With a report by the Children's Commissioner estimating that there are around 600,000 children who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in England alone, it is important that we understand what homelessness means for children and young people.

Coupled with poverty, homelessness in the UK is on in the increase.  Research commissioned by the National Housing Federation in 2019 identifies that in England 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded houses, 2.5 million cannot afford where they live and 2.5 million are living with relatives and parents because they have no other choice.  This puts significant stress on families and can lead to breakdown of the home.

Using the definition of homelessness below, some of these people are already considered homeless, and the rest are at risk of homelessness.  The Children’s Commissioner’s research (2019) suggests that of the 600,000 children and young people referred to above, 210,000 are either living in temporary accommodation or ‘sofa surfing’ (i.e. staying with friends or family without any formal arrangement being in place and often sleeping in spaces not designed as bedrooms).  These figures are however an estimate as there are many people, e.g. those classed by local authority housing providers as intentionally homeless, or those with no recourse to public funds, that do not show up in any statistics.

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, 2019

Quotation marks

As seen in the definition above, homelessness goes beyond the traditional concept of people sleeping on the streets.  As shown in research by Shelter (2017), what it means to be homeless can go even beyond this definition:

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.


Temporary accommodation

Temporary accommodation can mean a number of different things.

It can include families staying in B&Bs (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 heat 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 which come with their own additional issues (e.g. mental health, substance misuse, criminality) potentially impacting on the safety of children.

Impact of being homeless

Being homeless can impact on many areas of a child’s life.  These are just some of the ways:

  • Tiredness – inappropriate sleeping areas / shared rooms / long distances to travel;
  • Appearance – lack of wash areas, no facilities to wash clothes, not being able to keep track of belongings;
  • Physical health – exhaustion, lack of regular meals (shared or no cooking space), diet of ready meals / fast food;
  • Stress and anxiety – not knowing if or when going to have to move again;
  • Educational attainment – no space for homework, no access to computers;
  • Self-esteem – fear of being singled out as different, not being able to join in with activities after school.

Homelessness and safeguarding

Where families are homeless, parents can feel anger or sometimes guilt at the unfairness they see impacting on their children. Many do a tremendous job of minimising the impact wherever they can, and ensure their children are well cared for and feel valued.

Homelessness can however be a factor in children being at risk due to the stresses it creates in families and the limitations it places on the family. By itself is not a safeguarding matter. However homelessness can led to issues which are safeguarding matters:

Where you have concerns that a child may be being neglected, consider what help you can offer and follow your safeguarding procedures.

What you can 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.

  • Be aware of the effects of child poverty;
  • Support pupils and families;
  • Sign-post to supportive services, ensuring that this is through as many different routes as possible (e.g. leaflets, posters, conversations, etc.);
  • Raise any concerns with your designated safeguarding lead.

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.

Consider avenues of support including local early help mechanisms.

16 & 17 year olds

Where 16 & 17 year olds are homeless, there are significant associated vulnerabilities.  There are duties on the Local Authority Children’s and Housing Services to work together to establish whether work can be done 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 may is not likely to be provided with accommodation by Children’s Services:

  • if they are assessed as not being a child in need by Children’s Services; or
  • the young person is deemed to have capacity 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.

Homelessness Reduction Act 2017

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 placed a legal duty on English Councils to do more to support people who are at risk of homelessness (those being threatened with being evicted 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 and 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.  There is however no reason why, with consent, you cannot refer to the local authority for support.  This may also be part of an early help response.


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

    Growing up in a stable, healthy and secure home is so important for any child. Yet we know there are thousands of children in England who are living in homeless families, stuck in poor quality temporary accommodation, often with low prospects of finding something permanent. There are many others who are at risk of ending up homeless. This report shines a light on this homelessness crisis and shares the experiences of some of those children.

  • Impact of homelessness on children – research with teachers

    This research examines the impacts of homelessness on children seen through eyes of teachers and education professionals. Kantar Public, on behalf of Shelter, carried out qualitative interviews in ten different schools across the country.  Over-crowded accommodation, long commutes, instability, and lack of access to facilities in the home were identified as key problems. The research also found negative impacts on teachers themselves, who felt unable to help their students.

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

    The right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right, as well as intrinsically important for the realisation of many other rights. This briefing powerfully makes the case for ending the use of unsuitable Bed and Breakfast accommodation for homeless children in England, many of whom are forced to live there for much longer than the legal limit. The testimonies of these children and young people clearly illustrate how damaging living in this type of accommodation is on a child’s physical and mental health and how the lived injustices shape their childhood and adolescence.

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