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A safe, secure and affordable home is fundamental to a child’s wellbeing and life chances. The foundations and stability provided by a decent home, whether it’s a council house, privately rented or owned, are essential to a child’s upbringing.
However, across Scotland right now there is evidence that many families are struggling with housing-related poverty. In 2014-17, after housing costs were added, 19% of Scotland's population, or one million people each year, were living in poverty, with 24% of children (230,000) in poverty.
Living in poverty puts great pressure on parents. There’s barely enough money to cover housing costs, leaving people to put up with poor living conditions, or running up rent arrears as people struggle to make daily decisions over heating, eating, or paying the rent. All of which can result in homelessness when people lose the battle to keep up payments for their home.
Unfortunately, for many, this pressure isn’t temporary. Families can wait months or years for better quality affordable housing. Children can live their whole childhoods under this pressure. Housing costs are a daily, weekly, monthly pressure and for some families there is no choice but to sacrifice essentials in order to protect their children from homelessness.
And an adverse life event, such as losing a job, illness or relationship breakdown can quickly turn a struggle into a major trauma for a family.
In these circumstances, it is vital that parents are aware of all their options and where to find help and advice.
When families apply as homeless, they are given temporary accommodation until a permanent home can be provided – causing tension, uncertainty and increased pressure on parents especially.
The number of children made homeless in Scotland last year was more than 14,000 and this Christmas 6,615 will wake up without a home.
Only too often Shelter Scotland sees families that have suffered the upheaval of losing their home – and the impact on children can be profound. Children who are homeless – living in temporary accommodation that isn’t really a home in the true sense of the word – can miss many days of school each year and are more likely to struggle with their education. They may have to move schools, leave behind their support network - beloved pets, friends and close family- if they can’t be re-housed locally.
For parents there can be great stigma attached to becoming homeless. They are likely to be struggling financially and therefore find it hard to afford rent, heating, food, clothes, school uniform etc. However, by seeking advice and establishing their options and a plan, parents can overcome these challenges.
Nowadays, people have more limited choices on housing. Social housing, despite moves by the current Scottish Government to build more, is often not an option as decades of under-investment has left council housing stock severely depleted. This means families living in limbo, facing long stays (more than six months on average) in what can be poor quality temporary accommodation - waiting for a place they can truly call home.
Private renting in Scotland has tripled over the last ten years – but for many it is not an option as deposits and rents are too high or landlords and agents operate a “no DSS” policy discriminating against people in receipt of benefits. It often means that if people do find private accommodation to rent where people on benefits are accepted, it is likely to be of a much lower standard. But if it fits the bill in terms of being near a school, support network etc, parents may feel they have to settle for sub-standard accommodation as they have few or no other options. This then presents further challenges to parents and their children. Poor quality accommodation may be damp, have faulty electrics and a landlord who isn’t too bothered about remedying problems. While there are laws and regulations governing being a private landlord, enforcement is patchy across Scotland.
With affordable homes so scarce, parents are loath to complain for fear of rocking the boat and being asked to leave. Families struggling to make ends meet in poor quality accommodation is known to have a detrimental effect on children’s health, education and social life. Children often feel reticent to invite friends round if they are ‘embarrassed’ by the standard of their home.
Good news in private renting though, is that from last December, the new Private Residential Tenancy was introduced in Scotland, giving tenants and therefore families greater protection and security. Tenancy agreements are now open-ended meaning that people can stay longer in one place without having to move every six or 12 months.
There are good support services ready to help and the sooner people recognise and accept they need help is key to limiting the impact of deteriorating circumstances. It is much easier to resolve a situation if people seek advice early before their situation worsens and leads to even greater problems such as the spectre of homelessness.
Shelter Scotland is a charity that works to alleviate the distress caused by homelessness and bad housing. They do this by giving advice, information and advocacy to people in housing need, and by campaigning for lasting political change to end the housing crisis for good.
Other articles published in our December 2018 newsletter