Despite guidelines that say bed and breakfast accommodation is no place for children, the number of families having to live in hostels is soaring. Some of the people trapped in them talk about their plight
These are the reasons why nine-year-old Rana does not like her new home. The bedroom she shares with her mother has no window. The room is too small to fit two beds, so they have to share, and there’s only room to do her homework if she clears all her mother’s housing documentation from the tiny square table, squeezed between the bed and the wall. During the night, she can hear the occupants of the bed and breakfast’s other rooms stamping up and down the stairs, occasionally followed by the police, so she lies in bed wondering who they are and what is going on.
Most worrying is the woman in the room next door who attacked her mother a few weeks ago, after a quarrel about leaving the doors open to go and use the kitchen. The assault was so violent (scratches, hair torn out and slaps to the face) that her mother had to spend the night in hospital, accompanied by Rana. The neighbour remains in the bed and breakfast, and Rana and her mother have responded by no longer using the communal kitchen. Instead they buy food from KFC and McDonald’s.
“When we had our own flat, I loved that kind of food, I wanted to eat it every day. But now we eat it every day, I don’t want to eat it any more,” she says. She has taped a poster with a picture of ponies and foals, garlanded with flowers, above the table, but the room remains unhomely, a small space crammed with overflowing suitcases and belongings balanced on top of each other because there are no shelves to store things on.
By contrast, her mother, Mina, feels lucky to be here, because – despite the broken furniture, the damp mattress in the kitchen, propped up by another tenant near the window to dry, and the terrifying neighbours – the place is at least close enough to her daughter’s school to make the daily commute there possible.
This year there has been a dramatic surge in the number of families being housed in B&Bs, with figures from the National Housing Federation showing a 44% increase over the past year. For families with children, the rise has been even sharper – an increase of 60%, according to the homelessness charity Shelter. Almost 4,000 families are now living in hostels, and the most dramatic rise is in central London.
The image of families living for extended periods in B&B hostels became familiar in the early 1990s, but for a decade their use has declined due to a concerted effort by politicians conscious that this method of housing people is not only extremely insecure and very damaging for children, but also very expensive for the councils paying the bills.
There is no enthusiasm from councils for housing families in B&Bs, with shared cooking and bathroom facilities, but because of a chronic shortage of cheap housing, particularly in London, there is little alternative. Guidance that B&B accommodation is not suitable for families with children and should only be used in extremis, for no longer than six weeks, is widely breached, because councils have nowhere to move people on to.
Shelter says these B&B figures are the coal-mine canary, which point to simmering crisis in the low-income housing system. The rise in families being housed in B&Bs runs parallel with the rise in homelessness, up by 26% in the past two years. It’s almost unheard of for a family to be allowed to become homeless on the streets; B&Bs are relied on to prevent that from happening. These figures show how many families are that close to the brink.
“When these numbers start to go up dramatically, it is a real sign that there are pent-up problems across the entire system,” Toby Lloyd, from Shelter, says. “The number of homeless families is going up very fast, as a result of a perfect storm of problems in the system. Bed and breakfasts are the last resort for housing homeless families.”
Rana and Mina (who, like most people interviewed for this piece, asked for their real names not to be printed in case any suggestion that they might be complaining rebounds on them in the council’s housing office) are living in this bed and breakfast, as a direct result of changes to the housing benefit system.
The precise thinking of Mina’s previous landlord is not clear, but she was charging £500 a week for the two-bedroom flat in St John’s Wood in north London, paid for by housing benefit, when a new housing benefit cap was introduced, which would have reduced the maximum payment available to Mina to £290. Rather than waiting for her tenant to fall into arrears, the landlord gave her notice to leave earlier this year.
If these figures sound enormous, they need to be set in the context of the London property market to be understood. In the last decade, as investors globally have sought stability in the UK housing market, a property boom has rippled from the most expensive houses in Knightsbridge down to the cheapest flats in Newham, pushing up private rents. The coalition’s introduction of a housing allowance cap was based on the theory that by capping the amount available to housing benefit recipients, landlords would drop their rents and renegotiate lower contracts with tenants. But because the rental market in the capital remains so buoyant, what appears to have happened instead is that families like Mina’s have been evicted and made homeless.
