On a November night in 2013, a seven-year-old boy called Morgan started having an asthma attack. Morgan loved football; he was playing with the Chelsea FC Foundation Development Centre and hoped one day to play professionally.
Morgan’s inhaler wasn’t helping, the attack was worsening. His parents decided to take him to the hospital.
Shortly after they made that decision, he stopped breathing on the concrete driveway of the house they were living in Peckham, south London, right in front of them.
Morgan’s mother, Kelly Sheen, was inside and trying to figure out where the nearest hospital was when that asthma attack killed him. She didn’t know because she, along with her partner and their children, had been moved to Peckham from Bromley after being made homeless by their private landlord who put the rent up beyond what they could afford.
The family had only been living in the house in Peckham for six weeks when everything as they knew it ruptured, Morgan was living in temporary accommodation when his life was abruptly cut short.
Temporary accommodation is housing given to people experiencing homelessness and can include bed and breakfasts, hostels with shared kitchens and bathrooms, shelters, and privately owned properties that are rented out to local councils.
If a person or family lives in temporary accommodation, though they are not sleeping rough, they are still considered to be statutorily homeless and lacking a secure home. This is sometimes referred to as being “hidden homeless”.
Kelly and Morgan’s dad called an ambulance while performing CPR on him as they desperately tried to remember the rhythm as explained in the Vinnie Jones ‘Stayin’ Alive’ advert.
Despite their best efforts and those of paramedics in the ambulance, Morgan was confirmed dead on arrival at the hospital.
Kelly believes that the upheaval and displacement of being made homeless also played a key role in the events which, ultimately, led to her son dying that night.
“If we had been at home, in our home,” Kelly said when I first met her in 2018, “our GP’s surgery was across the road. The hospital was down the road in the other direction. You know where all these things are when you’ve got kids. I know that night would never have gone the way that it did if we hadn’t been moved.”
Homelessness was not recorded as a contributing factor to Morgan’s death all those years ago but that might not be the case today.
For the first time, figures from an NHS-funded body – the National Child Mortality Database (NCMD) – link child homelessness and child deaths.
A new report shared exclusively with i by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Temporary Accommodation reveals the public health crisis of homeless children who have been forced into temporary accommodation.
Dr Laura Neilson, a practising A&E doctor who led the team behind the report, told i it shows “starkly that there is a correlation between child mortality and being homeless” in England.
Whenever a child dies unexpectedly – that is when their death was not expected 24 hours prior – there is a “sudden and unexpected death review”. This data is then recorded by the NCMD.
These reviews take around 12 months and are carried out by consultants under the oversight of coroners. They involve examining the body as well as a visit to the child’s place of death and home.
The NCMD data analysed for the APPG shows that of the 6,970 child deaths which were reviewed between 1 April, 2019 and 31 March, 2022, at least 200 children were either homeless or living in temporary accommodation at some point in their life, if not the time of their death.
In 34 cases, homelessness may have been a contributing factor in the child’s death.
In another 114 cases, the child who died was living in a home that was overcrowded. According to the World Health Organisation, overcrowding is associated with an increased risk of disease. Living in overcrowded accommodation is also associated with a higher risk of preventable accidents.
The APPG say that the real number of children who died while experiencing homelessness is likely higher because, as things stand, there is no requirement for the Child Death Overview Panel (CDOP) – an organisation which reviews all child deaths nationally – to ask whether the child who has died had experienced homelessness.
The data collected by the APPG was specifically requested and likely speaks to a wider problem. Moving forwards, the APPG is working with the NCMD to have a question on homelessness included in all child death reviews.
“We anticipate that if this question was added as mandatory then the actual number of homeless child deaths would be even higher,” says Dr Neilson, who is also the founder of Shared Health – the group which chairs the APPG and works to reduce the impact of poverty on health.
Temporary accommodation is also often unsafe and unsuitable for the needs of families. This is because conditions can be poor and because families with children can also be housed alongside people suffering from addiction and antisocial behaviour.
Over the last few years, i has visited homeless families living in shocking conditions, including a converted office block in south London that was covered with mould, a converted office block in Essex where there was no space for children to play and converted shipping container-style pods which are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer on the outskirts of Reading.
Data on how many children, like Morgan, died while experiencing homelessness does not exist prior to 2019 because the NCMD was established on 1 April, 2018 with the specific aim of reducing premature mortality by collecting and analysing data on all child deaths in England which occur between birth and their 18th birthday.
