Last month, on 20 November, we celebrated 30 years since the United Nations adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC is a landmark document for the protection and wellbeing of children, and is the most ratified human rights treaty in the world. But in December 2019, days before a general election, we continue to see a failure to meet the rights of thousands of children in England and across Britain.
Shelter’s findings on the number of children in Britain who are homeless and living in temporary accommodation (TA), the highest in 12 years, are shocking but not surprising. They have estimated that on Christmas Day 2019 there will be at least 135,000 homeless children in Britain, and that this number has gone up by 51% in the past five years.
Safe and secure housing is a basic human right, as is the right to an adequate standard of living, but these rights are routinely being denied to thousands of families in one of the richest countries in the world. A toxic combination of soaring rents, a chronic shortage of social housing and drastic cuts to housing and other benefits means that thousands of children are not able to realize their fundamental right to have a safe home.
Shelter’s research echoes our own findings from working with children and young people. At the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), part of Just for Kids Law, we have documented the experiences of children being housed in unsafe and unsuitable TA, often for prolonged periods of time. Children from CRAE’s Change it! project – a group of young activists who campaign on children’s rights – have told us of their experience of living in TA, including B&Bs. They have spoken out about the devastating impacts of being homeless and living in overcrowded, cold, damp, filthy and unsafe places, in rooms far too small for families, and the effects this has had on their lives, their physical and mental health and their schooling. Many of them had lived in dirty and dilapidated B&Bs, and often had to share kitchens and bathrooms with total strangers, including adults with drug and alcohol problems, making them feel unsafe and at risk. Living spaces were often so small and cramped that they had no room to study and small children had no space to play and learn to crawl. A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Bleak houses. Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England, has described how thousands of children are growing up in dangerous and unsuitable TA, including B&Bs, ex shipping containers and converted office blocks.
Despite the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, and the introduction of positive additional duties on local authorities to prevent and respond to homelessness, it is clear that there isn’t enough funding or suitable housing available for them to meet their statutory responsibilities. In England, in the period April-June 2018 to January-March 2019, the number of households with children housed in TA increased from 61,590 to 62,010.
The 2003 Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order specifies that councils cannot legally house families with children in non self-contained accommodation for more than 6 weeks. However, local authorities continue to contravene this by housing children in B&Bs for prolonged periods of time. As of March 2019, there were 2,190 households with dependent children in B&Bs, and 810 had been resident in B&Bs for longer than the six weeks legal limit. Worryingly, council-owned B&Bs, or other hotel-type accommodation, are not subject to the six-week limit. Through Freedom of Information requests CRAE obtained data showing that almost two thirds of families housed in this type of council-owned accommodation were there for longer than six weeks.
The housing crisis is particularly acute in London, due to population size, the high costs of renting and the shortage of affordable and social housing. Shelter estimates that there were around 88,000 children who were homeless and in TA in London at the beginning of this year - around one in every 24 children. As a member of the London Housing Panel, we have been highlighting the need to prioritise more social housing as key to addressing the housing crisis affecting children in London, as well as the need to ensure that local authorities can meet their duties to homeless families.
In its examination of the UK government in 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raised significant concerns on the number of homeless households, and the impacts that changes to the welfare system have had on the rights of children. The Committee made several recommendations for change, yet Shelter’s figures show that in fact things have got worse. It is crucial that whoever forms the next government takes urgent and real action on children’s rights. This means investing more in social housing and in a social security system that is fit for purpose and that supports children to thrive. It means listening to children and their calls for what needs to change and delivering on the promise of the CRC.