140,000 children will be homeless this Christmas as housing crisis worsens

Nearly 140,000 children will spend Christmas in temporary accommodation, in a system that is breaking families, ITV News Investigations Correspondent Dan Hewitt reports

More than 139,000 children in England will wake up on Christmas Day without a home. It is the highest number on record. They will open presents in a hostel or a bed and breakfast; a hotel room or a cramped, one-bedroom flat that isn’t their own. They may have been staying there a few days; they may have been there for months, perhaps years, sharing a room with their siblings or a sofa bed with a parent. They are England’s homeless children, trapped in temporary accommodation, and their number is growing. They are the victims of ever-rising private rents, increasing use of no-fault eviction notices, and a failure over many decades by successive governments to build enough affordable homes. What little life they have so far lived is defined by uncertainty. It could well be setting in train untold damage on young lives with no choice and voice in the matter damaging their education, their physical and mental health, their prospects, their ambitions, their relationships. New research by Shelter given exclusively to ITV News shows 49% of state school teachers in England have taught at least one homeless child in the last year.

The figures show 91% of these teachers say housing issues are resulting in them coming to school tired, and 86% say children have missed school as a result of homelessness and housing problems.

If you look at what kids want they draw a home, being in temporary accommodation, it's not a home...it's probably the worst kind of system we could create, says Dr Laura Neilson

I have spent the last six months following families trapped in this deepening crisis, pushed into temporary accommodation with no end in sight.

In Weymouth, mum-of-two Katy rented the same home for more than a decade, but her landlord decided to sell it, and she couldn't find anywhere else affordable. “If this had happened a few years ago, a couple of years ago, I’d have been able to go from one private rent to another,” said Katy. “The financial climate has changed and therefore, you know, the rents have gone up and if I was to find another rental in this area, I’d have to find another £500 or 600 a month from what I was paying on this. I can’t find that money.”

We spent the day with Katy as she packed her life into boxes and then into storage, taking whatever furniture she couldn't afford to store to the local tip. She watched as cranes carried her sofa and dining table into skips. “You don't dream that you're going to end up in this situation when you have your children, when you work. You worked your whole life up until the point that it's taken out of your hands. “Normal people find themselves in horrible situations, and it just so happens that I’m one of them.”

Katy has to decide which of her possessions to lose as she and her family face eviction. Credit: ITV Tonight

Five weeks before Christmas, she has been placed into a tiny two-bedroom emergency flat by her local council in unfamiliar part of town. There is a sex shop directly opposite the bedroom her children will sleep in, and there is a list of restrictions for those living in the property. “I'm not allowed overnight visitors here. I have to spend every night here and I'm not allowed to drink alcohol here. So my weekend glass of wine has gone out the window. “I mean, honestly, when I read it I was like, I feel like I'm being like a prisoner being released on license with all the conditions that, that they're given. But at the end of the day, I'm housed and that's what, you know, that's the important bit, isn't it?" How long she will be there is unknown. Katy is about to discover there’s increasingly nothing temporary about temporary accommodation.

Exclusive research for ITV News by local government expert Jack Shaw has found 15,000 households have been living in temporary accommodation for more than five years.

That’s one in nine of all households in temporary accommodation. In Margate, Hollie and her 18-month-old daughter Elise have spent the last year and a half sofa surfing and living in hostels, moving to different areas of Kent every few months. She works part-time in a care home and receives housing benefit, but has been unable to find an affordable place to rent privately. They will spend Christmas in a bedroom in a hostel, sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with nine strangers. “It sort of brings this fear over me that we are going to be stuck either in a shared accommodation for the rest of our lives or sofa surfing like we were before,” Hollie told me. “It got to the point where I actually starting crying last night. I was looking around my room and I just burst out crying. I saw my little one in a travel cot still and just knew I couldn’t do it anymore."

Hollie explains what it is like living in temporary accommodation. “It feels like you've got no stability and feels like you're never really safe. You've basically got nowhere you can call home. You can't be happy there because you know that it's not yours. It feels like I’m trapped.” The increase in families presenting to their councils as homeless is pushing some local authorities to the brink of financial ruin. In October more than a hundred councils wrote to the Chancellor warning him they would soon be unable to pay for temporary accommodation for everyone that needed it.

We visited North Devon’s housing department , where homelessness has increased by a third in the last year, and the council’s spending on temporary accommodation has doubled to £1.2 million since 2019. We saw the wave of calls coming in from struggling families - evicted, unable to pay the rent, and with nowhere to go. Aaron Streat leads North Devon’s Homelessness and Temporary Accommodation service.

“On one hand, there’s a lot less properties about – people started renting out to Air BnBs (when) Covid hit,” he said. “That market went through the roof. Prices went up. Interest rates went up, they've had to sell the houses – and so a lot of people have come into our service because they were being made homeless, because the landlord was having to sell the property. “Then of course you’ve got the cost increase of the rent in the market as well so it’s not that the properties not available anymore, but it’s not to our clients, because it’s unaffordable. “Less properties, less landlords, higher rents. You’re looking at 50-70% less properties available in the private rental market. So, you get people stuck, they’ve got nowhere to go.”

Ken Miles is the council’s Chief Executive, and his assessment is bleak. “In my view anyway, it's a ticking time bomb,” he said. “I think you will shortly start to see councils start warning of their own impending bankruptcy because of temporary accommodation. I don't think you can say it's anything other than a crisis.” In a statement responding to our findings, a government spokesperson said: “While temporary accommodation is an important way of making sure no family is without a roof over their head, councils must ensure it is suitable for anyone who lives there, and families have the right to appeal if it doesn’t meet their needs. “We know building more homes will help relieve pressures. We’ve committed to doing so as part of our long-term plan for housing, and our multi-billion pound programme to build thousands of new affordable homes will also see a large number for social rent. “We are also launching a third round of the Local Authority Housing Fund and increasing the Local Housing Allowance so 1.6 million low-income households will be around £800 better off on average next year.”

'Homeless Families: Our Christmas Crisis', will air at 20:30 on Thursday, December 21 on ITV and is available after on ITVX

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