17/02/2016 03:52 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 05:12 GMT

The Kids Are Not Alright: Homelessness and Its Impact on Children's Mental Health



It never gets easier to hear the gut-wrenching stories of homelessness that families across the country have to deal with every day. Ordinary families whose lives have, through no fault of their own, taken a turn for the worse. Be it a sudden injury, an unexpected redundancy, a break-up with a partner, or simply soaring rents - all it takes is a single set-back to tip a family into a downward spiral that ends in the loss of their home.

Though councils have a duty to house families with children, the accommodation provided is often a million miles from adequate. Every day at Shelter we hear from desperate families crammed into a single bedroom of a B&B or hostel, miles away from their children's schools and support networks.

The shocking effects homelessness can have on a child's mental health can't be overstated. Shelter recently visited a number of primary schools in London where school pastoral workers spoke about the anguish that their homeless pupils go through, and the stories we heard were quite simply heart-breaking. Teachers reported children sleeping in cars, getting ready for school in the toilets of a nearby supermarket, waking up at 5am to leave for school and then falling asleep in class.

One teacher told us how children without a permanent home are visibly tired throughout the day and find it hard to concentrate. "The best thing that we can do for their well-being is let them sleep. We'll say, 'pick a teddy, get a blanket, and lie down and just sleep'."

We heard about a boy whose family were about to be evicted. He spent the day walking in circles in the playground, worried he wouldn't be able to come to school, uncertain of where he would be living, who else would be there, and how his family would cope. He spoke about a constant 'feeling in his stomach'. We heard of another boy who stood sobbing, in a busy playground, as his peers ran around him playing.

Andrea, a primary school teacher who experienced homelessness herself as a child, explains: "When you feel insecure in where you live, it impacts on your relationships and on how you relate to other people. It not only makes children feel desperately sad, it affects their self-esteem so much that it's a huge barrier to them reaching their potential."

She describes how some of the children at her school express worries about feeling excluded as a result of being new to yet another school with little or no understanding of what is being taught. "They are often frustrated and sad. These emotions have a negative effect on their ability to succeed."

And the problems run deeper still. When we spoke to parents, an overwhelming number of them felt their children's mental health and emotional wellbeing had been affected by living in emergency accommodation. Many parents reported issues with anxiety in particular.

One worried mother recounts, "My six year old has been going to the doctors because he's developed a nervous tick since we've been in that room. He was constantly nervous all the time. He's become violent to his little sister and he was never like that before. It's so upsetting to watch the way he's changed."

We heard of children with eating disorders, or who were self-harming. A child who became so bad he was hitting his head on the wall, biting himself and ripping his hair out. Other children became tearful and clingy, not wanting to be in a different room from their parents.

One mother said of the transformation in her daughter: "She was so outgoing before. Very bubbly, had lots and lots of friends and could talk to anyone. Now she's withdrawn, she gets quite scared and she's wetting the bed. She's been out of nappies since she was 18 months old. She's now seven and she's wetting the bed."

Parents expressed their guilt, helplessness and heartbreak at watching their children go through this. While the pastoral workers were doing all they could to minimise the impact on children, from providing food, clothes, or bedding to making referrals to child psychologists, there was only so much they could do to help.

A shocking 100,000 children woke up homeless on Christmas morning last year - and unless we deal with Britain's chronic shortage of affordable homes, this number will only rise. And until the government builds the homes that are truly affordable for ordinary people to rent or buy, Britain's brutal housing crisis will continue to do irreparable harm our children for generations to come.

Shelter has been fighting bad housing and homelessness for 50 years. Join us and together we will not rest until everyone has a place to call home.

Visit for information on how to get involved and support Shelter.

Image copyright Shelter

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email