The housing crisis is disproportionately affecting single mothers, who are slipping through the cracks and joining a growing number of people who are “hidden homeless”.
An investigation into the situation in Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, has uncovered an alarming number of young women, many with children, who say they are forced to live in temporary accommodation while they battle a chaotic and complex council housing system.
According to data held by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) for 2016/2017, single mothers are the largest group of people affected by homelessness in England, making up 47% of the overall figure for statutory homelessness.
During the same period in the city of Birmingham, 3,479 families were found to be statutory homeless, meaning they are eligible for assistance from the council or in priority need. Of these, 1,892 were single mothers – the largest group.
The rest of the number includes 917 couples with dependent children, 101 single fathers, 220 lone males and 229 lone females.
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But the figures, analysed as part of a joint investigation by BirminghamLive and HuffPost UK, reveal a complex grey area between those who are “statutory homeless”, individuals or families who have been identified and accepted as homeless by local authorities and are therefore eligible for assistance, and “hidden homeless”, those without a permanent place to call home but are not yet recognised by the council and therefore ineligible for support.
This can include people in precarious situations such as living in hotel rooms, sofa-surfing, squatting and sleeping on public transport.
Many single mothers spoke of their struggle to be recognised as legally homeless by Birmingham City Council, facing lengthy stays in hotels as they await more permanent housing.
Although the true scale of hidden homelessness is hard to measure, experts believe a “perfect storm” of welfare reforms, a lack of suitable housing and secure work have contributed to a growing number of “hidden homeless” women seeking help from charities and local services.
I am not asking for much, even a one-bedroom flat would be something. A hotel room is not a home. Vicky Pearce
Vicky Pearce, a 22-year-old single mum, is one of them. She has secured a place to live for the next 28 days, in the Maypole area of Birmingham, although she has never visited the area before. She has been placed in a Travelodge hotel – her fourth since finding herself homeless after a relationship breakdown.
The mother-of-two had a home in Shard End, Birmingham, but she was forced to move out after she broke up with her partner. She said despite exhaustive efforts to be recognised she waited around five months for an application declaring her as homeless to be approved by the city council - which she needed in order to bid for a stable property.
Pearce is one of hundreds of “hidden homeless” single mothers, without a home but whose applications to the council have not yet been processed.
Figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January revealed there were 57 people registered as sleeping rough in Birmingham last Autumn – an increase of 3% from 2016’s figure of 55 and a major increase from just nine people reported in 2010.
But in hotels across the city, and indeed the country, an increasing number of people are off the streets but homeless and waiting to be placed into temporary accommodation.
Emergency accommodation such as this should only be used for a few weeks, but many people have been living out of hotels room for several months, and some for over a year.
Birmingham City Council has admitted the city is being gripped by a housing crisis, with a particular shortage of three and four-bedroom homes, with many families finding themselves crammed into a single hotel room.
As of March 31 last year, 1,556 households in Birmingham were being housed in temporary accommodation – the highest number on record in the city.
This is compared to 2008/09, when 443 people in Birmingham were in temporary accommodation at the same point in the year.
Of those in temporary accommodation at the end of March last year, 272 were in B&Bs and 124 were in hostels. On March 31 that year, 52 families with children had been in a B&B for more than six weeks.
Birmingham City Council said that hotels were only used “when all other housing options have been exhausted”, adding that a “comprehensive plan” had been put in place to reduce the use of bed and breakfasts.
Before Pearce became homeless she was a qualified beautician and looking forward to getting her career up and running after starting a family.
“I don’t know where I am,” she said. “I’ve never been to Maypole in my life but it was either here or be moved out of Birmingham.
“I used to ask the council to put me in a hotel as close to my sister as possible. But now, I don’t care where I live, I just want somewhere to cook a decent meal for my daughter.
“I am not asking for much, even a one-bedroom flat would be something. A hotel room is not a home.”
Robert James, housing director for Birmingham City Council, said: “We recognise the need to reduce the use of bed and breakfasts and as such have developed a comprehensive plan to put an end to this.”
“In the meantime, we are working to deliver new ideas that will make more council-owned accommodation available, as well as working with partners across the city to unlock further housing options. We are also implementing a new approach to homelessness that looks at prevention first.
