“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela, 1995
It’s well known that in the UK, homelessness amongst children is on the rise, with little to no real effort being made to remedy this. This is not simply about those children physically living on the streets, i.e. street homeless, but also those in temporary accommodation and unsuitable accommodation, as well as B&Bs and hostels. The level of disruption in a child’s life due to the uncertainty of their long term accommodation cannot be underestimated.
Some of you may have seen the recent BBC Three programme “Hidden and Homeless” which took an interesting and touching look at homelessness among children and young adults. The show found that 50% of all homeless people were under the age of 25, but it doesn’t stop here.
According to a recent report, 1.6 million children in Britain are statutorily homeless. Nearly 100,000 of these children in England are living in temporary accommodation after being made homeless and the rest are either in either overcrowded or run-down accommodation. According to the same report, 2,660 families with children were in bed and breakfast style accommodation as of 30 June 2015. Of those households, 830 have been in B&Bs for more than 6 weeks, in contravention of the homelessness guidelines. Most worryingly of all is that, according to a study by Crisis, 8% of 16 to 24 year olds report recently being street homeless, in the formative years of their life.
The number of children and young adults who find themselves homeless is simply too high for a country as developed as the UK. There is a tendency to skip over these issues far too often, instead giving preference to other longstanding issue. However, our children are our future and the long-term effects of homelessness can be disastrous. We find that children, all the way from birth through to adolescence are seriously affected by the effects of homelessness.
Babies and Toddlers
In 2015, the BBC partnered up with the NSPCC and published a report examining the scale and impact of homelessness on babies and their parents. They found that more than 15,000 nought-to-two-year-olds live in families classed as “statutorily homeless”.
According to a study published by Harvard University early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behaviour, and health. In the first few years of life, 700 to 1,000 new neural connections form every second. Cognitive, emotional, and social aptitudes are inseparably intertwined during this stage. Previous research has demonstrated that most people cannot generally remember events from before the age of 3 to 4 years, but this does not affect the effect such memories have on a child’s cognitive and physical development. Babies living in homeless families can be extremely vulnerable and their development is reliant on the quality of the care their parents are able to provide. For some parents who are homeless, providing this care can be difficult. Many types of homeless accommodation lack the important safety, cleanliness and facilities babies need in order to thrive. This can have a severe effect on that baby’s mental health later in life.
According to another government report, one in ten children aged between 5 and 16 years have a mental health problem, and many continue to have mental health problems into adulthood. Half of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14. This is exactly the reason that it is essential that children are given the basic necessities such as secure accommodation while they are young, to reduce the chances of this eventuality. Effective treatment and support can make a significant difference to these children, but it would obviously make much more of a difference if we could also remove one of the biggest causal factors of mental ill health.
The LGBT Community
It is not only young children who are affected by homelessness, but also those who are made homeless as a result of other factors. In an article published by the Telegraph, they take a look at this very topic. Jovanie Morrison, a person referenced in the article, discusses his struggle with being gay and homeless. He stated that he knew he was “special” by age 6, and that he was gay by 12. This was when he contemplated suicide. He told the newspaper “I was beaten with an iron, I got punched, I literally got kicked out. There was blood coming down my head and I felt like that was the end of my life” and that “My mum said to me ‘if you are gay or ever become gay, you might as well leave my household. The only way you could come out is when you’re in the grave’”. Rejected and abandoned by his family, he eventually ended up street homeless, by virtue only of his sexuality. His story isn’t the first of its kind and it is very unlikely that it will be the last.
A quarter of the UK’s homeless youth are LGBT according to a survey carried out last year by the Albert Kennedy Trust. It found that 69 per cent of homeless LGBT youth were forced out of their homes by their families; the same number also said that mental, emotional or sexual abuse from a family member played a part in their homelessness, while another 62 per cent said that they had experienced aggression or physical violence at home.
Cause and Effect
We discuss these different, but equally important issues above to demonstrate the circumstances surrounding why a child might become homeless and the effect this has on them. Homelessness legislation was designed and developed to protect those most vulnerable in society, with specific provisions addressing the needs of children.
It is understood that local authorities are under enormous pressure, with limited housing stock and little access to public funds and are therefore unable to provide homes to everyone. However, these justifications do nothing to alleviate the long term effect this has on children and the cycle it creates.
A system has been created in which housing is to be provided for the most vulnerable people in society. But these people can be discharged into the private sector and offered fixed-term tenancies or placed in temporary accommodation indefinitely, with the possibility of being moved frequently. With the possible eradication of secure tenancies, and the right to buy schemes being implemented, it is difficult to see how the situation will improve. This lack of security has a huge impact on these children. It means that they are more likely to develop mental health issues later in life, making it harder for them to eventually secure their own accommodation. They may then go on to have their own children, which is likely to make sure that exactly the same problems exist for the next generation if these mental health issues are passed down, not through genetics, but by a system that fails to provide children with even the most basic of provisions, such as a the safety and security of a long-term home.
So the words of Nelson Mandela beg a painful question: what of our country’s soul? The alarming number of “homeless” children certainly seems indicates a lack of one at all. Homeless children are, to all extents and purposes simply an invisible group, and are all too often ignored by national policy, side-lined by local authorities, and a low priority for some front-line services, with the exception of a select few. Surely we need to change the way in which these cases are dealt with, putting focus on re-development, security of accommodation and high levels of support, which in itself should help resolve these very issues, as opposed to sale for profit and privatisation. Change is happening, but not for the better.