While the pandemic has affected all of us, Covid-19 continues to disproportionately impact low-income families. Under the weight of mounting financial pressures and constant uncertainties, low-income families have become more vulnerable, and children have been hit hardest. Sandra Baah, the Mediation Service Co-ordinator for Camden Council said that during the pandemic young people were “not feeling safe or heard in their family home”. These pressures come together as a part of a toxic mix driving young people from their homes.

Pandemic aside, longstanding structural challenges are key when it comes to considering children and homelessness. Millions of children across the UK are unable to access safe and sanitary housing with 23.5 million homes in England classed as ‘non-decent condition’. Newham continues to be, one of the poorest boroughs in the UK with child poverty as high as 50% and 1 in 12 children in the borough classified as homeless. Describing the scale of homelessness in Newham Paul Cooper, the Head of Homelessness, Prevention & Advice at Newham Council outlined the gap between social housing demand (approximately 34,000 requests) against a supply (600 homes becoming available each year).

While these numbers might seem insurmountable, there is some cause for optimism. Newham Council supported by the Greater London Authority (GLA) has committed to building 1,000 new council homes a year and schemes such as Homefinder act as a gateway for social housing tenants and homeless applicants who would like to be housed in another borough but remain in or access social housing. Additionally, Newham Council is championing a joined-up approach to homelessness and rough sleeping by adopting a single-gateway model, which allows any person who is at risk of homelessness or rough sleeping to contact the council and access wraparound support in a holistic joined-up way.

Nevertheless, while these schemes are commendable and a move in the right direction, there are no double that experiences of homelessness and rough sleeping harm children.

Hidden harms

Homeless children are particularly vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences (ACE) that can affect their life chances.

Research has highlighted the overlap between homelessness and mental health problems and experience of institutions such as prisons. Homeless children often feel an overwhelming sense of displacement and are more likely to experience stress and anxiety, resulting in depression and behavioural issues. Trauma caused in these settings can have immediate and long-term effects on children’s wellbeing. Amanda Dubarry, the chief executive of Caritas Anchor House, a charity that exists to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, acknowledged the relationship between child homelessness and trauma and said those cycles of instability “get replayed in the future when they’re older”.

Life in temporary accommodation is associated with greater rates of infection and accidents that would not normally happen if these families were housed in a family home. Children living in overcrowded homes miss school more frequently due to medical reasons than other children and are more likely to suffer from respiratory issues. Evidence suggests that the impact of homelessness on a child’s health and development can extend beyond the period of homelessness.

Disruptions to schooling caused by homelessness negatively affect children’s ability to learn which has lasting impacts on a child’s chances to succeed. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic due to frequent school closures and often for homeless children the lack of space and equipment to concentrate on schoolwork. Absenteeism from school is also more likely for homeless children and homelessness may ‘single out’, increasing the likelihood of bullying and isolation.

Improving outcomes for children starts with the home.

Preventing child homelessness: Early Action works

Community Links believes that tackling issues early build resourceful communities that can collectively overcome challenges and ultimately flourish – we call this our Early Action approach. As evidenced by Crisis, helping vulnerable families at risk of homelessness at the earliest opportunity can radically improve outcomes.

Several considerations could support an early action approach to reducing child homelessness:

  • Equipping families with skills and knowledge to deal with housing problems when they arise
  • Holistic early family support, including intensive school-based interventions to support children who are currently homeless and improve outcomes
  • Early action by agencies to mediate between private landlords and their families to reduce evictions

In discussing the upcoming Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy for Newham, Paul confirmed that “legislation is the first step towards early action”. An early action approach to tackling homelessness must be a key component in any strategy to tackle homelessness effectively.

What next?

The following recommendations aim to address structural challenges that contribute to child homelessness:

  • Local councils must adopt an Early Action approach as a preventative measure to reduce homelessness for children.
  • The Government must create more ambitious targets to address the chronic undersupply of affordable housing.
  • Local councils must introduce formal targets to reduce the number of children in temporary accommodation.

These interventions give young children who have experienced the traumatic effects of homelessness the chance to build the resiliency and competence they need to break the detrimental cycle of homelessness.

We are grateful to the National Lottery Community Fund for supporting our work.

Listen to the full conversation with Paul Cooper & Chi Kavindele:


Listen to the full conversation with Amanda Dubarry & Chi Kavindele:


Listen to the full conversation with Sandra Baah & Chi Kavindele: