A new report on Poverty and Child Health from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Child Poverty Action Group makes for disturbing reading (May 2017). The report gathers evidence from the members of the RCPCH about their experiences of helping children living in deprived areas and gives a picture of what is happening on the frontline for child health in such areas across the UK.
The effects of homelessness and poor quality housing
More than two thirds of doctors who responded to the survey considered that homelessness or poor housing contributed to the ill health of children they see. London doctors reported the highest levels of concern. Cold homes and bad housing were seen all too often, including children suffering back-to-back respiratory illnesses who were living in overcrowded shared accommodation. One doctor grimly stated that “overcrowded, damp or unsuitable housing amongst our patients is the rule rather than an exception”.
The housing crisis and local authority budget cuts were recognised as a cause, leading to children and their families being placed in unsafe, mouldy, damp and overcrowded accommodation. The report links this kind of poor quality housing to a direct effect on the deterioration of children’s health as well as their physical and emotional wellbeing. Almost a third of paediatricians reported difficulty in discharging a child from hospital because of inadequate housing, such a family unable to go home with their prematurely born baby due to damp in their house.
One of the most worrying findings was the consequences of poor housing for children with disabilities or ongoing health conditions. Anecdotal evidence identified inadequately heated homes, accommodation lacking space for equipment like wheelchairs, sick children having to share rooms or beds and high level accommodation without a lift where parents have to carry unwell children up multiple flights of stairs.
Homelessness is directly linked to detrimental effects on health. For both parents and children this involves significant stress, frequent moves, and poor living conditions. When children move frequently this disrupts their engagement with ongoing services. Children are also ending up living in hostels and bedsits with minimal privacy as well as limited cooking, bathroom and other facilities. According to figures from Shelter, the number of families living in such emergency B&B and hostel rooms had risen by 18% between 2015 and June 2016, with 120,000 children across the UK spending Christmas last year homeless and in temporary accommodation.
The outlook from paediatricians looking after these children is gloomy, with almost half the doctors surveyed saying that things were getting worse, noting children’s poor diets and nutrition, cuts to essential services, a rise in mental illness among both parents and children, and increasing poverty.
As housing lawyers we are all too familiar with the picture painted by the report. On a daily basis we see our clients’ children experiencing homelessness and insecure accommodation, and living in homes affected by damp, disrepair and overcrowding. One client’s young children suffered from severe asthma and were living in a damp ridden flat. For the sake of their health they had to go and stay with a relative, leaving their mum in the flat; both the damp and the separation had a significant effect on their health and wellbeing. Another client was left in a studio flat for several months with her three children after fleeing domestic violence. The room had only just enough space for the beds, with no space for moving around. The inadequate accommodation had a significant detrimental effect on the children’s health and development, as well as the mother’s mental health.
HJA support call for action
We support the call for urgent action to reduce child poverty and the impact of this on children’s health. The report’s recommendations include bringing back national targets for reducing child poverty, making child health central to policy making, reversing public health cuts to services and turning back cuts to universal credit. In addition it is clear to us that the housing sector itself needs a radical overhaul to address rising homelessness, severe shortages of suitable temporary and long term housing, as well as better standards of rented accommodation. The impact of not addressing the issue of child poverty and child health is bleak. As one doctor forecast “We cannot expect to have a healthy future for the UK if we leave children behind. Poverty makes children sick”.