“This is the first time this research has been done and the first time a correlation has been found between temporary accommodation and mortality,” Dr Neilson tells i.
“From all the work on the ground, I knew as a doctor that these children were being placed into circumstances that affected their health, education and life chances, but when we saw that at least 34 children may have died with a direct link to their accommodation, my heart broke,” Dr Neilson adds.
“As a doctor, I know this is preventable, this fixable and this is not acceptable.”
The number of homeless families and, therefore, children being put at risk by homelessness is growing. At the time that the APPG’s report on child health and homelessness was written, there were 95,060 households living in temporary accommodation in England, including 119,840 children.
This is part of a long-term increase. In 2010, when the Conservatives first came to power, the number of such families with children was just 37,940.
The rising number of homeless families housed this way is, in no small part, a symptom of England’s social housing shortage. According to the homelessness charity Shelter, over a million people are currently on waiting lists across the country.
As a result, temporary accommodation is not usually “temporary” at all but, often, where mothers and children are placed for years at a time as councils struggle to rehouse them in more appropriate homes.
The threat of such accommodation to children’s wellbeing is serious, as 40-year-old Ramu (who asked for her last name not to be used) from south London knows well.
Ramu became homeless five years ago after she broke up with her male partner and he kicked her out. At the time her son, who is autistic and non-verbal, had just been born. She was housed “temporarily” by Southwark Council in a tower at the now-dilapidated 1960s Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle which is mostly empty while it awaits demolition.
Southwark has a homelessness crisis with over 17,500 households on their waiting list for a council home. Subsequently, they also face a spiralling temporary accommodation bill. According to a Freedom of Information request (FOI), the local authority has spent £7.2m putting up homeless families in hotels and other emergency housing over the last five years, with over 97 per cent of that money being spent in the last two years alone.
Five years after becoming homeless, Ramu is still living on Aylesbury with her son, six, and two older children, 12 and 17. The family’s fourth floor flat only has two bedrooms, making it overcrowded for a family of four.
Overcrowding is not all they have to contend with, though.
“The heating doesn’t work so we were given electric heaters. My son burned his face on one of them,” she tells i while speaking from her children’s school. “There is also black mould everywhere.”
Exposure to mould, as the recent case of two-year-old Awwab Ishak who died because of exposure to the black mould in his social home in Rochdale reminded the country, can be fatal.
“I don’t feel safe here because the estate is deserted,” Ramu continues. “Young men come, and smoke weed and the lift is always full of pee and poo.”
The horrendous conditions that Ramu’s family are living with have very nearly resulted in tragedy.
“The windows are old and open wide,” she says. “Because my son has autism, he doesn’t understand danger. I was at home and doing some cleaning when he opened the window and fell from the fourth floor to the second.”
“I had complained about the windows repeatedly,” Ramu adds. “Luckily no bones were broken, but after he fell, he couldn’t walk so I called an ambulance.”
Ramu says she now feels anxious and unsafe at home “every time anyone goes near the window”.
Councilor Darren Merrill, Southwark’s Cabinet Member for Council Homes and Homelessness, told i: “The safety of parents and children is of paramount importance to us. That’s why we stopped using shared hostels for families to ensure they are placed in self-contained temporary accommodation.”
“We are aware of the specific incident here. Window restrictors were fitted to all windows in the property following the incident, which occurred shortly after we made [Ramu] an offer of permanent accommodation elsewhere. The discussion about her housing situation is ongoing.”
Dr Neilson notes that women with children are particularly impacted by the poor conditions and instability of temporary accommodation because, in her experience, many of them are homeless because they are fleeing domestic violence and abuse.
As housing costs rise against a backdrop of double-digit inflation which is making it harder and harder for people to make ends meet, homelessness is also worsening – up by 34 per cent at the end of last year in comparison to 2021, according to the latest data. Over a 100,000 children are living in temporary accommodation. Yet, last year, just 59,175 affordable homes were built.
Jane Williams is the founder of a charity called The Magpie Project, which works to support a growing population of homeless mothers in east London.
Williams fears that there will be more child deaths if the issue of temporary accommodation is not made a political “priority”.
“We see a lot of children who have ongoing respiratory problems due to their accommodation,” she tells i over the phone in between urgent cases. “A lot of these homes are not safe.”
