Making sure Santa knows where to go

17th October 2008 at 01:00
For many homeless children, it's not just the constant moving that takes its toll on their young lives. Jean McLeish reports

It looks just like a house in a child's painting - a simple home with big flowers on either side of the front path. But for Lily and her four young children, this three-bedroom terraced house is the first real home they've had for almost a year.

When Lily split from her husband, she moved to Edinburgh and was given temporary accommodation by the council in a 14-storey high-rise block. "It was on the seventh floor, the lift wasn't working, it was horrendous," says Lily, sitting in the front room of her new house.

"After I left, there was a fire in the block of flats which went up all the stairs, so I'm glad I'm not in there now. It just wasn't suitable for families. The final thing was that the heating and electric just completely went," says Lily, who has daughters aged one and three and sons aged seven and eight.

After five days there, the family was re-housed in a two-bedroom, second-floor flat: "There were four children and one adult in two bedrooms, which was obviously a lot better. We were cramped and it was difficult - the children had to re-adjust. They'd left a house behind and were now in a flat. It took them a while to get used to the differences, not being able to run about as much and have as much space."

The move to Edinburgh also meant new schools for the older two children, which has been particularly difficult for the oldest boy, who has been occasionally tearful and reluctant to go. Struggling with schoolwork and with so much change in their lives, the family was on an emotional roller-coaster. Lily was in constant touch with the council's housing officer - desperate for a more suitable, permanent family home.

Then in April this year, she was referred to one of Shelter's families projects based in Edinburgh: "I wasn't aware of the services Shelter offer and they really are fantastic," says Lily, who moved into rented property at the end of August.

Her children have also been helped by Shelter's new Keys to the Future project, part of which involves a pioneering children's service in Scotland. Four education liaison workers have now been attached to Shelter's families projects across Scotland to work with homeless children and minimise disruption to their education.

One of them is Edinburgh-based Miriam Amy, who is able to liaise on Lily's behalf: "Miriam sees them after school and helps with reading and writing and just gives them an additional boost really. They also have additional learning support during the school day," says Lily.

One of Shelter's child support workers from the families project uses art and play therapy with her son, giving him the opportunity to talk through his feelings about moving. A Shelter key worker helps Lily search for permanent accommodation, and a Shelter volunteer has been a valued friend giving practical support.

In 2006-07 there were 29,824 children living in homeless households in Scotland. Education can be a casualty, as families may have several moves in and out of temporary housing before permanent homes are found. A move can take them a huge distance from school or they may have to move schools every time they move to new temporary accommodation.

Research by Shelter in England has shown homeless children are more likely to leave school without qualifications and to fail to attend. They're also more likely to suffer mental health problems and experience bullying.

Shelter's Keys to the Future project aims to put children's education and happiness higher up the agenda and encourage agencies to think about where children will go to school when they make housing decisions.

Jessie Crawford has recently been appointed to a new post as children's service policy and practice co-ordinator at Shelter in Scotland. She will be lobbying to reduce the number of homeless children in Scotland and campaigning for better support for children who experience housing problems. "Every child has the right to a safe and secure home and bad housing and homelessness can deny them those rights," she says.

"My role is to lobby for policy change and use evidence from the ground to offer solutions to government and local authorities about how they can better support homeless children."

Scotland is also working towards another deadline. In 2003, the Scottish Parliament passed groundbreaking legislation stating that everyone who is homeless would have the right to a permanent home by 2012.

"This is a landmark commitment and there's no equivalent in the rest of the UK or the rest of the world. So a lot of our work is about trying to make sure that happens," says James Jopling, Shelter Scotland's head of campaigns.

"The people you see on the street are the tip of the iceberg. In Scotland last year, about 50,000 people applied as homeless to their local authority. So it's a bigger problem than people realise - it includes people who have been thrown out or left their family, who are escaping domestic abuse, and whose relationships have broken down so they can't stay with their partner any more. In all these situations, people would be assessed as homeless," he says.

"There needs to be a level of understanding about what might be going on in these children's lives. There was one younster who was really concerned that Santa wasn't going to be able to find them because they'd moved so many times. And they did a drawing trying to help Santa understand the layout of the house they were likely to be in over Christmas."

To help families cope, the first of Shelter's four families projects was launched in Edinburgh 10 years ago - then projects in Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire followed. Shelter had recognised that families were being given the keys to accommodation, but were representing as homeless again, due to lack of support.

The projects aimed to provide the missing back-up. "An important part of Shelter's strategy is prevention - preventing families presenting as homeless in the first place and then preventing re-referrals as homeless," says Paula Robertson, project manager at the Edinburgh project.

As part of the strategy, child support workers qualified in art, drama and play therapy were based at the projects to focus on children's needs. In the course of this work, the huge emotional and educational impact of homelessness for children became apparent. So now, these new education liaison workers will help homeless children keep their education on track.

"What makes us different from other housing support services is we are looking at children as well, recognising that they need to have their own worker. In the last two years, only 4 per cent of families have represented as homeless again so, as far as we can measure success, that's a really high success rate," says Paula Robertson.

"It's not uncommon for young people we have supported to have multiple house moves before they get into permanent accommodation. And with a house move, nine times out of 10, comes a school move as well.

"We've had children who have reached the age of seven - so that would be P2 - and they have moved school five times in two years," she continues. "This young person is holding an awful lot together and still trying to make some headway in a new school environment, having to make new friendships again and again and again. It's horrific - and that's just one example of the hundreds of children we have supported over the time we have been working here."

Paula's colleague, Miriam Amy, is the education liaison officer who works with Lily's children. She's a former teacher and believes there's still a lot of misunderstanding about homelessness.

"Shelter research has shown that homeless children are five times as likely to lack a quiet place to do their homework than other children. Sometimes they're living in really overcrowded accommodation and there actually isn't a space to do homework," she adds.

"The most important thing I do is to help families engage with education, help them to link in and communicate with schools. My job also involves helping families to find their local school and get their child registered with it," says Miriam.

"It also means highlighting the needs of the children to the school, and making sure the school is aware of their homelessness situation. I find that quite a few schools don't really understand what homelessness is, and perhaps don't understand the impact of homelessness upon children and their previous education.

"Another thing I can do is support children's learning with homework or reading; at the moment, I do that with children usually after school once a week. We also have a network of volunteers who are going to get involved in providing homework support for children.

"I try and link in with housing, and also education and social services, to try and make sure there is a holistic view of what homeless children's needs are with regard to their education," she continues.

"Learning-support needs may not have been picked up, even though homelessness is named as an indicator of additional support needs in the Additional Support for Learning Act. So that's something I would like to highlight to schools."

For Lily and her children, there is light at the end of the tunnel - Santa will know where to find them this Christmas.

She's just heard she's been found a permanent home near where she's currently living and is delighted. And now the school has invited her to a tea party to celebrate her younger son's award for excellence in maths.

"They are completely different children now," says Lily. "I saw the headteacher yesterday at school and she was saying just how much they have come on. Then I was watching my older son in the playground and he was running around with all the other children and I just thought: 'Wow!'"

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