Three to a bed – what it’s like to be in temporary accommodation at Christmas

In Britain, 128,000 children will wake up homeless this Christmas Day.

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My children are far from little now but they are still excited about Christmas. Surprise presents, great food and a lot of it, dozing in front of films, silly games. It's nice to think of children all over the country whose excitement is building. So, it’s utterly shocking that we are in fact living in a country where 128,000 children will wake up homeless this Christmas Day.

Among them is 12-year-old Hannah*, who dreads going back to her emergency accommodation at the end of the day. “The only time I don’t feel unhappy is when I’m at school,” she says.

For Hannah*, like thousands of other children, the school holidays are days trapped in a dingy room, forced to face the gruelling reality of homelessness.

One in every 111 children in Britain is currently homeless. And with the country in the grip of a worsening housing crisis, 2017 has seen the highest number of homeless children in a decade. Surely this shames us all.

The main driver of the rise in homelessness is the insecurity and high cost of private renting. The loss of a private tenancy is now far and away the leading cause. Rising rents, stagnant wages and housing benefit cuts have resulted in more and more low income families who simply cannot find a home they can afford.

Councils themselves have struggled with the growing demand from homeless families, resulting in more and more being put in unsuitable accommodation, such as temporary accommodation far away from their community, or cramped B&Bs.

In response, we at Shelter have published a new investigation to expose the hardships faced by parents and children stuck in emergency accommodation – B&Bs and hostels – widely considered the worst type of housing for families to live in.

Each family interviewed lived in one single room, making normal family life nearly impossible – never mind a merry Christmas.

One of the biggest challenges is no space for eating, sleeping and playing. No room for children to do their homework, families forced to eat dinner off the bed or floor, and very little privacy – stressful for everyone but most deeply so for young people entering adolescence.

“In year 10 there’s loads of revising to do but we can’t do it here as its too noisy,” according to Bridget*, 15. “We have to do it in break or lunch. It’s too stressful to come back and try and do it in the room… you get little ones try and draw on you. It’s too noisy in here and there’s no desk or anything like that.”

In some cases, we found families so overcrowded that parents were sharing beds with their children.

“It’s a small room with five people living in it,” said Amy, 15. “It’s got one double bed and one single bed. It’s not even a proper bed…it’s a camp bed. Three people sleep in the double bed with one person at the bottom and two people at the top. And two in the single bed. I sleep next to my brother, he kicks. My mum talks in her sleep.”

Again, it’s hard not to contrast this reality with the “normal” family Christmas of secretly wrapping presents and hiding stockings at the end of the bed, or under the tree on Christmas Eve.

At least bedrooms, while cramped, offer some sort of sanctuary for homeless families. Many families spoke about the difficulty of sharing bathrooms – often with inadequate locks on the doors and the constant threat of someone walking in – and sharing kitchens with strangers. Dirty, unhygienic spaces were a constant concern and children were often scared to leave the bedroom alone at night.

For many families, hostels and B&Bs feel like dangerous, unwelcoming places – not the vital safety net they are meant to be to keep children and families from sleeping rough on our streets.

At Shelter, we know that access to expert legal advice and support from our frontline advisers can get families like these out of temporary accommodation, and prevent others falling into homelessness in the first place. But with homelessness rising, we’re struggling to help everyone who needs us.

In the last year alone, 61 per cent of families helped by Shelter’s frontline services were homeless or on the brink of losing their home. That’s why we’ve launched an emergency fundraising appeal to ensure that no one faces homelessness alone. 

* Some names have been changed to protect identities. You can donate here or by texting SHELTER to 70080 to donate £3.

Polly Neate is the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.