Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Family Homelessness

The emergence of a homeless household underclass is no surprise given the current climate and restrictions to benefit entitlements for claimant families. The current number of households accepted by local authorities as owed a main homeless duty was 12,520 in the first quarter of 2014, a figure that was once 9,590 before the Local Housing Allowance rates were established. The Local Housing Allowance serves to reinforce inequalities and exacerbate poverty amongst families with children.
Currently, a workless couple with two children are entitled to less housing benefit than a workless couple without children, effectively
ostracising families with children. This in addition to Local Housing Allowance rates serving to cut the disposable income of family households (when working over ten hours and less than 27 hours), serves to contribute to rising poverty rates amongst families in need. This is particularly concerning as an unemployed lone parent has a disposable income of £47 per week, compared to the predicted poverty line amount of £168, this is further complicated when location is taken into account, according to the London Living Wage individuals earning £168 still remain below the London poverty line. It was also noted in the most recent Panorama episode that Housing Benefit rates were not keeping up with rising rents in the PRS, thereby condemning individuals on the welfare state within the private renting sector to a life of absolute poverty.
The media has picked up on the link between the PRS, poverty and benefit claimants, particularly within Channel 4’s “
How to Get a Council House”. One case depicts a single parent with an autistic son and two daughters, who falls into rent arrears on her privately rented accommodation as a result of the £500 a week benefit cap restriction she has been faced with. The episode ends with the family counting their blessings at being given temporary accommodation by the council, however we do not know for how long the family is to be kept in such an unstable situation (typically at least 28 days or until a council assistance decision has been made), and as to whether or not the council will decide to re-house them in the PRS again.
However, poverty is not restricted to workless families, poverty within working families is also increasing. The government live tables of homelessness dictates that the end of a tenancy has been the most common cause of homelessness every quarter for the past ten years, a case study mentioned online described a family of four with two working parents residing in temporary accommodation of 15ft square due to the end of their short hold tenancy. This trend has been further confirmed in the recent Poverty and Social Exclusion survey which stated that over 4 million working families are claiming state benefits and are thus living below the poverty line. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest statistics on poverty further states that there are more people in working families living below the poverty line (6.7 million) than in workless and retired families in poverty combined (6.3 million).
This evidence suggests that the PRS can serve as a saviour or foe of the vulnerable, either saving them from the cramped conditions of temporary accommodation whilst waiting for council assistance or condemning them to chronic uncertainties at six to twelve month (short hold tenancy) intervals.

Single parent support needs
Single parent families are a subset of individuals with specific and varying support needs. According to the Family (Outcomes) Star, single parents have the additional support need of caring for their offspring which in turn may make any existing support needs more complex. The following highlights the relevance of the suggested support needs documented in the family star:

The Physical health branch involves assessing how a parent looks after their children’s physical health-are they currently registered with a doctor and dentist? If they have a chronic illness, are they accessing treatment? Are they proactively encouraging good health habits amongst their children?
This in turn is supported by research conducted by
UCL which states that 27% of lone parents have a chronic health problem or disability. Furthermore, it has been noted that lone parents have an excess risk of mortality compared to couples particularly due to correlations between single parenthood and excessive use of alcohol and drugs and inflicted violence.

Emotional well-being is particularly poignant in this case, the outcomes star describes this as the ability “to cope with life’s ups and downs…[as well as] any problems within the family connected to mental health, alcohol, drugs or domestic abuse”, focusing on both the parent and the child/ren.
Although family composition has no significant effect on a
child’s emotional well-being, the quality of relationships at home do play a distinctive role, including but not limited to relationships with parents, siblings, extended family and experiences at school.  

Keeping your children safe refers to ensuring that appropriate supervision is given to children, in order to protect them from accidents, risks, bullying, racial harassment and domestic abuse.
This issue follows on from the impact of negative relationships within single parent families on children as contributing to higher risks of emotional and physical danger. It is also important to note the costs associated with safe proofing a property for children, where funding would be available to make appropriate adaptation s to an accommodation for disabled children, such funding would not be available for able bodied children.

