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By Koldo Casla

This article was published in Left Foot Forward.

Report shows how government and local authorities are failing thousands of vulnerable kids in Britain by shoving them into B&Bs and forgetting all about them.

There are over 120,000 homeless children in England.

And while children’s housing rights are proclaimed in a number of international treaties endorsed by the UK, human rights acquire true meaning when statistics and international standards give way to life experience.

And that is why the new report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) is so welcome. The report exposes the problem of housing children in temporary accommodation like B&Bs for extended periods.

The report states:

“Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) and Temporary Accommodation (TA) are often unsafe, dirty, overcrowded and breach health and safety regulations.”

Contrary to the ministry’s own guidance, which also makes clear that hotels and B&B accommodations are not suitable for 16-17 year olds in care, even in emergency situations, 40% of local authorities have confirmed rare or occasional use of B&Bs to house teenagers of that age. And a further 30% reported increased use of this type of accommodation.

What is worse: over half of the local authorities do not have a safeguarding policy to transfer children to temporary
accommodations or B&Bs.

CRAE’s report adds that:

“Very young children have nowhere to play, crawl and learn to walk, and parents find it difficult to set up regular sleep routines or potty train.

“Older children have no privacy and have nowhere to study or socialise with friends. Unsurprisingly, growing up in this kind of accommodation has been shown to have a detrimental impact on children’s mental and physical health and development.”

The children that spoke out for CRAE’s report know about homelessness because they have experienced it.

Ellen, a 12 year-old who lived with her mother in a B&B for over two months, delivered an eloquent but shocking testimony:

“It’s not like when you’re at home. There were a lot of strangers around. Everyone in the building shared a kitchen. To use it you had to ask the receptionist for the key. The cupboards were all taken. It was messy, plates everywhere, and tissue on the floor. The oven didn’t work. There was a washing machine but it was broken. There was outside space but it was always full of people smoking. Other people living there drank alcohol and sometimes they would be very loud. There was nowhere to study. It made me feel so stressed because I had to move again and again.”

She goes on to describe how the house was cold, the hot water in the shower infrequent, and the bedroom for her and her mother extremely cramped. She thinks living in such a precarious environment badly affected her exams.

Other children – aged as young as 10 – and young adults spoke to CRAE about the horrors they had witnessed.

Like Deanna (11), who told CRAE that “when you want to go to the toilet and wash your hands, it’s dirty. It makes me feel disgusted and I don’t want to be there.”

Or her brother Michael (14), who reached his own conclusions: “It feels like putting people in B&Bs is a quick and easy way to get rid of families.”

Testimonies like these are not only the most effective way to convey the human cost of homelessness and other human rights issues. Active participation is also one of the key principles of a rights-based housing strategy. People most affected by the policies, including children, should be encouraged to participate meaningfully at every stage, from policy design to implementation and monitoring.

As part of the study, children were asked what message they would send to the government.

Clear in his own mind, 16 year-old Carl said:

“I think the government needs to shut B&Bs down and get them all properly checked. They need to be changed because it’s just crazy. I think everyone deserves their own space, but in these places, you don’t have any.”

Carl is right. Everyone has a right to dignity and respect. No child should live like this, certainly not in one of the richest countries on Earth.

Authorities must stop using B&Bs beyond six weeks and action should be taken when they break the law. Child benefits should not be capped and homeless families should be certainly exempt from the benefit cap. The government must conduct a cumulative impact assessment of the welfare reforms on children, particularly on those from disadvantages groups.

These are just some of CRAE’s recommendations to take children’s housing rights more seriously.

Children spoke out on homelessness and I am grateful to these young human rights defenders. Children understand why you should have rights and they can explain it to anyone who is ready to listen.

It’s a shame our government isn’t ready to do the very same.