Research shows that around a third of all landlords renting to housing benefit tenants are thinking about ending their contracts, amid fears that their tenants will no longer be able to pay the rent, after the cap already introduced, and ahead of a second overall benefit cap, due to come into force in April 2013. Because fewer people are able to get mortgages to buy their own homes, the private rental market is booming, and landlords in central London know they will have no difficulty in renting elsewhere to less uncertain tenants.
A refugee from Iran who has lived in London for many years, Mina used to work in a cafe but now has arthritis in both knees; she walks with difficulty and does not work. There was nowhere else she could afford to move to in the vicinity of her daughter’s school, so she asked the council for advice. They told her she needed to be formally evicted by bailiffs, made homeless by the landlord, and only then would they be able step in to give her emergency help.
Mina was out when the bailiffs came, so Rana and a family friend had to move everything out of the flat – another alarming experience for the then eight-year-old, who says the bailiffs looked like police officers and were very unfriendly. First they were housed in a hostel in east London, but it was impossibly far from the school, and a kind Westminster housing office took pity, Mina says, and rehoused them. Despite the six-week limit, they have been here for seven weeks already, and have been given no information about when they might be moved.
“The people are quite frightening here. There’s shouting all night long,” Rana says. When her daughter leaves the room, Mina says she thinks a lot of the other tenants have mental health problems, some are drug addicts and some have recently left jail. “When she goes to bed, she says: ‘Mum, I am not happy’,” Mina says.
Mina understands that the government has to save money, but wonders if they need to target people like her, who have long-term roots in the area. “I’ve had the same GP for 20 years, the same hospital. All my daughter’s friends are here. Are we meant to change all these things?” she asks. “Suddenly they’ve changed all the rules. They are playing with people. They are messing around with people’s lives. It’s a lot of stress for a single mother.”
She has told her daughter not to tell her school friends that they are living in a room in a bed and breakfast, sharing a bathroom with 10 other families. “No one in school knows. I told the teacher we had to move, but she doesn’t know I’m living in this tiny room,” Rana says.
Campaigners in the housing sector are despondent at the rise in B&B numbers. David Orr, chief executive of the NHF, says: “What’s so frustrating is that people in the sector have been working very hard indeed to get the numbers down to almost zero. There was an economic argument – that this was an inefficient use of public money – but governments of both colours understood that this was just an appalling way to bring up children.”
The “inexorable rise in bed and breakfast numbers” over the past eight quarters has been depressing to witness, he adds: “It feels like years of work are going down the drain.”
He points to the change in housing benefits as a possible cause. Housing systems are fantastically complex, but if the system is working properly, families who become homeless should be quickly moved from “emergency accommodation” (B&Bs) into “temporary accommodation” – usually private properties rented by the council to house the homeless – theoretically less expensive and more secure than hostels. Because the numbers of homeless are rising, there is less temporary accommodation available and with landlords increasingly nervous about housing tenants who claim benefits, reducing the available stock, and more people are being pushed into B&Bs. “There is some evidence that landlords who were [taking] housing benefit tenants, are no longer prepared to take people on housing benefit, perhaps because they realise the risk of them going into arrears,” Orr says.
In this context, B&Bs tend not to be places that budget tourists having a mini-break in England would want to end up in, but are hostels whose business model is built on housing the homeless. “They are often overcrowded, poorly managed and very poor quality. Often they are closed between 9am and 4pm, so residents are evicted during the day. We are talking about places that most tourists would not want to stay in,” Orr says.
