Covid-19 has highlighted the hidden issue of child homelessness – now is the time for long-term solutions

Covid-19 has been an eye-opening experience for many of us, not least in exposing the myriad of complex and deep-rooted challenges facing the most vulnerable children in our society. From food poverty and the digital divide to the vast number of children living in unsafe and unstable homes, to those without a home altogether. These issues existed long before Covid-19, but the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have exacerbated the daily struggles facing the so-called ‘hidden’ children living below the breadline and with needs which sit outside of mainstream education.

The current context

Homelessness amongst young people in the UK is rising year-on-year at an alarming rate, with over 135,000 children currently homeless and living in temporary accommodation. New research from housing charity, Shelter and data group YouGov has found that in the last three years, a worrying 56 per cent of teachers had worked in an educational setting with children who were, or had become, homeless. With Covid-19 job losses and school disruption worsening the socio-economic situation for millions of families, the numbers will no doubt be higher this winter.

The interrelated problems which come with living in temporary accommodation can be hugely debilitating for a child’s physical and mental wellbeing. Almost 90 per cent of teachers surveyed reported children living under these circumstances missing school, coming to school hungry and unwashed as key issues, with 94 per cent citing tiredness as another problem for homeless pupils. The uncertainty and stress of living without a permanent home can sadly further hinder a young person’s ability to make friends and maintain positive social relationships. As a result, these children are already on the back-foot with their education and social skills before they have even had a chance to succeed.

Indeed, the increased attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and those from privileged backgrounds due to Covid-19 has been widely reported. Analysis of maths and English test data from primary schools across England found a significant decline in attainment amongst pupils who are eligible for free school meals and Pupil Premium funding.

Drastic action is needed now if we are to understand both the scale and impact of child homelessness on young people’s education and start to implement long-term solutions.

Coordinated approach

No child should be living in fear and uncertainty, without a safe home, in this day and age. A coordinated effort from central government, local authorities, schools, businesses and charities, is essential for sustainable change, starting with additional funding and resources for local councils and child protection services.

The pandemic has sparked a huge rise in the number of child protection referrals according to new data from the County Councils Network, placing added strain on already overstretched social service workers and resources. Increasing the funding and tools available will help services to meet demand and ensure quality support for families is not sacrificed at a time when they need it most. In addition to this, we must widen access to these support services and provide clear, straightforward routes for families and young people to reach out and seek help.

The Government is taking steps towards this, recently announcing that it would be extending its Troubled Families Programme with a further £165 million of funding administered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The programme “conducts targeted interventions for families experiencing multiple problems, including crime, anti-social behaviour, truancy, unemployment, mental health problems and domestic abuse”. The Government also pledged £254 million to tackle homeless and rough sleeping next year as part of the Spending Review 2020. In Scotland, families will be able to apply for the new Scottish Child Payment initiative in early 2021, which will provide families struggling due to Covid-19 a weekly benefit for each child under the age of 6 as a priority, with the benefit being rolled out to children under 16 over the coming year.

Still, in addition to increasing the support available to families suffering in poverty, much more can be done to tackle the root causes behind homelessness. Child homelessness is a national crisis, but it’s no secret that some regions of the UK are affected far worse unique than others. Shelter research found that the London boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Haringey, Westminster and Newham, where 1 in every 12 children are homeless, have the highest number of homeless children in England.

A targeted approach is key to addressing the underlying issues in disadvantaged regions which lead to homelessness and implementing preventative measures to help families. Whether that is a lack of social housing, limited employment opportunities or overstretched social services, tackling these problems will help millions of children avoid living in temporary accommodation or on the streets in the first instance.

In the classroom

Homelessness remains something of a stigmatised topic in society, however we can change perceptions and attitudes amongst the next generation, starting in the classroom. There are a wealth of organisations and charities such as Shelter and Scottish charity Reach who have great free lesson plans and other teaching resources to help students understand and talk about homelessness. For those students without permanent homes or someone to talk to, schools can be a safe haven to discuss their feelings and any worries and concerns. Making sure that these students have designated pastoral support and are put in touch with appropriate welfare organisations will help, as well providing extra resources such as school uniforms and funding for transport to and from schools.

The pandemic has cast a long overdue spotlight on child homelessness and the appalling impact which this has on a young person’s education. It is an enormous challenge, but one we can overcome together through increasing funding for support services and benefits for vulnerable families, building more social housing and raising awareness generally of the challenges facing young people without permanent homes.

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