“In relation to Ms Pearce’s case, a decision has been made on her homeless application and she has been informed of this with the next steps being explained.”
Pearce’s situation is not unique. Gingerbread, a charity which supports single parents, said there are a number of reasons reasons why single mothers are particularly susceptible to hidden homelessness.
Dalia Ben-Galim, director of the charity, said that the “squeeze” on housing, compounded with low quality, low paid jobs and the rising cost of childcare puts a huge strain on single parent households.
“It really feels like families are struggling much more than they were used to,” Ben-Galim said.
“It does feel for single parents that it is a combination of factors that is getting worse and because different services, both nationally and locally, have been cut, there are fewer places that they can go for support, which is why we are seeing a rise in food banks and why charities are also seeing a rise on the impact on our services.”
Every 28 days, Pearce has had to pack up all her belongings and check out of the hotel room her two-year-old daughter, Lexi-Lara, has been calling home for the past month.
The pair waits in her sister’s car, surrounded by her possessions, to find out which hotel they are going to next. Each time they are relocated, there is a chance they could be moved as far away as Manchester.
“I don’t drive, so that would be an absolute nightmare situation for me,” Pearce said. “I had to sleep on my ex’s sofa last night because there was no hotel room available for me, apart from Manchester.
“As soon as I arrive at a new hotel, I have to find my bearings and check out the local amenities so I can buy supplies for my children.
“There are no cooking facilities so it’s either takeaways or eating out constantly.
“We do not have a fridge, so we cannot store food and we do not have a washing machine.
“I have to wash my clothes at my sister’s house. My sister has a family and her house is full already, so there is no option for me to stay with her.”
Homeless charity Shelter carried out a poll of 2,000 UK adults in December 2013, which found that 32% of people have experienced homelessness, including sofa-surfing and staying with friends.
Centrepoint estimates that as many as one in five people have experienced such hidden homelessness.
Paul Noblet, from Centrepoint, said: “They can get trapped in this sort of cycle of moving from sofa, back to the street and then perhaps to another sofa but it’s very difficult for local councils and outreach teams to pick up on because they don’t know where to look.”
Angela Sheridan-Hunt has not had a permanent address for eight years. She has been sofa-surfing since she moved out of her house after her relationship ended. After that, she began to live “all over the place”. For now, the lifestyle suits her, but she knows she doesn’t want to be “sleeping on settees forever”.
She said that, at the time she became homeless, she found it important to be around people for the sake of her mental health. “I have been living with friends and family, banding back and forth ever since,” she said.
“It’s quite a nomadic lifestyle. I have [thrown away] most of my possessions now so I do not have anything to take around. I have got a few things fixed in certain places but that is it.”
Sheridan-Hunt has spent a great deal of her time with rough sleepers in Birmingham and runs the Sunday Breakfast Club. She’s come to learn a lot about rough sleeping and homelessness in the city.
“Even though I don’t have the house with my own key to my front door, I am still in a better position than some people.
“I have never slept on the streets but I have never needed to because I have quite a good supportive circle, until they tell me to get lost.”
I have never slept on the streets but I have never needed to because I have quite a good supportive circle, until they tell me to get lost.” Angela Sheridan-Hunt
Councillor Sharon Thompson, cabinet member for homes and neighbourhoods at Birmingham City Council, became homeless at the age of 16 and lived a sofa-surfer lifestyle for several months before moving into a hostel, and eventually her own home, when she turned 18.
The ambassador for homelessness and rough sleeping said that she slept on friends’ sofas for many months when she was a teenager, before being helped by St Basils, a prominent Birmingham homelessness charity.
Thompson acknowledged that Birmingham – and the UK as a whole - is currently “sat in the middle of a housing and a homeless crisis” and stressed the importance of a preventative model to tackle the problem.
Addressing the issue of those in temporary accommodation, Thompson said: “I recognise we have a lot of people in temporary accommodation and we can do the prevention work to stop people getting to that situation but we need the flexibility from the government in order to build more properties.
“If we had the properties, there is no chance we would want to be putting anyone into temporary accommodation.
“My heart goes out to any family that ends up in temporary accommodation, it is not a nice place to be but we are dealing with the [housing] stock we have got at the moment.”
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