Homeless Children Are Being Housed in Shipping Containers, English Report Finds

Homeless Children Are Being Housed in Shipping Containers, English Report Finds


LONDON — Thousands of children in England are growing up in repurposed shipping containers, converted office blocks and cramped rooms in hostels, usually far away from their schools and family support networks, a new report by the Children’s Commissioner has found.

Official statistics show that 124,000 children in England are without permanent accommodation, an 80 percent increase since 2010. Yet those figures do not represent the hidden homeless, an estimated 92,000 children, who spend long periods of time “couch surfing” between different households, according to the study.

“Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks,” said Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England.

“Children have told us of the disruptive and at times frightening impact this can have on their lives. It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, or to sofa surf.”

Most incidents of youth homelessness in England have resulted from a lack of affordable housing and changes to welfare benefits under the Conservative-led government’s decade-long austerity program. Many private landlords are reluctant to rent to homeless people or to those receiving housing benefits.

The Local Government Association’s housing department said that councils were trying to find good quality, secure homes for families in need, while working to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. But a severe lack of available social housing has meant that councils have had no choice but to place households in temporary accommodation, such as bed-and-breakfasts.

“The government needs to use the upcoming spending round to ensure councils have long-term sustainable funding to prevent homelessness, and give councils the tools they need to resume their historic role of building homes with the right infrastructure that the country needs,’’ said Martin Tett, a spokesman for the housing department of the Local Government Association.

Children interviewed for the commissioner’s report described having to eat their meals on the floor because of a lack of space or being woken by water dripping from the ceiling. One teenage boy recalled living in a hotel for more than eight months alongside prostitutes.

The types of accommodations the commissioner found particularly concerning were bed-and-breakfasts in which children would have to share facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens with other families or adults with mental health or drug abuse problems.

Despite a legal six-week time limit on how long families can be housed in a bed-and-breakfast, a third of families known to be living in such accommodation last December stayed for longer.

The commissioner also expressed deep concerns about the conversion of former office buildings and warehouses into temporary accommodation.

“Many of the flats are small, single rooms which do not come close to meeting national space standards,” she said. Families in Harlow, in eastern England, said they had to live and sleep in a cramped single room of less than 200 square feet. Some of the flats in East London were even smaller, at 140 square feet — only a bit larger than a single parking space.

In some areas, such as Brighton; Bristol; Cardiff, Wales; and Ealing, shipping containers in deserted construction sites have been repurposed into temporary accommodation. Although these units are usually self-contained with a private kitchen and bathroom, families say that they get too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

Antisocial behavior is also a concern in these complexes, and many families have been reluctant to allow their children to play outside.

“They put me in a small room in an office block which had been converted into flats,” a young mother identified as Lucy said in an interview that was published in the report. “It was in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. The cars and lorries would whiz round really fast. It was very noisy, and it felt unsafe to walk to the shops.”

Last year, the British government pledged to a spend 1.2 billion pounds, about $1.4 billion, to tackle all types of homelessness, which includes funding for specialist advisers to help reduce the number of families who spend longer than six weeks in bed-and-breakfasts.

“No child should have to live in dangerous accommodation,” a government spokesman said in response to the report. “We are working to ensure all families have a safe place to stay.”



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