Housing is an issue that comes up time and time again for the families that our practitioners work with. SHS practitioners report that it’s become a key issue, particularly in London, and is having a huge impact on children’s access to education.
According to our data, families living in the private rental market appear to be the most at risk of experiencing housing issues. Following discussion with front-line practitioners, it was felt that issues with private landlords were much more common than other landlords.
There are a number of contributing factors to this:
- Increasing property prices has led to more landlords selling their properties, resulting in increased evictions.
- Increasing rents across London are pricing many families out of their homes. Combined with cuts to benefits, many landlords are evicting families because they can’t afford to top up rent above their benefits.
- Poor quality housing. Many families we support are living in housing in a state of disrepair. Many landlords are refusing to fix issues and it is felt that there is a threat of eviction if people ‘make a fuss’. Given the current difficulty in finding affordable housing, many families feel like there isn’t an alternative.
Whilst the bedroom tax has affected some of the families we work with, the much more common issue is families living in overcrowded housing. Case studies below highlight some of the issues of overcrowding. Due to the shortage of housing, many families have little option but to stay in these conditions.
Our practitioners’ advocacy for families in sorting out housing issues has a significant impact. Practitioners have a better understanding of how the system works and articulate the issues clearly. Because of their work status, they are seen as “professionals” and so elicit a different response from housing officers. It can be very difficult for people in a vulnerable state and at crisis point to get over all the information they need to, even if they understand the processes they need to go through.
Once evicted, a number of families are being moved out of the area in which they live. Families have been moved to different areas of London and as far away as Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and Stoke. Families are not consulted in this and not given an option, but rather told that they must go. This can have a devastating affect on families, often negating a lot of work different agencies have been doing to improve the quality of life of these families and their social engagement. It is of great concern that more often than not, when families move they do not get picked up by local services and will only reappear to the statutory authorities when they hit another crisis negating the previous investment in their progress and increasing the costs to public services and society as a whole.
The quality of temporary housing is also of real concern. One family who were moved to Leicester were staying in a bed and breakfast with a large number of adults with substance misuse issues, the bedroom door didn’t lock and people were walking in and out of the room during the night. This obviously left the family feeling frightened, and whilst the family have eventually been rehoused in outer London, the mother has required intensive mental health support following the housing crisis.
In another case, a family were moved to a hostel with an infestation of bed bugs. The seven year old son’s school were unaware that they had been evicted and were living in these circumstances so didn’t understand why he had become agitated and angry in class. He was too embarrassed to tell anyone where he was living, but eventually broke down and told the SHS practitioner where he was living and that his parents were stressed and arguing a lot. He said “I feel like a rat living in a rat cage”.
Another common problem that arises when people are moved into temporary accommodation in a different council area, is that there is confusion as whose responsibility the family are. In some cases the new area council have been reluctant to allocate children a place in one of their schools. This has a big impact on children’s education, through attendance and punctuality as they have to travel a greater distance, often catching a number of buses. The resulting cost of transport for parents, plus the time it takes to make four trips in a day, leads to a significant drop in attendance.
Some initial thoughts from our practitioners on how things could be improved:
● We would like to see housing as a prime outcome in the ‘Troubled Families’ programme. This is a huge problem for many families and can often be a key factor in other cases.
● Greater integrated and joined up thinking. Housing decisions that negatively impact on families lead to far greater costs to society, for example, through mental health services, disassociation with education, etc. As funding reduces and need increases, false economies are made with an increase in “need” thresholds and a focus on core outcome criteria removing earlier, less expensive support and waiting until crisis occurs and much higher costs are involved.
● Integrated information sharing across main services, including health, housing, social care, policing and education, would do much to improve the effectiveness of interventions.
● Better regulation of private landlords, with landlord licensing and enforcement of basic repair standards.
● Build more affordable housing. At the end of the day, this is going to have the most impact on the lives of vulnerable children and their families.
