Thousands of children growing up in shipping containers, office blocks, and B&Bs

Report from Children’s Commissioner warns that this is the future for thousands more, based on fall-behind figures for mortgage and rent payments.


The housing crisis has thousands of children are growing up in shipping containers, office blocks, and B&Bs, new report from Children’s Commissioner for England reveals.

‘Bleak Houses’ estimates there could be more than 210,000 homeless children in England – 124,000 officially homeless and living in temporary accommodation, plus around 90,000 children living in ‘sofa-surfing’ families.

And the report concedes this total could be even higher due to a lack of data on the number of children placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services.

“Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers, and old office blocks,” said Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England.

“Children have told us of the disruptive, and at times frightening, impact this can have on their lives. It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time or to sofa surf.

“It is essential that the government invests properly in a major house-building programme and that it sets itself a formal target to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation,” she said.

The report warns that a further 375,000 children in England are in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.

Changes to planning regulations come with the concern that thousands of children are being housed in temporary accommodation not fit for them to live in, dangerous, and often far away from family, friends, and school.

Sample comments to the report include:

  • We have to eat on the floor as there’s not enough space…When we sleep, water drips on us which we don’t like” (Daisy, 9)
  • “I lived in a hotel for eight months…it’s like where all the prostitutes live” (Matthew, 14)
  • “The journey to school takes too long, and I’m tired” (Ruby, 6) 

The report shows that, while official statistics show 124,000 children in England living in temporary accommodation, this does not include the hidden homeless who are ‘sofa-surfing’, often in very cramped conditions.

Related analysis estimates that in 2016/17 there were 92,000 children living in sofa-surfing families.

The children’s commissioner is also warning that official figures fail to capture a small but highly vulnerable group of homeless children who have been placed in temporary accommodation by children’s services rather than by the council’s housing department.

This includes families who have been deemed to have made themselves “intentionally homeless” and those with no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status. There is no publicly available data on how many families are being housed in this way.

The report publishes national estimates of the numbers of children living in temporary accommodation for extended periods, showing that the label ‘temporary’ is sometimes anything but.

This analysis suggests that in 2017 around two in five children in temporary accommodation (an estimated 51,000 children) had been there for at least six months. Furthermore, around one in 20 (an estimated 6,000 children) had been there for at least a year.

Further analysis found that an estimated 375,000 children are in households that have fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, putting them at financial risk of becoming homeless in the future.

The report also warns that temporary accommodation is frequently not fit for children to live in.

Due to the level of demand and shortage of accommodation, children frequently spend years living in temporary housing while they wait for an offer of permanent accommodation.

As a result of a shortage of good quality, self-contained temporary accommodation, many families are being placed in accommodation which is poor quality and too small.

The children’s commissioner is particularly concerned about:

  • B&Bs: This type of housing is not self-contained, and often the bathroom is shared with other residents in the building, along with the kitchen (if there are any cooking facilities at all)

The other residents might be families, but might also be vulnerable adults, such as those with mental health or drug abuse problems, creating intimidating and potentially unsafe environments for children.

Of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third had been there for more than six weeks, despite this being unlawful.

  • Office block conversions: A more recent development has been the conversion of former office blocks and warehouses into temporary accommodation under permitted development rights that bypass planning regulations and restrict the ability of local councils to object on the grounds of quality of accommodation

Some areas have become hotspots for conversions, in particular Harlow, where more than half of all new homes being created are office block conversions.

At least 13 office blocks have been converted, resulting in more than 1,000 individual flats.

Many of the flats are small, single studios that do not come close to meeting national space standards.

Some of the flats in Templefields House in Harlow measure as little as 18 square metres and may be shared by a whole family, with parents and children living and sleeping in the same single room also containing their cooking facilities.

There have also been areas suffering from crime and antisocial behaviour.

  • Shipping containers: Another recent development has been the repurposing of shipping containers for use as temporary accommodation

Often, they are located on ‘meanwhile sites’ – land that is earmarked for future development but currently not in use. The units are typically one or two-bedroom and small in size, meaning overcrowding can be an issue.

They can become really hot in summer and too cold in the winter.

As with some office block conversions, antisocial behaviour has been a problem, leaving some parents worrying about letting their children play outside, forcing them to stay in cramped conditions inside instead.

The report also shows how 23,000 families being housed in temporary accommodation in 2018 were living away from their home council area.

Children and families spoken with by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office talked about how moving away from an area can deeply disrupt family life.

For children, moving area might mean a new school, no longer being able to see their friends or not being able to go to the places they are used to.

Travel costs might also increase, as children have to travel further if they stay at the same school.

The report says the risks associated with poor temporary accommodation can also reduce some of the most basic aspects of childhood, such as a child’s opportunity to play.

A number of children and parents spoke about the cramped, overcrowded conditions (particularly in B&Bs where families often share one room) that leave little room for furniture and possessions, let alone space in which children could play.

School holidays are acknowledged as challenging for families lacking inside space and reluctant to let their children play outside when likely to be miles away from friends, parks or leisure facilities.

Even if there are activities close by for the children to attend, the prices can be prohibitive, the report says.

“Trapped by increasing rents and an unforgiving welfare system, there is very little many families can do to break the cycle of homelessness once it begins,” said Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and author of Bleak Houses.

“Trapped by increasing rents and an unforgiving welfare system, there is very little many families can do to break the cycle of homelessness once it begins.

“Preventing homelessness from happening in the first place is crucial. Yet government statistics fail to capture the hundreds of thousands of children living in families who are behind on their rent and mortgage repayments.

“Frontline professionals working with children and families need greater training to spot the early signs of homelessness, and councils urgently need to know what money will be available for them when current funds run out next year,” she said.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the children’s charity Just for Kids Law, said: “Every day, we are approached by children and their families who are facing homelessness or housed in temporary accommodation that is not fit for purpose.

“This puts children at serious risk, affecting their development, contributing to mental health issues, and damaging their life chances.

“As cuts to benefits and local authority budgets leads to rising demand for dwindling services, all too often we see local authorities practice an insidious form of gatekeeping to avoid providing children and their families with the support they are entitled.

“The government must take a serious look at the findings of this report and act urgently to ensure the funding and infrastructure are in place to ensure that all children are provided with the safe and appropriate housing they need to develop into healthy adults,” she said.

LGA Housing spokesman Cllr Martin Tett said that with homelessness services facing a £159m million funding gap next year (2020/21),  Government needs to use the upcoming Spending Round to ensure councils have long-term sustainable funding to prevent homelessness, and give councils the tools they need to resume their historic home building role.

“This includes allowing councils to keep 100% of receipts of council homes sold under Right to Buy, so that they can be reinvested in new replacement homes, and the ability to set Right to Buy discounts locally.

“It should also scrap the permitted development right which is taking away the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in, ensure homes are built to high standards with the necessary infrastructure in place and have resulted in the potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes,” he said.

Abi Gill, Senior Policy and Research Manager at Centrepoint, said around two-thirds of the young people Centrepoint supports each year become homeless because of family relationship breakdown.

“Already fragile family relationships can be pushed to breaking point by unsuitable, cramped living conditions.

“As well as urgently building more high quality social housing, the government must bring housing benefit in line with the real cost of renting, so that young people who are pushed into homelessness through overcrowding and family breakdown can access secure housing and move on with their lives,” she said.

Similar stories by tag