Report cover image by Sophia Spring
Patricia has lived in the UK since 2006. She has two children, aged seven and five. She has separated from the children’s father, who was violent and abusive. Patricia has an outstanding appeal to remain in the UK and in the meantime, she is not allowed to work or to claim benefits.
In April 2014 Patricia and her children were housed in a building that was split into five ‘flats’ inhabited by around 50 people. Patricia shared her ‘flat’ with a family of six and a single man who screamed day and night, banged on the walls and left the bathroom in a filthy state. To make sure they could wash safely, she got the children up at 4am.
When the toilet was blocked, the family had to urinate in a pot and defecate in a plastic bag. On one occasion this continued for a month. When it rained, water leaked through the roof into their room. There was mould on the walls around the beds, exacerbating the children’s asthma.
According to a new report, Patricia’s is not an isolated case. It says many destitute children in London are being housed in damp, overcrowded, vermin-infested buildings, sometimes with violent neighbours.
‘A Place to Call Home: a report into the standard of housing provided to children in need in London’, (published today) examines the standard of accommodation and level of support provided to the children of destitute migrant families.
Some of the parents in these families are awaiting the outcome of an immigration application which would entitle them to work and claim mainstream welfare benefits. Others have been granted leave to remain but are denied any recourse to public funds.
Migrant families are often at the bottom of the heap when it comes to housing. British families can claim welfare and housing benefits, but even if the children in migrant families have British citizenship, they cannot claim benefits until they are 16 years old.
Under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, children living in the UK should have their basic needs met, including the provision of accommodation. Section 17 is a lifeline for children who would otherwise have nothing.
Shelter’s principal solicitor John Gallagher says the report “makes clear that many children in the UK are missing out on this protection and as a result are suffering deprivation and misery”. He says the report’s finding “are an indictment of a system which claims to promote and safeguard the welfare of children, but which too often fails them when they are lacking the basic necessities of life.”
Around two thirds of the properties were found to be inadequate and three quarters of those had either no or limited cooking, heating and washing facilities. Some were damp and mouldy and had infestations of rats, mice, cockroaches or bedbugs.
Some families were housed far away from the area they knew, so that the children had to change schools, sometimes several times, leaving friends and familiar surroundings.
More than half of the properties deemed inadequate were overcrowded. Parents and children had to share rooms, and sometimes beds with children as old as 12. One family in a hostel shared a single kitchen with 50 other residents. Many of the children featured in the report lacked privacy and had nowhere to play or do their homework.
In theory, Section 17 support is a temporary measure. In practice, however, some families spend years supported under the provision. Of the families surveyed, 40% had been in the same accommodation for six months, 84% for more than a month and 17% for over a year.
Access to cooking facilities is particularly important to families relying on food banks as they cannot afford ready-made meals. One woman featured in the report, who lived with her 11-year-old son, was reduced to boiling eggs in a kettle in her room.
Families were often exposed to potentially dangerous situations.
One mother and four children were placed in a room in a homeless hostel immediately next to a man with alcoholism who regularly left vomit and blood in the bathroom.
Another woman’s daughter became ill from eating food contaminated by leaking toilet water and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance.
There are currently no procedures in place to prevent a family from being placed in accommodation with a person who has a violent criminal record. Some of the families in the report had to share with aggressive men and there were cases of sexual assault.
Around half the families surveyed were housed in B&Bs. According to government statistics, 2,570 families in England were living in B&Bs in March 2015. Of those, 920 families had lived there for more than six weeks. However under homelessness law, B&B accommodation is deemed unsuitable for families with children and pregnant women.
One 13-year-old boy lived with his mother who had multiple health problems and suffered from depression. He sent a message to his caseworker saying “My mother is crying. I don’t know what to do. We’re sleeping in the hotel, the room is quite small, no shower, no toilet, no kitchen, no breakfast, just one room with lots of stuff, this is harder than last time. My mum is getting weak”.
The study found that local authorities are neglecting to use the power available to them either to ensure basic standards are met or to force landlords to rectify problems.
One family support worker described a case where a woman was bathing her children when a large chunk of the bedroom roof fell in. The landlord failed to act and she was unable to get through to her local authority. She and the children had to live amongst rubble and dust for days before they were eventually moved.
So why are some local authorities failing in their duty to provide for these families? The report says there is little guidance on how to assess eligibility for support or how much support to provide. Cuts in funding from central government have added to the pressure. And although many of the families are legally entitled to remain in the country, they may be seen as ‘undeserving’.
The report concludes that children’s services are failing children who should be protected from harm. It says the poor state of their accommodation is affecting their health, their development and their life chances and it calls for an urgent review into the accommodation and support provided to these families.
The families who feature in this report may have experienced traumas in their countries of origin, compounded by abusive relationships or homelessness. Some of the children have had to move from house to house and school to school, while living with fragile mothers who may suffer from depression.
A home is more than bricks and mortar. It provides a sense of security, of identity and well-being. These children, left to cope with appalling living conditions and unbearable levels of stress, are being failed by local authorities that have a duty to protect them.
‘A Place to Call Home: a report into the standard of housing provided to children in need in London’ by Charlotte Threipland was published by the Hackney Community Law Centre and Hackney Migrant Centre.