The housing crisis threatens everything we do in the children’s sector.

[First published in CYP Now, October 2015]

It’s in the nature of professional sectors that we tend to see the services and the issues directly in front of us as our most pressing. For this magazine’s readership there is plenty to be deeply concerned about – the highest rate of children in care for 30 years; dropping adoption rates; children’s centres and youth services closing at a startling pace; teacher and social worker recruitment and retention crises, all happening at a time of increasing levels of demand for everything from school places to protection from harm. We’re right to be worried about those things.

Recently, however, I’ve found myself spending my restless nights far more concerned with the housing crisis than any within our children’s services sector. This is not to play some kind of ‘top trumps’ about who has the most important sectoral problems. I have been powerfully drawn back to one of the most universally referenced works in child development theory, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It describes a clear, consecutive order of priorities for anyone who seeks to understand, and to create the right conditions for, children as they grow.

Maslow’s work tells us that without their basic physiological needs for stable shelter, food, clothing and warmth, children cannot be, or feel, safe. Without those physiological needs met, and their safety secured, children cannot enjoy or sustain loving relationships. Without all those essential building blocks children simply cannot develop, explore and learn in the way that all children should. Writing this article on the day that the Prime Minister announced plans to remove benefits from the parents of truanting school children, to effectively threaten and starve them into attending school, I am struck by the sheer futility of protecting schools budgets in the name of ‘achieving outcomes’, or ‘building character’, while the most essential basic needs of millions of children are not just unmet, but being wilfully withdrawn. Maslow must, surely, be spinning in his grave.

No-one could be in any doubt that the term crisis is truly warranted in relation to housing, and not just in London (although London’s problem is desperate and acute). Of the 66,980 homeless households in temporary accommodation at the end of June, 50,750 were families were children (the figure in 2010 was 36,230). These 50,750 families are estimated to include 99,080 children. Of these homeless families, 2,660 were in emergency Bed and Breakfast accommodation.  830 of these families had been in B&B longer than the six week legal limit (the figure in March 2009 was just 70). For those families this often means being crammed into a small room with no kitchen for months on end, rather than being found a permanent home by their local authority. All of this describes a rapidly worsening situation, even before the implementation of reductions to the benefit cap both within and outside London. The benefit cap has already been described as in breach of children’s human rights by the Supreme Court. Calculations of the likely impact of further reductions on those families’ disposable income and risks of eviction across many areas of the country, are simply devastating for the children it will hit.

The housing crisis, however, should not just be at the top of our priorities in children’s services out of a concern for the plight of low-paid families and their children. It weaves right through our own sector’s professional practices and concerns too. Young and newly qualified teachers, nurses and social workers are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to live within the private rented sector anywhere near the largely (but not exclusively) urban authorities across the country that have the most serious recruitment problems and permanent vacancies. Some authorities have even taken to making discounted housing offers to new recruits just to make working for them affordable.

In response to a recent article I wrote in the Guardian, several social workers described how the problems securing or sustaining local housing for parents with children taken into care were directly impacting on the likelihood of those children being supported to return to their family, or to find kinship care placements. One said: “This is a problem that is making planning in care proceedings very difficult. If parents or relatives require accommodation there is no chance of them being allocated public sector housing and housing benefit will not support anywhere in London or its environs. That has a profoundly limiting impact on the care options available for children.”

If mapped onto Maslow’s hierarchy, our government has set their policy and spending priorities for children from the top down, preserving school budgets in the belief that it is education that will achieve ‘self-actualisation’. Meanwhile, the pyramid’s very foundation stones, the things that every child needs before school can have any positive impact, are being demolished for far too many families. Abraham Maslow would tell them in no uncertain terms that spending our money this way is to waste it. Hungry children cannot concentrate, and children who don’t know if they’ll still have a home to go to at the end of the day, or who are expecting to be moved to another town and another school any day, are simply not psychologically free or ready to learn.