The homeless families crisis

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
There's nowhere to do homework, nowhere to bring friends to play. Homelessness is one of the biggest obstacles to social inclusion.

But at least one local authority recognises that partnership is part of the solution. Fay Young reports from East Lothian.

A 12-year-old boy is bullied at school because he is staying in bed and breakfast accommodation. He begins to skip school. He is falling behind with his work. The teachers do not know he is homeless.

An 11-year-old girl cries herself to sleep at night. She is afraid her friends will discover she is staying in a Bamp;B and that her dad will find her mum.

A nine-year-old girl has moved so many times she no longer bothers to unpack her toys. They are in a box ready for the next move. She has no friends.

Stories say it all. The Scottish Council for Research in Education was asked to look at the effects of homelessness on families and children. The result is a powerful report, The Impact of Homelessness on Families. Real families outline the destructive cycle of homelessness: poverty, powerlessness, isolation, prejudice and hopelessness. The report pulls no punches and is all the more forceful because the language is simple and unemotional.

There are no quick fixes. Losing the family home is often the crisis in a long series of problems which do not simply disappear with the move to a new home. The effects on children may not emerge until much later - and then who will deal with them? Who will be there for the boy who saved his mother from suicide when he needs help?

But there is good news. The research was commissioned by the very people who can do something to help some homeless families.

East Lothian Council's housing services division, faced with one of the highest levels of homelessness in Scotland, joined forces with Tranent Social Inclusion Partnership to develop a way of tackling the problem.

"It isn't just altruism," says Mike Nolan, principal service development officer in the social work and housing department, who chaired the steering group working with SCRE. "Homelessness costs a lot of money. If we can use that money better, it makes sense for everyone."

At a seminar in Tranent in two weeks, local authority representatives of health, education, housing and social services will discuss with voluntary organisations the challenges outlined by SCRE - a need for better communication, more and much clearer information and, above all, a better integrated service to meet the different needs of different families while they are homeless and after they are housed - and explore how they can work more effectively together.

This is social inclusion in action. No one should underestimate what it is likely to cost in time and commitment.

The research report and seminar are among several innovative projects to grow out of a small office in the centre of Tranent, run by Joe Ryan, development manager of Tranent Social Inclusion Partnership. There are 47 social inclusion partnerships in Scotland and Tranent's special responsibility is to tackle issues affecting the health and well-being of young people in the local community. Homelessness is one of the big issues.

In this deceptively genteel area, within commuting distance of Edinburgh, demand for private houses pushes prices beyond the reach of many local peopleand there are simply not enough council houses to go around. The Conservative government's "right to buy" policy removed 30 per cent of East Lothian's best local authority housing from its control and no money is allocated to build new council homes.

Each year there are around 3,000 applicants for an average of 500 vacant homes. A third of the applicants are homeless, many of them families with children.

Bed and breakfast accommodation is officially regarded as a last resort for families in East Lothian and none of the professionals interviewed by the SCRE researchers thought it appropriate accommodation, even on a temporary basis. "Often cramped, damp, with limited facilities for cooking," said a social worker; "No kitchen, so kids miss breakfast - one young child is living off yoghurts," said an assistant headteacher. But there is often no alternative until the planned temporary accommodation can be built.

SCRE was originally asked to investigate the effects of homelessness on children's health and education. But while families often go to the doctor for help, not many confide in teachers. "There's a fear of stigmatisation, especially for people staying in bed and breakfast," says Janet Powney, who supervised the SCRE research. "Obviously that affects children - there's nowhere to do homework, nowhere to bring friends to play - but we found that schools often do not know pupils are homeless. Families don't want to tell teachers, so they may not be involved unless the problem shows in other ways."

Isolation is often the biggest problem for homeless families. Their difficulties may be unknown to the people who should be there to help. This may be either because families do not know who to approach or because professionals do not keep in regular touch. Confusion about the council house points system and delays in paying housing benefit add to homeless families' uncertainty and anxiety.

"That's not meant to happen" said several members of the report steering group - representing local authority services and Tranent SIP - when researcher Stuart Hall read out his first case studies documenting delays, misunderstandings and misinformation.

"One of the biggest challenges for agencies working together is to overcome departmentalisation," he says. "Very often one department just doesn't know what the others are doing."

In a report based on face-to-face interviews with 17 homeless families and 22 professionals, generally East Lothian emerges as one of the more enlightened local authorities. (All SCRE was asked to remove were the names of neighbouring authorities who came in for heavier criticism.) East Lothian has been reviewing its homelessness policy for 18 months and some important changes are already under way. With release of Scottish Executive funding, the housing department is now looking for a site for 24 units of temporary accommodation for homeless families. (In another year it might have raised the money to build them.) Perhaps most encouraging of all is the willingness to change. The report steering group has begun by bringing different agencies together for the first time. "This is really changing culture," says Mr Nolan. "We've made a start. Now we have to get down to work."

Tranent Social Inclusion Partnership, 3 Church Street, Tranent EH33 1AA, tel 01875 615415

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