“There are also a lot of accidents like the one Ramu talks about because temporary accommodation is often not child-proof. A lot of it is open plan, so we have seen a lot of burns, falls, and trips alongside chronic health conditions such as respiratory issues in children. We also see scabies and bedbug bites,” Williams added.
“I am shocked that housing homeless families properly is not a number one priority at every housing association, local authority [and] Department of Housing meeting,” Williams concludes. “Because I can’t think there’s anything more important than keeping children safe.”
34-year-old Maria (who asked for her real name not to be used) is currently living in temporary accommodation plagued by pharaoh ants with her two children, aged one and four, in Poplar, east London. They were first housed in their two bedroom flat in 2020. The property is owned and managed by Lettings International – a private company that provides temporary accommodation to local authorities – but Maria was placed there by Newham Council.
Lettings International did not respond to i‘s requests for comment.
Like Southwark, Newham faces a growing homelessness problem and, therefore, temporary accommodation bill. The local authority is predicted to overspend £5.2m on temporary accommodation in the 2022-23 financial year as it does not have enough homes to support everyone in the borough.
“The flat has no living room,” Maria tells i. “So, there isn’t enough space for my family, and we’ve had ants since we moved in. I see them everywhere – in the doorway and in the carpet. There is also damp and mould in the block and my children get sick all the time.”
“I know there are ants in the building and other residents have told me that they keep getting bitten,” Maria adds.
Pharaoh ants pose a substantial health risk because they can infect food, causing food poisoning, dysentery and typhoid. In hospitals and care homes, they have been known to invade surgical dressings and may transfer infection from one patient to another.
Frank MacCool, head of temporary accommodation at Newham Council, told i: “Significant contact took place with all the residents in the block over the course of the summer of 2022, culminating with a full block treatment to thoroughly cleanse it of any issues in October. Since that time we have received no complaints, however, the managing agents continue to be in touch with the residents and will be visiting this property tomorrow.”
Mould like that reported by Maria is a common problem in temporary accommodation.
The risks of living with mould and damp are well-documented. As the NHS website notes, “if you have damp and mould in your home, you’re more likely to have respiratory problems, respiratory infections, allergies or asthma. Damp and mould can also affect the immune system.”
35-year-old Asha (not her real name) became homeless four years ago after the birth of her daughter due to issues with her visa application.
She is currently living in temporary accommodation – a one bedroom flat owned by a private landlord in Brentford where there have been serious issues with mould. She was placed there by Westminster Council’s social services.
“The entire carpet in the bedroom was full of mould when we moved in October 2021,” she explains. “There was mould everywhere. It was also in the fridge. It has made me and my daughter asthmatic.”
Neither Asha nor her daughter suffered from asthma before they were moved to Brentford. And now they are both unwell.
“My daughter was constantly coughing, and the doctor put her on antibiotics. Our GP wrote to the council,” Asha tells i. She first complained about the mould when she moved in and says she had to wait nine months before any action was taken.
“My daughter had an asthma attack yesterday and all night. She was breathless and wheezing, it just gets worse and worse, and I can see that she is having difficulty breathing. It is literally like she is choking, that is how bad it is for her.”
“My asthma is even worse. I have been given a steroid asthma pump,” Asha adds.
“I am angry. These are serious health problems. Asthma is a lifelong problem, once it comes it will never go. It will always be there. My child is four-years-old; I could accept it if she was born with the condition but I can’t accept it when it was caused by bad housing.”
“Nobody takes responsibility.”
A spokesperson for Westminster Council told i: “The safety of people in our care is our top priority.”
“Where mould is discovered we act quickly to treat the problem or offer alternative accommodation. Our staff also look out for mould and a range of common safety concerns when visiting service users, offering support and advice to ensure people are safe in their home. We will speak to Asha today to address her concerns.”
As the old adage goes, “where there’s muck, there’s brass”. The business of temporary accommodation is lucrative for private companies and landlords, but costly for the taxpayer.
Figures show that councils in England spent £1.45bn on the provision of temporary accommodation between April 2020 and March 2021. This cost is covered in part by housing benefit, and people experiencing homelessness having to top it up with their income to pay their rent depending on how much they earn.
Were these homeless families to be rehoused in social housing, their rent would go back into the social housing system.
