06 Feb 2024

Temporary accommodation: children’s mental health paying the price

This week is Children's Mental Health Week and the theme for this year is ‘my voice matters’.  This focus on children’s mental health is particularly welcome at a time when one in six children have a diagnosable mental health condition, and waiting lists for children’s mental health support are stretching beyond what anyone would consider reasonable. So, as children across the country take part in activities and assemblies this week at school aimed to empower them to feel that they have right to have their voice heard, what of the approximately 140,000 children living in temporary accommodation (TA) across England – how much do they feel their voice matters? How do they build mental health resilience when they don’t have a secure foundation on which to build their lives?

Approximately 140,00 children in temporary accommodation. Let’s examine that figure for a moment and let it sink in. By my estimation of average class sizes of 30, it’s the equivalent of over 4,666 school classes or 222 three-form entry primary schools.

The numbers are huge, and they are growing (this figure was a 14 per cent increase on the previous year). The lengths of time families are living in temporary accommodation are also increasing. Data from Shelter in 2022 revealed two-thirds of families living in TA have been there for more than 12 months, this rises to more than four-fifths in London. Many families have been living in TA for more than 10 years! This means some children have only ever lived in temporary accommodation.

The longevity of your stay in TA doesn’t equate to living in the same place, there are usually frequent moves involved as local authorities struggle to move people around the inadequate jigsaw of provision they have at their disposal. Shelter’s Living in Limbo study published in 2023 reported that 30 per cent of households have lived in three or more temporary accommodation places and nearly two thirds of people were given less than 48 hours’ notice when they were last moved between TA placements.  This means families and children are living in limbo, moving frequently with constant stress, uncertainty, and insecurity hanging over them.

A safe, stable, decent home is a vital part of the foundation that every child and young person needs. Daniel Hewitt's recent coverage highlighted the untold damage on young people’s lives of being trapped living in over-crowded and all too often low-quality temporary housing.  The consequences of being forced to live this way for children range from lack of sleep (because of having to share beds with parents or siblings), to missing school and falling behind (due to long journeys from TA placements and inadequate space or facilities to do homework), to being under or over-weight (due to inadequate cooking facilities meaning that parents have to rely on takeaways) – to highlight just a few. 

Over a quarter of parents in  Shelter's growing up homeless research  said their child was often unhappy or depressed as a result of living in TA. One in four parents said their child found it hard to make or keep friends.  This is heart-breaking as these children will launch into adulthood carrying all of this with them. 

With council leaders holding an emergency meeting at Westminster a few weeks ago to warn government that the cost of temporary accommodation is pushing them to the brink of bankruptcy, the situation could not be more pressing.

There is no doubt that TA has an important role to play in our housing system, providing an important safety net in emergency situations.  But the scenario we have now has moved beyond being solely for emergencies and is both unstainable to council budgets and hugely damaging for individuals, especially the children growing up in it.   

Instead of rationing the scarce resource of affordable housing yet further, as I fear we are seeing in the rhetoric of the latest government consultation, we need a long term plan for housing, coupled with innovative short term actionsBuilding sufficient social housing is the lynchpin to this – we need at least 90,000 more social homes a year over the next 10 years; last year we delivered less than 10,000. We also need government to commit to making people’s experiences of TA as short and safe as possible.  Our housing manifesto provides more details on this and calls on all political parties to recognise housing as the foundation for creating healthy and sustainable communities. 

We owe it to this and future generations.

Written by Hannah Keilloh

Hannah is a policy and practice officer who leads our policy work surrounding planning, homelessness, and domestic abuse.