The run-up to Christmas is an exciting time for school children. But for Britain’s 128,000 children who are currently homeless, spending the holidays in temporary accommodation will be far from magical.
This year we have seen the highest numbers of homeless children in a decade. One in every 111 children in Britain is homeless, and in the worst affected areas there are more than 20 homeless children per school.
At Shelter, we know all too well the wide-ranging struggles children experience when living in temporary accommodation – long commutes, poor living conditions, a lack of access to basic facilities, to name just a few. But over the years we’ve heard anecdotally about how these children also suffer greatly in school. So this year we commissioned research to investigate the extent to which homelessness affects children in the classroom.
The results are frightening. As one secondary school teacher told us, “Homelessness has a massive negative impact on children, on their mental health and their attainment in school and just their life chances.”
Teachers recounted the most heart-breaking stories of students whose lives are altered so dramatically by the experience of homelessness that they fear that it will set them back permanently in life.
On the academic side of things, it is almost a given that children will fall behind in their school work. Without access to the internet, a computer or even a desk, children aren’t able to do their homework. Tired from lengthy commutes, children are exhausted and unable to concentrate in class, with some even falling asleep at their desks.
Even more heart-breaking are stories of how when children are in crucial exam years, they fall so far behind that even if their housing situation is later resolved, they are unlikely to achieve the results they deserve and might have easily attained had they had a stable home to return to in the first place. The lasting impact this will have on those children’s future cannot be understated.
As homeless children break up from school and celebrate Christmas in their cramped dingy accommodation that is far from home, you can guarantee our advisers will be fighting tirelessly to get them the help and support they need
Children’s health suffers too. Behaviour problems emerge almost immediately, an inevitable symptom of untold stress and anxiety. But what is even more shocking is just how isolated these children feel at school. Often placed far away in temporary accommodation, children struggle to attend school activities such as after-school sports or discos, or even see friends socially, resulting in a feeling of difference and isolation.
Further compounding that feeling of difference is the fact that some children don’t have access to washing facilities at their accommodation so their school uniforms are occasionally dirty. Others are forced to eat takeaways for lack of a kitchen – which are as expensive as they are unhealthy – and so end up putting on weight. For a sensitive, image conscious teenager, these issues only serve to isolate them further.
But it isn’t just teenagers whose behaviour changes. Younger children too become withdrawn or upset. One teacher movingly recounts how a child who didn’t have access to any of his toys at their temporary accommodation as they had all been left behind in their previous home, became very possessive over basic school stationary. Another child developed terrible separation anxiety and would howl every time his mother dropped him off. Other children become anxious as it approaches home time, because they don’t want to go back to their accommodation which certainly doesn’t feel like a ‘home’.
Teachers also discussed the impact dealing with homeless children in their classrooms had on them personally. Many find it incredibly exhausting and distressing. They recount feeling ultimately powerless when it comes to supporting or protecting those children who have been so profoundly let down by the housing crisis. One secondary school teacher said, “You are trying to do the best for every child but you can’t.”
At Shelter we too occasionally feel overwhelmed by the exhausting plight of tackling ever-increasing child homelessness. The numbers continue to stack up while our resources remain limited and the government is yet to deliver on the genuinely affordable homes it has of late been promising.
But as those homeless children break up from school, and celebrate Christmas in their cramped dingy accommodation that is far from home, you can guarantee our advisers will be fighting tirelessly to get them the help and support they need.
Sadly, we can’t do this without your help. We’re calling on people to visit shelter.org.uk/donate or texting SHELTER to 70080 to donate just £3 to support Shelter’s urgent appeal this Christmas.
Polly Neate is the CEO of Shelter