Safeguarding Network

December 2023 - 7 minute read

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Coupled with poverty, child homelessness in the UK is increasing. The latest annual research commissioned by the National Housing Federation says that in England alone:  

  • Almost 2 million (1-in-5) children are living in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes.  
  • Nearly 124,000 homeless children are living in temporary accommodation. (For example, ‘sofa surfing’ or staying with friends or family without any formal arrangement being in place and often sleeping in spaces not designed as bedrooms.) 
  • 293,000 children are living in homes that are unsuitable for their needs or health requirements, 
  • 283,000 children are living with their families in other people’s homes – effectively homeless – because their families cannot afford a home of their own. 

Using the definition of homelessness below, some of these people are already considered homeless, and the rest are at risk of homelessness.  

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Definition of homelessness

The definition of homelessness means not having a home. You are homeless if you have nowhere to stay and are living on the streets, but you can be homeless even if you have a roof over your head. 

You count as homeless if you are: 

  • staying with friends or family; 
  • staying in a hostel, night shelter or B&B; 
  • squatting (because you have no legal right to stay); 
  • at risk of violence or abuse in your home; 
  • living in poor conditions that affect your health; 
  • living apart from your family because you don’t have a place to live together. 

Shelter (2022) 

Homelessness goes beyond the traditional concept of people sleeping on the streets. Sometimes, feeling homeless can go beyond the definition above:

One child I taught didn’t actually know where she was going after school…Another child that kept being dragged between mum and dad. That is a common phenomenon, they don’t quite know where they are going to be staying whether with dad or mum.

A teacher speaking to Shelter

Temporary accommodation 

Temporary accommodation can mean several different things. It can include families staying in bed and breakfasts (although this has been limited by the government), reception centres (large buildings with multiple bedsits and shared kitchen/dining facilities), converted office blocks or shipping containers to name a few. 

All forms of temporary accommodation come with their own issues, such as: 

  • lack of space (indoor and/or outdoor); 
  • poor conditions; 
  • issues with room heating control; 
  • distance from “home” (i.e., where the family base is, the children go to school, etc.); 
  • constantly being moved from one place to another; 
  • others also placed in the accommodation. 

Because of the nature of temporary accommodation, there is often a mix of people placed there, some of whom may have additional issues (e.g., mental ill-health, substance misuse, criminality) which may be a risk to the safety of children. 

Spot the signs

Being homeless can impact on many areas of a child’s life and includes indicators such as:  

  • tiredness – due to inappropriate sleeping areas/shared rooms/long distances to travel; 
  • appearance – due to lack of wash areas, no facilities to wash clothes, not being able to keep track of belongings; 
  • physical ill-health – due to exhaustion, lack of regular meals (shared or no cooking space), diet of ready meals/fast food, lack of space for physical activity; 
  • stress and anxiety – due to not knowing if or when they may have to move again; 
  • poor educational attainment – due to no space to do homework, no access to computers; 
  • poor self-esteem – due to fear of being singled out as different, not being able to join in with activities after school. 

Homelessness and safeguarding 

When families are homeless, parents can feel anger or sometimes guilt at the unfairness affecting their children. Many do a tremendous job of minimising the impact where they can and do their best to ensure their children are well cared for and feel valued. 

Homelessness in itself is not a safeguarding matter, however, it can be a factor in children being at risk of harm due to the stresses it creates in families and the limitations it places on choice. Such harms may include: 

16 and 17-year-olds 

Where 16 and 17-year-olds are homeless, there are significant associated vulnerabilities. There are duties on local authorities’ children’s and housing services to work together to establish whether help can be offered for the young person to return home or prevent the need for them to leave home.  

Any such work should run alongside an assessment of need, and if emergency accommodation is required this should be provided whilst the assessment is taking place. If the accommodation lasts more than 24 hours, then the young person will become looked after. 

There are two circumstances where a young person is not likely to be provided with accommodation by children’s services: 

  1. If they are assessed as not being a child in need by children’s services. 
  2. The young person is deemed to have the capacity to make informed decisions (see the Mental Capacity Act, 2005), and after being presented with all the information and potential implications of each option, decides that they do not want to be looked after by the local authority. 

In these situations, the responsibility shifts to the housing authority for the area. More information about the requirements on children’s services and housing services can be found here

What to do

Create an open and approachable culture in school – help pupils think about the issues and attitudes behind homelessness, particularly in relation to equality. Create aspiration and opportunity through high-quality teaching, while being aware of the limits and pressures on families, children and young people. 

Consider how vulnerabilities might impact on individuals – think about the increased risk of exploitation and the barriers in place to attainment or to making safe decisions. Be aware of the effects of child poverty and homelessness. 

Consider avenues of support for students and families, including local early help processes. Signpost to support services, ensuring that this is through as many different routes as possible (e.g., leaflets, posters, conversations, etc.).  

The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) placed a legal duty on English local authorities to do more to support people who are at risk of homelessness (those threatened with eviction from their home within the next 8 weeks) with the aim of preventing them becoming homeless or “relieving” their homelessness. In practice, that means working with people and their landlords to look at the reasons for the eviction, whether anything can be done to change them, and then assessing need and looking at options with those involved. 

Some public bodies have a duty to refer if they identify someone who is at risk of becoming homeless. Schools have not had this duty placed on them. However, there is no reason why, with consent, you cannot refer to the local authority for support. This may also be part of an early help response. 

Take action - If you have concerns that a child may be being harmed, raise your concerns with your designated safeguarding lead and follow your safeguarding procedures. 

DSL Training Materials

  • Homelessness and Poverty Presentation

  • Homelessness and Poverty Presenter Notes

  • Homelessness and Poverty Handout

  • Homelessness and Poverty Handout

  • Homelessness Quiz

  • Homelessness Quiz (Answers)

  • Homelessness Scenario (16+ settings)

  • Homelessness Scenario (16+ settings) - DSL Information

  • Homelessness scenario

  • Homelessness Scenario – DSL Information Sheet


  • What is the extent of youth homelessness in the UK?

  • The Homelessness Monitor

  • Understanding Youth Homelessness

  • People in Housing Need

  • Are children in temporary housing facing serious health risks?

  • Support and advice regarding homelessness

  • Bleak houses: Tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England

  • Impact of homelessness on children – research with teachers

  • ‘It’s like being in prison’: Children speak out on homelessness

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