Noses pressed to the window of life

9th January 2004 at 00:00
For homeless pupils, the struggle to keep up with classwork is the least of their problems. No proper home often means no friends, so social isolation is their greatest challenge. Carolyn O'Grady reports

On the surface Nath seems fairly cool about homelesness. "I've got used to it," says the 12-year-old. But during the 30 months he has lived in single rooms in hostels and rented accommodation with his mother, Nath, who never had behaviour problems of any sort previously, has been excluded three times from school, has been caught stealing and has expressed suicidal thoughts to his mother, Veronica.

During that time he has attended four primary schools and is now in a secondary school in Watford, Hertfordshire. "A person with no sure footing", is how he describes his current state of mind.

Because he didn't want them to know his situation, Nath has never felt able to bring friends home. "I can't really explain it to people. I think they wouldn't treat me well. They'd shove me to the side," he says. "At every new school I've had to find new friends. I've had to start all over again."

Study and play have been difficult because he has lived in one room with his mother.

The family's housing problems began when they left council housing in Watford (they had previously fled domestic violence). Veronica moved to Westminster to live with and care for her mother who was ill. It didn't work out, partly because Veronica and Nath were sleeping on the living room floor.

Veronica applied to Westminster to be housed, but was referred back to Watford, which accepted her as homeless. The family was then housed in "temporary" accommodation - a hostel, where they stayed for nearly two years. Other residents played loud music at night, there were drug users, and they were prey to racial abuse.

In February 2003, Veronica was evicted due to rent arrears. Throughout this ordeal, Veronica has tried to work, but this has often meant a loss of benefits and resulted in debt. Since then the family has moved four times - each move resulting in a new school for Nath.

His primary schools, he says, seemed unaware of his situation and offered him no support and appeared to write him off academically, says Veronica.

His schoolwork deteriorated.

He is now, however, in a secondary school which he loves. There is a room where children can go at any time to talk to someone, and an inclusion officer who takes an interest in and is fully aware of Nath's situation.

This school considers him bright enough to take some GCSEs early, and is encouraging him in his love of writing poetry - he is hoping to get a poem published soon. "Before, I felt things were going downhill, now I feel more optimistic", he says.

School has become "like my family". He draws strength from the fact that the school has written to the council reminding them of the effect the family's homelessness is having on him.

Hopefully that letter will have some influence, because Veronica and Nath's housing situation is still not good. Living in one room which an acquaintance is sub-letting to them without the landlord's knowledge, they have limited access to washing and cooking facilities. And worst of all, they were recently told they must leave in a few weeks.

Veronica has applied again to Watford to be housed, was turned down, and appealed, supported by Shelter who, she says, have been wonderful. Again she was turned down. She has now been told they could be on the street.

Meanwhile she sustains an amazing fortitude and vitality, determined that in the end things will work out. "We're a loving family. We live in one room, but still manage to have some fun," she says.

Talk about the homeless and most people switch to an image of adults sitting or sleeping in shop entrances or on the street. They don't think of families; they don't think of children. More than 100,000 children in England become homeless every year, according to Shelter.

Local authorities have a duty to house most homeless families. But often families who become homeless live for long periods in temporary accommodation, including bed and breakfast hotels, temporary council accommodation, private sector accommodation leased or rented by local authorities or housing associations on behalf of homeless people, hostels or women's refuges. Families may have to change accommodation repeatedly, and the housing is often sub-standard.

For children the effect of homelessness on their emotional and educational development is devastating. It affects school attendance and educational attainment. Language and speech skills also suffer. And yet the education of homeless children appears to be a blackhole as far as government advice and assistance goes.

Housing tends to get neglected in education, health and social care legislation and while there are, for example, government guidelines for LEAs on traveller children, sick or excluded children and others, and the Government has announced general measures to reduce homelessness, there is nothing on the education of homeless children.

"The Government should address specifically the impact of homelessness on children's education and help LEAs deal with it more effectively", says Jayesh Rushi, manager of a Shelter pilot project being run in partnership with Manchester education department on ways of minimising the disruption to homeless children's education.

Families become homeless for a number of inter-related reasons. One of the primary causes is debt: a breadwinner loses his or her job and the family spirals into arrears and finally they lose their home. Other reasons include domestic violence, relationship breakdown, racial harassment and housing benefit delays. Asylum seekers, unless they have settled relatives in this country, are often homeless.

From April 2004, local authorities will be forbidden by law to keep families in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks.

Families will be moved into this type of housing initially, and then on to a hostel or other temporary housing. It is not unusual for a family to be moved around several times in one year and for children to miss months, or in rare cases, years of schooling because they may have lost a place in or can't get on roll at local schools.

Since housing is often sub-standard children are reluctant to bring friends home, and have no private space to study. Homelessness is a blight on young lives.

Housemate for primary and secondary schools, a free schools' resource pack, is available from Shelter. Visit www.housemate.org.uk or www.shelter.org.uk

SOME OF THE THINGS THAT SCHOOLS CAN DO:

* Be aware that children can become homeless and encourage parents to notify the school if this should happen.

* Inform the education welfare officer if a child becomes homeless, or you think it is likely.

* Try to prevent pupils who go into temporary accommodation being taken off the school roll. If you succeed there is less chance the pupils will get lost from the system, and teachers can keep in touch and perhaps work with that child.

* Be aware that children who are in temporary accommodation are particularly vulnerable to bullying.

* Have spare school uniforms available. Homeless children often lose their possessions and can't afford a series of new uniforms.

* Recognise that homelessness affects the behaviour and ability of children to learn.

* Headteachers have the discretion to disapply children from the national curriculum and can set up a special programme of learning for a child who needs to catch up.

* Remember that pupils in temporary housing often have trouble studying at home.

* Recognise that children's behaviour and ability to learn is affected by homelessness.They may need time to adapt.

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