It’s not clear that the rising B&B figures will attract tremendous public sympathy. The British Social Attitudes survey published last month confirmed what has been increasingly obvious over the past few years – that there is a marked decline in popular support for the size of the benefit bill, and little desire for the government to spend more on welfare. Traditionally during recessions there has been an empathetic surge of support for more spending on welfare, but now only 28% of people think this. Labour has begun to echo the Conservatives’ talk of benefit caps.
Housing is an emotive subject because most people are struggling to pay rent, or a mortgage, making life-altering decisions about where to live based on how much they can afford to spend – so making the case for the state to be subsidising large chunks of rent for other people to live in London does not instantly elicit sympathy. If you’re in any doubt about this, just glance below to read the comments that inevitably follow pieces on this theme.
But there has always been a subsidised housing system to help people on low incomes. The problem in London is that rents have grown so extortionate, out of kilter with the cost of living anywhere else in the country that the costs required to support people to stay in the areas where they have roots now seem unfathomable to anyone who has not had recent contact with the London housing market. Campaigners constantly have to make the point that this is not a reason for stopping offering support to people.
This housing crisis affects people who are working, as well as those who are not. Helena Carroll, who works in accounts, spent two nights in a bed and breakfast in west London last month with her seven-year-old daughter, and was so horrified by the experience that she left and is sleeping now on friends’ sofas, in rotation. This has led to tensions between friends because it’s not easy to embrace two more people into a home without tempers becoming strained, but she finds it easier than returning to the bed and breakfast.
She was evicted from her flat in Hammersmith in August, probably also the victim of the incoming benefit cap. She works 25 hours a week, earning around £800 a month, and paid part of her own rent, but is unable to afford to live in the part of London where she grew up, and where her daughter has always lived, without state support.
The room at the B&B was filthy. It had no window, just a small skylight, there was blood on the duvet sheet and the kitchen was encrusted with dirt, she says: “I wouldn’t put my daughter in a position of living in that kind of squalor.” A couple in the next door room spent the night screaming at each other, and one of them was sick. Every noise was audible through the thin wall. “I wouldn’t have minded if my daughter had been a small baby, and she wasn’t aware of what was going on, but she was awake, shaking in bed.”
The uncertainty has upset her daughter. “She has been teased a bit. They were saying, you’re homeless. She was very confused, and asking: ‘What’s homeless?’ All she wants is her own bedroom.”
Meanwhile Abdul has been living in a string of bed and breakfasts with his wife and 18-month-old son since June 11, when they were evicted from their home in Maida Vale, north London, where he has lived for 11 years since he arrived as a refugee from Syria.
They are currently in a tiny room in Southall, sharing a bathroom with five other families, and the kitchen with 12. The family don’t cook, because all their saucepans are in council storage (along with their winter clothes) and it costs £45 every time they access it to get something out. “I have only these shoes. I didn’t know we would be here this long,” he says. They too are surviving on takeaways – junk food and sandwiches.
It is difficult for him to return to Maida Vale for his carer job, because he can’t afford the £10 round trip and the bus journey stretches over an hour and half. The family stay inside a lot, because they don’t know the area; there is no garden, and they don’t know where the nearest park is. There is barely one step between the end of the bed and the cupboard and four steps between the window and the door, so after 14 weeks, his son is becoming frustrated with the confined space.
“There is a big difference. Before he was very, very quiet. He is always shouting at us. He has energy he can’t burn off,” Abdul says, as his son sings E-I-E-I-O to a plastic truck.
“All my life has been damaged. Everything has changed in my life, everything is broken. Even me and my wife we fight too much,” he says.
Grace, a mental health nurse, has been living in a room with her 16-year-old son, in a white stucco-fronted hotel in west London for five months. In the lobby there is a rack of leaflets advertising musicals and tourist attractions in the West End, but there is no sign of any tourists. Most residents are also victims of the housing crisis.
She became homeless when she and her son were thrown out of the flat they were sharing with friends. Her son is at school nearby, but as a newly-qualified nurse earning a salary of £21,000, Grace, who moved from Nigeria over a decade ago, is unable to afford to rent in this part of central London, where she wants to be so that her son can stay in the school where he has begun his A-levels, and so she can easily travel to the hospital where she often works nights and early morning shifts.