Developing appropriate social networks allows a family in need to learn about and access services in their local area, as well as serving to tackle the isolation commonly associated with single parenting. As the coordinator from the Southwark based support group Mummies Republic explained to us, isolation is a large cause and affect factor within the lives of many single parents, isolation may lead to the development of unhealthy relationships, lack of contact with service providers and poor emotional and mental health.
Child focused education and learning is deemed an important support need in order to ensure children are progressing at the appropriate rate. However targets may vary in accordance to the child’s age. Babies and younger children need stimulating activities, co-ordination and messy play, whereas for older children, positive mentoring and ensuring that they are in engaged in either working or learning is essential. 

Familylives.org.uk suggest that the easiest way to encourage a child’s education and learning is to take an active interest in related activities and providing out of school support. This in itself is supported by evidence collated by the Education website, which suggests that consistency and developing healthy relationships is key to ensuring good performance within school.  

Setting appropriate boundaries is important for ensuring that children develop good relationships with others as they grow older. Single parenting is indirectly linked to an inconsistent parenting style which in turn may affect a child’s behaviour, however it has been noted that this could be changed if certain factors were tackled, e.g. poverty, flexible work etc.

Family routine remains essential to ensure that the members of the family attend school or work on time, having a good household routine in place ensures that the home is organised enough for the family to function appropriately.
Further research conducted by
Reuters Health showed that consistent family routines were linked to the child having better social-emotional habits, thus allowing them to progress more positively in life.

Issues of home and money are important to assess in order to understand how secure the family is in their new accommodation. If there are significant issues, there may be an immediate or severe risk of homelessness. A lack of support regarding these issues could result in relative poverty for the family, this is particularly important as the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey has recorded a trend of single parent families being twice as likely to live in poverty. Suggesting that a poverty trap exists, particularly amongst single parents with few qualifications and limited hours to work, as they can often find that the work that they are able to obtain is poorly paid, so they may be better off on benefits.

However, further support needs may arise.  For example, St Mungo’s recent research piece “Rebuilding Shattered Lives” showed a clear link between women’s homelessness and custody battles over their children. The lack of accommodation held by the mother often resulted in state intervention, however by having the child removed from their care, the mother thus became a non-priority case under the Homelessness Act 1996.
Ultimately the problems faced by single parents are societal rather than personal. As highlighted previously, increasingly complex benefit entitlements are a contributing factor to single parent poverty-research by The Fawcett Society predicted that single parents in particular will be hit hardest by the welfare reforms. Three years of frozen child benefits has resulted in parents with one child, £130 worse off a year. Deductions in working tax credits have also increased parent’s difficulties to work whilst raising children. 

Shelter have also stated that changes to the local housing allowance rate has meant that single parents (who incidentally make up 50% of claimants) will be priced out of their local area, breaking  up vital social networks. Furthermore, the bedroom tax has shifted the responsibility of caring for a child/children to one sole parent rather than between both. Leading to one parent (if they are in receipt of Housing Benefit) having to downsize and forfeit the time they spend with their children or risk hardship and homelessness.
As well as a trying benefits system, single parents also face the stigma of parenting alone. Single parent charity Gingerbread, stated that despite a quarter of UK families with dependent children being headed by single parents, single parents are still subjected to negative comments in the street, job rejections and tenancy refusals. Which in turn suggests that social support is needed in addition to practical help.

A key suggestion made by the single parents spoken to, prior to writing this blog, have included a signposting service where an information point (in this case 0a mentor or befriender) could direct the parent towards appropriate ports of call. It was therefore agreed that the most feasible and realistic solution to the issues faced by single parents is the establishment of a reliable support network by way of volunteers with previous experience of single parenthood and/or homelessness. 

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