Case study 1
June is a single mother with five children, three of which are school age. June contacted the SHS practitioner in her children’s school directly as she was worried about her housing situation and changes to welfare benefits.
June’s property was in a very bad state of disrepair, and the private landlord was refusing to carry out repairs. The landlord wanted the family to move out but was refusing to take the necessary legal action to evict the family. As there was no legal evidence regarding the eviction, the council were refusing to rehouse the family.
Karen, the SHS Practitioner, helped June to get a solicitor through the legal aid scheme. This led to some of the repairs being carried out and the landlord going through the correct eviction procedures. Meanwhile Karen supported June to enrol for an ESOL course to improve her language skills and begin looking for part time work. June was informed about applying for council tax credit and applying for free school meals for her children. June was offered housing in Leicester, but did not want to move so far away. Following Karen’s advocacy on behalf of the family, June was housed in temporary accommodation in an outer London borough about an hour’s distance from the children’s school. As the children were in school, June decided that she wanted to keep them there as they had settled and she had become very engaged with the school through volunteering on coffee mornings and taking part in courses arranged by Karen. The family were eventually rehoused in a suitable house in a neighbouring borough to the school, the family are very happy with the move and the children are engaged with their education.
Case Study 2
Beth, an SHS Practitioner, first made contact with Sarah at a parents’ evening regarding her son’s punctuality. Sarah disclosed that there were a number of issues at home. Sarah lives in a two bedroom house with her four children between the age of 7 and 21. Sarah’s fixed term contract at work had ended a couple of months ago and she was only receiving £64 per week in benefits, which had resulted in debts building up.
As well as being overcrowded, (three sons share one room, daughter in the other bedroom and Sarah sleeps on the sofa) the house is in urgent need of repair (housing association property). Sarah was also feeling depressed which was impacting on the son’s attendance and punctuality. Beth supported Sarah to engage with the local Women’s Centre to get expert support regarding her housing and benefits. Sarah applied for family tax credits and free school meals for her children. The housing association arranged for someone to visit the flat and carry out repairs. The local law centre has also provided support regarding Sarah’s debts.
Whilst the family are still living in overcrowded conditions, they are in a better position to manage this situation and be ready to move when a property becomes available.
Case Study 3
Sam, an SHS ‘Troubled Families’ Practitioner, was referred a family who had met a number of the ‘Troubled Families’ criteria. All three children were persistently absent from school, both the mother and father were claiming out of work benefits and were both known heroin users. Both parents had previously been prosecuted and fined £1,200 for the children’s absence from school. Because of the adults’ drug use, all three children were part of a child protection plan. The father had also recently been released from prison due to drug related offences.
The family were in debt, their benefits had reduced following the introduction of the benefit cap and they were also affected by the spare room subsidy. The family had never previously engaged with professionals Sam worked intensively with the family to support them to address the range of complex needs they had. She engaged with the local authority to complete a Family Common Assessment Framework to ensure greater joined up working across the agencies involved with the family. Sam worked really hard with the family to ensure they understood the importance of education and put in place structure to ensure that the children got to school every day this led to a 100% attendance record in the period she was working with them. The SHS Welfare Fund was used to purchase school uniforms for the children. An application was made for Discretionary Housing Payments to help clear the rent arrears which was approved and weekly £30 payments were made. The parents began to engage with the substance misuse service and had been drug free since Sam began working with them.
A lot of progress had been made with the family and they were actively engaging with a range of professionals to overcome their issues, something that they had never previously done. Unfortunately at this point, due to the existing rent arrears the family were evicted from their home. The family are now homeless and moving between different friends and family homes on the other side of London. This has resulted in the family regressing, the children are no longer attending school regularly due to the distance and costs of getting there. The eldest daughter has tried to maintain attendance as she is in her GCSE year but has missed a lot of school. The parents have stopped engaging with the substance misuse service due to the distance and costs of travelling across London. After beginning to feel positive about their lives and looking forward to the future, the family now feel very low and negative.