Despite the disruption of moving into the B&B when he was sitting his GCSEs, her son did extremely well, getting all As and A stars, and has embarked on A-levels with a view to becoming an aerospace engineer. Moving to a part of London where she could think about affording to rent would, she says, both make the night shifts impossible and would unsettle her son’s education.
The hotel has strict rules controlling residents’ behaviour. She is not allowed visitors, so we meet on the doorstep and rush through the rain to a cafe. She is not allowed to use the kitchen after 10pm, which means she can’t do any cooking when she gets back late from work, so has taken to eating McDonald’s on the bus on the way home. Breakfast, which she has to pay for, is between 8am and 9am, which doesn’t often fit in with her shift pattern, so she has to miss it. She worries about her son, alone in the hotel when she is out at work. She doesn’t want to be negative about her neighbours, but is conscious of drugs being smoked in the corridors. “I thought B&s were just for visitors and tourists. I didn’t know homeless people went to stay in B&Bs,” she says.
“The school has told me I really need to support him in his studies. He says he needs a quiet environment to study. At the moment I’m not able to make him regular meals,” she says. “My job requires 100% concentration. That patient’s life is in my hands. I need to get the drug calculations 100% correct. But I am thinking, is my son safe? I don’t know when I’m moving. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m really disturbed and it is affecting my work. Being a nurse is a very demanding job; it is a stressful environment. You need to come back and have a peaceful sleep – I can’t sleep. My son is not happy.”
Her son finds it hard to work in the small room, and she finds it uncomfortable having to ask him to step into the corridor every time she wants to dress or undress. She is also meant to be studying for post-qualification tests as the final part of her nurse’s training, but has found it near impossible to set aside the time and space when her son is not working. She knows she should already have been moved out of the B&B, if the council were to meet the six-week target, but she has little information about how long she might have to stay. She sees other families being housed more quickly, because they have a new baby or the mother is pregnant. “I can’t be pregnant at my age – I’m 48,” she says.
The problem with writing about real people caught up in the changes to the housing benefit system, or the benefit system overall, is that you have to lay them out for scrutiny, for people to observe their decisions and judge whether they think they are justifiable. Why doesn’t Grace move out of central London and commute? Why does Mina expect the state to pay for her housing, and why isn’t she working?
But, whatever you feel about the policy, this is how people’s lives are affected when the system nears crisis.
It was not possible to talk to anyone responsible for housing in person, but the new housing minister, Mark Prisk, sent an emailed statement, which reads: “There is no excuse for any family to be stuck in bed and breakfast accommodation, and we have offered support to those 20 councils who between them account for 80% of families in this situation for an unacceptably long time. We’ve increased the Discretionary Housing Pot to about £400m over the spending period to help families with the transition to the new, fairer, system of benefits.”
Romin Sutherland of the NextDoor project, a charity helping people affected by housing benefit cuts believes the system of benefits will not be fairer and argues that capping the housing benefit “is driving a huge rise in homelessness, which is itself costing the taxpayer many millions. And this doesn’t account for the longer term costs of uprooting established communities and dumping them without support in unfamiliar areas that are unable to provide for their needs.
“Instead of capping housing benefit, perhaps the government should be focusing on providing low-cost housing that gives back to the taxpayer over generations, rather than squandering our money on exorbitant rents,” he says.
As she enters the sixth month at the hotel, Grace feels angry at the amount of money being wasted on subsidising her to live there. The weekly rent for the room she shares with her son is £388, of which she pays £137 and the council £251. She is spending around £125 a week on the expensive, but unavoidable, cost of storage for all her belongings.
“I love being a mental health nurse. I feel I should be given the support I need to help me do the job I love doing,” she says. “But I feel that my contribution is not recognised. Key workers used to be prioritised – nurses, teachers – but that’s not the case now. I believe they are trying to push the underprivileged out from central London,” she says.
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