Turning away the homeless

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Today the House of Commons will be asked to give a second reading to the Government's Housing Bill, which will affect homeless families all over the country. Under the Bill, homeless families will no longer be given priority in the allocation of permanent homes.

In future, local councils may only be required to provide temporary accommodation for 12 months. More homeless families will be turned away by local councils and forced to take an insecure, expensive tenancy from a private landlord - the rent for which will come from the public purse.

Homelessness exacts a terrible cost in wasted money and damaged lives. Families are trapped in expensive and overcrowded bed and breakfast accommodation, when it would be far better - and cheaper - to build permanent homes.

The experience of homelessness reaches into every aspect of life. It is more difficult for homeless people to get a job. The stress of homelessness can lead to mental or physical ill- health. Many homeless people are not on the electoral register and do not even have a vote.

But one of the areas where homelessness takes its greatest toll is in the impact it has on children. More than 50,000 children are living in temporary accommodation because their families have become homeless. A report last year by researchers at the Institute of Education in London shows how their education suffers from this lack of stability.

Families living in temporary accommodation often face frequent moves - sometimes as many as two or three in the same year. Where a family is put in temporary accommodation some distance from its previous home, children face the choice of long journeys or changing to a new school, perhaps only for several months. Some will have trouble finding a new school place, so they end up spending time out of school altogether.

Conditions in temporary accommodation, especially bed and breakfast, make it difficult for children to work at home. As a result, they fall behind - and some never catch up .

Homeless pupils often require help in settling into school and may need more support from teachers. As a result, in schools with large numbers of children from homeless families the extra demands can adversely affect the progress of all pupils, not just those living in temporary accommodation.

The Bill's proposals will make all this worse. Homeless families will face the prospect of one temporary home after another. The cost to the Treasury of these temporary homes will be an extra pounds 118m in housing benefit in the first year alone.

All those who care about stable family life and the sensible use of public resources must reject these proposals.

The writer is director of Shelter

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