because it’s smelly, dirty and shared with lots of other people,” Lakhanpaul added.
“We have a story of somebody who said that their child was going to the toilet on a potty in a cupboard, an eight-year-old, because they were so frightened to go to the toilet.”
She also warned about the impact noisy shared accommodation can have on children, saying: “That can be quite scary, hearing people shouting, particularly when they’re put in accommodation with single adults, maybe drug addicts or alcoholics.”
“The place was not for children. I mean, drug addicts, people trying to break in – it was shocking.”
– Single mother-of-three Izabela
Lakhanpaul, a professor at UCL investigating the impact of Covid-19 on children in TA as part of the Champions Project, warned it was also impacting children’s mental health and some were learning to walk on beds and experiencing delays in their speech.
Single mother-of-three Izabela has been in temporary accommodation for three years and was evicted in November 2021 after refusing a property in Derby over 100 miles away. Izabela, a cleaner, appealed the decision and has been placed in various placements since.
She told HuffPost UK her daughter had contracted stress-related psoriasis and added: “My kids are obviously stressed. My youngest, my five-year-old, everyday she goes to school she cries because obviously she doesn’t know what’s going to happen later.”
At one point the family were placed in a hostel in north London for a week and Izabela added: “The place was not for children. I mean, drug addicts, people trying to break in – it was shocking. So that was for a week and then after that, well pretty much that’s it. I’ve been sofa surfing.”
The number of families in temporary accommodation has increased 65 per cent since 2011, according to the HRW report.
Official data from October 2021 estimated that there were 42,290 households with children in temporary accommodation in London, including 86,450 children.
Some of those end up living in “temporary” accommodation for several years.
Case studies interviewed as part of the HRW report also described experiencing toxic mould, cold and cramped conditions.
They include Amaka, a pregnant mother with three young boys, who lived for six months in 2020 in a studio flat in Lambeth.
She said they had to share a double bed and the situation worsened after the pandemic hit, adding: “It was very, very hard for me in that small flat. The council just put me there and left me. When Covid started I saw hell.”
Another mother Layla was placed with her four daughters, aged 6 to 26, in a three-bedroom house between 2017 and 2019 by Southwark Council.
“When Covid started I saw hell.”
– Amaka who was pregnant and had three young boys
Her youngest daughter Israa had no pre-existing health conditions when they arrived but the house allegedly had mould that was particularly prevalent in Israa’s room.
The little girl allegedly developed respiratory issues and was diagnosed with asthma, as well as needing an operation to assist with her irregular breathing.
Meanwhile, in Wandsworth a 15-year-old girl called Jada described cracks in her bedroom wall that let in the cold during winter.
She was allegedly diagnosed with pneumonia and her mother sent her to live with family outside of London in October 2018 so she could recover, causing her to miss two months of school.
The 51-page report – I Want Us to Live Like Humans Again – found the situation for many children in temporary accommodation was exacerbated by Covid-19 school closures.
The lack of space made it harder for children to work and most people interviewed said the properties did not have a Wi-Fi connection.
London has the highest child poverty rates in England and houses 70 percent of all families in temporary accommodation.
HRW argued that part of the problem was reduced funding from central government to local authorities as well as a lack of social housing, with some boroughs having a waiting list of over ten years.
Experts predict the situation to worsen with the looming cost of living crisis as bills soar and taxes increase.
HRW said the UK government should enshrine the right to housing in domestic law and ensure that victims have access to speedy and effective remedies.
Meanwhile, London boroughs pleaded with the government to use the welfare system to stop people becoming homeless in the first place. They also called for long-term funding guarantees and investment in affordable housing.
“Children are suffering appalling abuses of their rights with devastating consequences for their health, education, and life chances.”
– Laurence Guinness, Childhood Trust
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, said: “Successive governments have utterly failed to fix the housing crisis.
“Children are suffering appalling abuses of their rights with devastating consequences for their health, education, and life chances. This report is a wake-up call to the government that this abuse has to stop”
Alex Firth, senior coordinator at HRW, said if the government really was committed to its agenda of “levelling up” then giving families a safe and decent home to live in should be the “foundation of its efforts”.
In a bid to cope with the crisis, the capital has a temporary accommodation inspection service as well as “Capital Letters” – a pan-London service procuring temporary accommodation for boroughs in a collaborative way.
Labour’s shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook said the Tories should “hang their heads in shame” for failing to address the “shocking rise” in families living in sub-standard accommodation.
The MP for Greenwich and Woolwich said it was “entirely within the gift of the government” to resolve the problem, adding: “If it continues to choose not to do so, the price will be paid not only in terms of the staggering cost of temporary accommodation to the taxpayer but also when it comes to the diminished health, education and life chances of countless more blameless children.”
A spokesman for the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said that although he has no statutory powers over the issue, he was working with local councils to improve the quality of TA.
He added: “The key to reducing our reliance on temporary accommodation in London is to reduce the number of households who become homeless.
“This can only be achieved by ministers tackling the root causes of homelessness including rogue landlords, cuts to council budgets, a lack of suitable housing and draconian welfare reforms that disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people in our society.”
“Conservative ministers should hang their heads in shame for failing to address the shocking rise in the number of families living in sub-standard temporary accommodation.”
– Labour’s shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook
London Councils – a body representing all the boroughs in the capital – said they faced the “most severe homelessness crisis” in the country where the number of children in TA soared by 60 per cent in the last decade.
They said: “London’s extreme housing pressures and many years of reductions to council budgets have made this work harder and harder.
“The government needs to do much more to tackle family homelessness, including using the welfare system to help Londoners meet their housing costs and boosting funding for the affordable homes the capital urgently needs.”
Councillor Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for council homes and homelessness at Southwark, said: “London is in the grip of a spiralling homelessness crisis.
“In Southwark alone, we have over 16,500 households on our waiting list for a home, with half of these families including children. We have just under 3,500 households in temporary accommodation, often living in severely overcrowded conditions and sometimes entire families in a single room.
“The scale of the challenge we are facing is compounded by our budget being slashed by the government, year on year. It is unacceptable that children and families are suffering the human cost to their cutbacks.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Lambeth council said the borough had more than 30,000 people on their waiting list for social housing and they were providing temporary accommodation for over 2,800 homeless families, including some 5,000 children.
He added: “Lambeth does its very best to support and find suitable accommodation for homeless families, but the housing crisis and welfare policy changes make this more and more challenging.”
Wandsworth council said they took their responsibility to homeless people “very seriously” and added: “The overwhelming majority of the temporary accommodation we provide is in self-contained homes within this borough so that people can stay close to their support networks and continue to access important local services like schools and GPs.”
“We have just under 3,500 households in temporary accommodation, often living in severely overcrowded conditions and sometimes entire families in a single room.”
– Stephanie Cryan, Southwark Council
A government source said many private rented sector landlords provided “decent, well-maintained” homes. They also said councils had a legal duty to take enforcement action if they find “seriously hazardous” conditions such as overcrowding.
A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up said: “All children deserve to live in a safe and decent home, and we’re strengthening councils’ enforcement powers to tackle overcrowding and reduce social housing waiting lists, which have fallen by 57 per cent in London since 2010.
“More than 119,000 affordable homes have been delivered in the capital over the past 10 years, with a further £4 billion allocated to London to deliver 35,000 homes over the next five years.
“We are driving down the need for temporary accommodation by preventing homelessness before it occurs, with over £2 billion committed to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping over the next three years.”