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If we work together, we can change this place!

North Camden Zone heard about the lived experience of Camden’s hidden homeless families living in temporary accommodation in England’s Lane Hostel. We wanted to understand the reality of their day-to-day lives and their longer term journey navigating the housing system. These are voices that are seldom heard but whose experience and insights could support the development of joint solutions to improve lives.

In Camden there are 707 dependent children currently housed in temporary accommodation. Families are placed by Camden Council, and the accommodation is intended as a stopgap until families are able to be housed in the private rented sector or accrue enough points to bid for council housing. The largest accommodation is England’s Lane Hostel, with 136 dependent children living there (as of March 2018).

The families living in England’s Lane have a wealth of untapped skills, experience and knowledge. They are educated, they work, they come from diverse cultures and backgrounds, they know how to survive through adversity, care for their children and support one other. All of the families would like to leave the hostel and move into their own home. Some would like to do further education or gain employment to build a better life.

We heard from families that have been residing in England’s Lane Hostel for ten years or more, making their stay far from temporary. Whilst waiting for a new home, these parents and their children eat and sleep in a cramped single room together, originally intended for a single student nurse. The lack of decent cooking facilities, communal space, resident voice and lack of launderette are their key concerns.

Despite their many strengths and resilience, many of the families living in the Hostel had faced very challenging circumstances and setbacks, and continue to experience difficulties. Some have fled domestic violence. Others have no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status. Many of them work, yet are still in debt. Homeless families in temporary accommodation have become part of the new ‘precariat’, who don’t always have control over their own lives and don’t know when they will leave temporary accommodation. This has taken its toll on residents’ mental health. The living conditions and lack of facilities in the hostel have exacerbated their financial hardship and reduced their opportunities to lead a healthy life. Temporary accommodation may have been originally designed and intended as part of a compassionate solution, but the families we spoke to felt that, as a result of how it was operating, the Hostel risked becoming an integral part of the problem.

We also learnt that the system responded to families as individual, atomised cases. The housing system has not been structured to take account of the collective potential of families within the settings or the communities where they live. It does not build on the relationships residents have with each other or could have. It doesn’t acknowledge their strengths, assets, capacities and desires to make things better. It does not account for their essential, shared humanity.

We learnt about the limitations of housing policy. The legal status of residents living in temporary accommodation sits outside the normal protection around overcrowding standards or the suitability of accommodation. The housing allocation points scheme makes accumulating enough points to get social housing whilst living in temporary accommodation out of reach. The legislation, policy and procedures have been designed on the assumption that temporary means short-term. This is clearly at odds with the lived reality of the current housing crisis, in which families are housed in temporary accommodation for years.

Moreover, in London, as in many parts of the UK, there are fundamental structural problems in the housing sector outside of the control of local authorities There is a real lack of social housing, a lack of affordable and suitable accommodation, in addition to prohibitively high rental costs. We know that systems can evolved which unintentionally perpetuate negative conditions for those working in the system as well as those they intend to serve. We noted that this appeared to be true of the housing system operating around England’s Lane Hostel.

We asked residents what good temporary accommodation would look and feel like. What would their vision of temporary accommodation be.

The residents have a vision for the hostel as a place where families can begin to rebuild their lives, that feels like a home where there is warmth, trust, support, nurture and safety. It should be a place where homeless families are given the best chance to succeed in life and where children can grow up and thrive.

In order for the resident’s vision of England’s Lane to be realised, we need to create the conditions where change can occur. Inside the Hostel there needs to be a mechanism, role and culture shift to hear and listen to the voice of residents, support their individual and collective needs, broker the support of external organisations and nurture resident-led action and mutual aid.

More widely, to improve the experience of families entering, living in and leaving temporary accommodation there needs to be a whole system approach, with residents at the centre, to inform strategy, service design and cross–sector collaboration with an express goal to improve the lives of families living in temporary accommodation.

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