The shocking normalisation of child homelessness

Recent history has seen things that previously provoked outrage become disturbingly 'normal' says Patrick Mulrenan. This Christmas, let's make sure child homelessness isn't one of them.

Date: 07 December 2020

A well-known trope of horror films is the feeling of dread when the familiar becomes unfamiliar. For example, a child becomes evil, or a family member becomes possessed. Freudians even a word for it - 'unheimlich.'

This short piece about children and homelessness argues that we should also fear the unfamiliar becoming familiar. That is, when we become used to things that should shock us. You may have experienced this during Trump’s presidency; things that would previously have led to shock and outrage become the 'new normal.'

But we mustn’t allow some things to become ‘normal’- and that’s true of the number of children who are homeless in our country. Let’s have a look at the statistics. Last year, 136,000 children were homeless. That’s about the same as the population of Cambridge. In Newham, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Haringey, one in twelve children are homeless. This means that two or three children in each classroom are homeless.

The impact of homelessness on children is well-documented. For example they are more likely to suffer from poor physical and mental health and are more likely to be in trouble with the police. They are also more likely to catch COVID, as they are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, and may have to travel on public transport to get to school from their temporary accommodation.

Children in bed and breakfast accommodation are also more likely to share facilities, leading the spread of COVID. Children in temporary accommodation are already missing 55 days schooling a year due to the insecurity of their leases. But the impact on education is likely to be made worse by the challenges of remote learning, including lack of IT, lack of space to work and challenges of focusing on academic work.

These consequences are well-known, and no doubt will be the topic of yet another annual Christmas reminder by Shelter in 2020. But we mustn’t become used to this issue, or accept it as ‘normal’. Going back to the work 'unheimlich,' you'll find it comes from the German for 'un-home-ly.' We should continue to be horrified by the number of children who lack a place to call home, and on the continued impact of homelessness on these children.

Man looking at camera