From Homes to Hostels: How the UK is failing children at Christmas

19th December 2017


As Christmas approaches and temperatures drop, many of us will huddle up indoors with family, batten down the hatches and try and, as the Scandinavians might say, to get our homes as ‘hyggelig’ as possible. But what about those struggling without a home?

In September this year the National Audit Office released a report addressing  Homelessness provision in the UK and how we have gotten into the position we are in. Contained within the report are some truly worrying statistics about the decline in homelessness prevention provision in the UK, as well as a more nuanced picture of the systematic causes behind homelessness in the UK.

Homelessness is increasing

According to the National Audit Office, from March 2011 to this year there will have been more than 77,000 households in temporary accommodation, an increase of 60%. Over this same time period, the measure for rough sleepers has also more than doubled and the number of children in temporary accommodation has increased by 73%.

A recent report by Shelter suggests the number of children in temporary accommodation is set to rise to as many as 128,000 over the Christmas period. Aside from presenting harrowing insights into the awful conditions many families have to endure, this would imply that increasingly, this hardship is falling more on children and families than individuals. This is something that would square with recent economic data on the plight of families versus single workers in the UK.

The reasons for homelessness are changing

Recent statistics have shown that the main cause of homelessness is relationship breakdown. However, the data from the National Audit Office shows that it may no longer be the leading cause of homelessness, being replaced instead by the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy – i.e. the default tenancy type for the rental sector. The National Audit Office is convinced that the unaffordability of housing and the cuts to various benefits share a large portion of the blame.

To put things in context; since 2010, the cost of private rented accommodation in the UK has risen three times faster than earnings. In London – where 70% of all households in temporary accommodation emanate from -the increase was eight fold.

In this same time frame, caps, freezes and real term decreases in various benefits and the introduction of Universal Credit have meant that income for often the most vulnerable and least well-off have largely remained, at best, static, whilst rents in London have risen on average by 24%.

The situation for those in work may not necessarily be easier. A report from Gingerbread found that, single parents both in and out of work found their resources almost equally stretched by the end of the month.

Furthermore, with inflation threatening to rise further and the benefit cap in place until 2020, the situation is only likely to deteriorate. At present, End Child Poverty estimates that by 2020, child benefit will have increased 2% whilst inflation is set to raise prices by 35%.

A false economy?

In the National Audit Office’s opinion it is the light touch approach of the Government, and the failure of the DWP to adequately evaluate the impact these changes would have on levels of homelessness, that is exacerbating the problem: “It is difficult to understand why the Department persisted with this approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem” and later, more damningly, that “The Department’s recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money.”

Whilst the overall picture is not entirely negative, as the DWP is now beginning to take steps to rectify this, it would certainly seem that this short-sighted strategy has been extremely costly. Not only in the sense of those lives that have been blighted by periods of homelessness that might otherwise not have been, but also in terms of brute financial fact.

From 2010-11, annual local authority spending on housing services, including homelessness services, fell from £3.73 billion to £2.94 billion. The amount spent by local authorities on providing temporary accommodation in this time ballooned so much that, despite these cuts, it had actually risen in real terms from £606 million in 2010 to £845 million in 2016, increasing the percentage of the budget used from 25% to 39%.

What this implies is a situation whereby the Government has tried to cut costs from preventative services only to have other higher costs arise further down the line; when a household’s situation escalates to the point where they can no longer ignore a legal obligation so easily, as they arguably did, a moral one.

Likewise the budget for Discretionary Housing Payments has risen from £20 million in 2010 to £164 million in 2016. The original intent of this was to facilitate families moving to more affordable areas of the country and reduce the housing benefit bill – and this has certainly been the case, with families based in London, accounting for 90% of those placed in temporary accommodation outside their borough. However, families often have complicated ties to an area and so these are not so simply and harmlessly severed - especially in the case of families and children with complex needs.  Without an informal support network, the state is either forced into being more involved, and at greater cost (where there are child protection issues or care proceedings), or it is left to the voluntary sector to try to meet the gaps in provision.

Who picks up the pieces?

Patterns in Buttle UK’s grant giving demonstrates this trend. In the last financial year we saw the number of applications referencing homelessness rise for the first time to their highest levels since 2014. Just this last year in the East Midlands, we saw a year on year rise in applications of 18%.  This is at a time when two of the region’s most significant local authorities, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire shut down their Local Welfare Provision schemes.

Various studies have shown that experiencing poverty can have serious implications for a child’s development and education. This is just one of the reasons we have developed our ‘Chances for Children’ grants.  These provide up to £2000 of funding per family or young person, and are designed to do more to help remove barriers that might otherwise stifle future earning potential of families and young people that have experienced such crises.

Additionally, our Anchor Project grants are specifically targeted to help children in families that have fled domestic abuse to set up a new home and mitigate the negative effects that the experience can have on their development.

But our grants can help prevent these costs as well. Our recent Turning Points Report concluded that our grants could provide savings of over £19 million to the Government in homelessness prevention alone.

What is clear is that even amid stretched resources, the DWP and local authorities could be doing so much more to help children, families and young people at risk of homelessness.  Whilst there is an acknowledgement that preventative measures should be taken more seriously in the guidance of the Homelessness Reduction Act there is also legitimate scepticism across the social care sector as to whether this will be properly funded, let alone effective in reducing temporary accommodation spending in light of the huge economic realities being faced.

Buttle UK joins those that are calling on the Government to end the benefit freeze that has contributed to so many finding such a basic necessity as warm, safe accommodation unaffordable. This is in addition to our previous call for local authorities to have a statutory requirement to provide effective local welfare provision.

Finally, the pressure on temporary accommodation and social housing stock must be alleviated; either by central or local government decisively addressing the housing crisis that permeates throughout the UK.

We will do everything we can to make Chances for Children grants available to more families and young people across the UK, but without addressing the wider issues I fear we will see more and more children and families facing Christmas in ever more desperate circumstances in the years to come.

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