Crumbling foundations


There are more than one million children in the UK living in poor housing. Annette Rawstrone looks at the consequences of this on their health and behaviour

There are more than one million children in the UK living in poor housing.

Annette Rawstrone looks at the consequences of this on their health and behaviour

'The connection between the health of the nation and the dwellings of the population is one of the most important that exists,' noted Florence Nightingale in the 19th century. But many families today continue to live in poor housing and temporary accommodation, enduring the associated health, educational and social problems that this brings.

'Some of the houses we visit are in an appalling state,' says June Aird, outreach project worker at Red Road Women's Centre in Glasgow. 'Houses are let to families without there being the money to do repairs - on many occasions I have seen toilet pans not sealed to the floor properly, no internal doors and appalling kitchens with just a sink and a unit - which is simply not feasible for families with two or more children. Many of the houses have damp problems which result in mum and children all sleeping in the same room.

'People do not realise that these housing conditions still exist in the 21st century, but on the north side of Glasgow it really is bad with a large proportion of families living this way.'

Young victims

According to Shelter, the national campaign for homeless people, the lives of more than one million children in the UK - enough to fill the cities of Edinburgh, Bath and Manchester - are adversely affected by bad housing.

'In the South, a huge shortage of housing has created massive pressure on the market with many families unable to afford a decent home. In the North the problem is more about condition - a huge number of properties are unfit for human habitation,' says Adam Sampson, Shelter director. 'Add to this families stuck in emergency accommodation, unsuitable for children, or stuck without hope of escape on crime-ridden estates. This is the true housing crisis and it is the children who are the real victims.'

Over the next 12 months Shelter is carrying out a national investigation, 'The Million Children' campaign, into the long-term effects of bad housing on children. Shelter's report Toying with their future states that health consequences include respiratory problems caused by damp and mould, diseases such as bronchitis and tuberculosis and dietary problems from inadequate cooking facilities.

'I see the effects of temporary and poor housing every day. There are a lot of scummy houses in Gloucester and Cheltenham with families living in incredibly unhygienic conditions,' says Robin Balbernie, consultant child psychotherapist, Sure Start Cheltenham. 'There is one house in particular where, after visiting, I have to change all my clothes - it is damp, the carpet has gone and it's smelly.

'Poor housing goes hand in hand with no safe outside play areas - I see communal gardens with discarded needles and dog poo. There is a distinct lack of clean play space. Not being able to run about outside has a huge impact on a young child's physical and mental development.

'Poor housing tends to be clustered in areas where there is more pollution, increased risk of violence, poor community spirit and an increased risk of lead poisoning because private rental landlords have not replaced the lead pipes.'

Moving home

Karen MacVean, children's services team leader at Shelter Homeless to Home in Bristol, witnesses first hand the 'devastating' effect that living in temporary accommodation has on young children.

'Bed and breakfast accommodation has a far quicker turnover for families these days, but then they tend to be moved on to a hostel for six to eight weeks and then they can be moved on to another before they are put in temporary accommodation. By the age of four a child may easily have moved homes four or five times and still not be in permanent accommodation,' she says.

'Constantly moving home can result in children becoming insecure and having difficulties socialising. There is a sense of loss because what they have keeps being taken away from them. It is also difficult for a child to get established in school because the family keeps moving around.'

Along with the impact on their education, she says the poor living conditions can result in children developing challenging behaviour or becoming withdrawn.

'The conditions in temporary accommodation are well below minimum standards and can be dangerous places for young children, including the possibility of paedophiles housed in the same place,' she adds. 'It is important to get families out of these places as soon as possible and get them settled in a supportive community.'

Feeling vulnerable

Parents can suffer guilt, stress and depression brought on by poor living conditions. This can affect parent-child bonding. 'A baby is not aware of the housing conditions, all it knows is what goes on with its parents. The more a parent is stressed from economic factors the less psychological energy they will put into their baby and this affects their ability to tune into their child,' Robin Balbernie says.

'A young child with no sense of secure attachment is more likely to grow up with insecurities and emotional vulnerability. In the long term it can affect a child's achievements. The first two years of a child's life set the foundations for what happens in the rest of their life.'

At Red Road Women's Centre, staff give families support and work to strengthen relationships between parents and children.

'We try to get children into our creche for some respite so they can spend time in a clean, happy and safe environment. It is a warm and welcoming creche with space for 30 children including ten babies,' says June Aird.

'The children receive lunch and breakfast - a meal that they often never have. While the children are in the creche we work with the mothers on their parenting skills and try to build up their confidence and self-esteem.

'People accept such poor housing because they tend to have a lack of education and confidence and they are desperate to get somewhere to live.

We have to fight for these families and try our best to break the cycle of deprivation.'

Decent future

Shelter is calling on the UK Government, Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly to commit to ending bad housing for the next generation of children. It has released a five-point plan to solving the housing crisis:

* more investment for new homes for people who need them

* giving local councils the resources to improve homes in disrepair

* more effective regulation of private landlords to ensure rented houses are safe

* more support services to prevent homelessness, such as advice and on-going support

* neighbourhoods that secure children's health and well-being.

Adam Sampson says, 'In the UK we are faced with a choice. Do nothing and allow a lost generation of children to grow up with no future, who in turn bequeath a hopeless future to their children. Or act now to solve the country's housing crisis and give all the children in our society a chance of a decent future.'

Further information

* Shelter general enquiries helpdesk: 020 7505 4699.

* Toying with their future: the hidden cost of the housing crisis can be downloaded at: http://england.shelter.org.uk/home/index.cfm

CASE STUDY: SARAH'S Story

Sarah lives in a one-bedroom council flat with her three children - Jenny, four, Sean, two and a half, and 14-month- old Ben.

When Sean was three months old he was hospitalised with bronchitis.

Recently he's been admitted with a viral infection. His sister has also suffered serious recurring respiratory problems since birth. Doctors blame their chronic ill health on the terrible condition of their home, but Sarah says the council isn't taking responsibility. 'They reckon it's condensation. The environmental health did come over, but they just put some paint over it and it comes straight back.'

Trapped in a damp flat with no room to play, the children's prospects are grim. Sean's physical and mental development has been stunted and he's developed behavioural problems. 'He doesn't have his own space and it's not as if I can say "Go to your room". When he's at nursery they say he is as good as gold. It's only when he comes home that he starts playing up,' says Sarah.

Ben has to sleep in his playpen and Jenny finds there isn't enough room for her to sit down and talk to her mum properly. 'Jenny is always saying, "When are we going to our new house mummy? Why are we in this little house?"' says Sarah.

Yet the council has told Sarah that even though she's spent four years in the flat, they may have to suffer another ten before they can be moved somewhere better and start to rebuild their lives.

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