Children housed in shipping containers reveal more about Britain than you think

Our current perception of homelessness neglects many of those suffering. 

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Whenever I hear statistics about homeless children, I think of Prime Minister’s Questions. Specifically, the session on 20 December 2017. Theresa May was faced with a question about the 2,500 children in the constituency of Tooting, south London, who were about to wake up homeless on Christmas Day.

“Anybody hearing that [question] will assume that what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not,” May told the House of Commons. “It is important that we are clear about this for all those who hear these questions because, as we all know, families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation.”

Translation: Don’t worry about it, they’re not literally on the streets.

Unsurprisingly, May was accused of giving a “callous answer” by the Labour MP who questioned her, Rosena Allin-Khan. But really, May was displaying the wrongheaded way the UK generally views homelessness. While most homeless people are in shelters, hostels, other temporary accommodation and "sofa surfing", this is not the typical perception of the “homelessness crisis”, much to the frustration of homelessness charities.

I’ve heard from homeless young people interviewed as case studies who are regularly asked in the media how long they’ve lived “on the streets”, when they never have. The question belittles their current situation by suggesting it’s not dramatic enough, and fundamentally misunderstands homelessness. It’s also the attitude that allows a prime minister to stand up and suggest most homelessness doesn’t matter.

In England today there are more than 210,000 children estimated to be homeless, with some being temporarily housed in converted shipping containers, according to a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England. Office block conversions, warehouses and B&Bs with shared bathrooms are also being used as temporary accommodation. Of those 210,000 children, 120,000 are in temporary accommodation and 90,000 are sofa surfing.

While the image of children having to live in shipping containers is a striking indictment of modern Britain, it’s also a symbol of the hidden homeless we so often forget. Entire families live in cramped, frightening, uncomfortable and entirely unsuitable spaces because of austerity, lack of housing and welfare reform.

It shouldn’t take children living in shipping containers to remind the country of this problem. Yet if even visible homelessness, with rough sleeping up by 165 per cent since 2010, hasn’t prompted the government to provide adequate funding and reform, their plight may continue to be for nothing.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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