Kelly and her family were made homeless shortly after David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition government’s benefit cap, first announced at the Conservative Party conference in 2010, kicked in. The government predicted that this policy would reduce public expenditure by £225m by 2015, which, during a credit crunch, they passed off as re-balancing the books.
At the time, housing and poverty experts warned that the reduction to the amount of rent that state support covered would have serious implications for at least 100,000 households, predominantly in the South East where rents were higher than in the rest of the country.
Kelly was among them; her family’s benefits were capped. In real terms, the average gap between private rent and housing benefit for families like hers was £3,750 a year.
“The maths of it never made sense to me,” Kelly reflects. “Our rent was £1,600 a month but our temporary accommodation cost £3,000 a month. Why did they not just support us with paying the rent on our home? Who is doing the adding up?”
Today, around 1.9 million households in England are reliant on housing benefit to keep a roof over their heads, according to the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own figures.
However, in recent years, private rents have hit historic highs across the country while housing benefit remains frozen at 2019-20 levels which, homelessness charities have told i, has left a “black hole” in the finances of low-income families and left them at risk of rent arrears, eviction and, ultimately, homelessness.
The APPG for Temporary Accommodation is calling for the Government to take action regarding families in temporary accommodation.
“If this was a medical disease, we would be urgently seeking political and medical intervention to prevent child death and illness,” Dr Neilson said.
The Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh, chairs the APPG.
McDonagh told i that she is deeply concerned about the impact of temporary accommodation on children.
“In the past, we have met with a family who had a baby boy who was moved between rooms in an office block on an industrial estate because of the smoke on the estate causing him a wheezy cough,” she told i from her parliamentary office.
“I was particularly concerned when a mum told me that a toddler was struggling to learn to walk because of the lack of space in the room for him to do so (there was little more space after the bed),” she added.
A Government spokesperson told i: “This report reinforces the urgent need to tackle poor quality housing wherever it occurs.”
“Temporary accommodation is a last resort and we are committed to driving down the need for it. Over half a million households have been prevented from becoming homeless or secured accommodation since 2018 and we have given councils £366m this year to help prevent evictions and act on their duty to ensure all families have a roof over their heads.”
“Our Social Housing Regulation Bill and Renters Reforms are designed to help improve standards in temporary accommodation and we will review the report’s findings and continue our work with the sector.”
The Renters’ Reform Bill – which will make it harder for landlords to evict their tenants and increase rents mid-tenancy – was first promised by Theresa May’s government in 2019. There is currently no date for the legislation to begin making its way through Parliament so that it can become law.
The Temporary Accommodation APPG’s report adds to studies which have long argued that children who grow up in bad housing have a higher risk of severe ill health.
Professor Monica Lakhanpaul of University College London, who has studied the impact of living in temporary accommodation on children experiencing homelessness, told i: “Children are at risk of breathing problems such as respiratory infections and asthma, as well as diarrhoea and skin problems because of the conditions they are in – mould, overcrowding, poor ventilation and pollution.”
In their report Chance of a lifetime, the impact of bad housing on children’s lives, the housing charity Shelter warned that children who grow up in bad housing have up to a 25 per cent higher risk of severe ill-health and disability during childhood and early adulthood.
Professor Lakhanpaul’s research – the Champions Project – has studied the impact of living in temporary accommodation on children and found that it has “immediate and lasting effects” on their health.
Today, Kelly lives in Loughborough. Morgan would be 16-years-old now. It was his birthday last October. To celebrate his life, Kelly and her family went to a park in Bromley behind the house that they used to live in and set some balloons free in the driving wind and rain.
A rainbow appeared as they let the balloons go.
“I talk about Morgan’s death every day regardless of whether anyone is listening,” Kelly says, adding that she is frustrated to see that the housing crisis continues to worsen. “The loss is part of me now.”
“It’s like blackness. I feel like the lights went out after Morgan died – not just on me but on all of my children. We are all still living with the effects of it today, we were living in total darkness for a long time,” she continues.
“This is a government-induced crisis involving families and children,” Kelly concludes. “This new data is important. We’ve been looking at homelessness as a self-inflicted thing that people suffer, and I don’t think that the people in power – the ones who need to understand – are aware of the impact of homelessness on families. Put these numbers under their noses and say, ‘children are dying’. Surely, then they can’t continue to ignore it.”