15 Oct 2013

‘Life sentence’ for homeless families trapped in B&Bs

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

It is meant to be a last resort. But the number of homeless families in emergency B&B accommodation is at its highest level in 10 years, with some councils flouting the law to extend time limits.

Bedbugs, cockroaches and mice. Cooking, eating and sleeping – and sometimes rowing – in one room. Sharing a toilet with eight, nine, 10 strangers.

Welcome to family life in bed and breakfast. B&Bs, the jaunty-sounding little hotels which if you pick right can make your holiday, offer something quite different if you’re living in them full time. And latest figures suggest more than 2,000 families with children are doing just that. The highest number in a decade.

Sky (below left), who doesn’t want to use her full name, lives in an east London “hotel” – and I really use the term lightly – with her husband and two children.

She showed me round their room. It didn’t take long. A double bed lies alongside a single. Sky shares the big one with her husband and ten-year-old son. Her 12-year-old daughter has the single to herself – one concession to a girl soon to be a teenager.

There is a tiny, pretty dirty toilet which is the room Sky says she escapes to when she wants a bit of space.

‘I feel like I’m serving a prison sentence’

Sky, who is forced to live in a B and B with her family.

The story of how the family ended up here is extraordinary for the speed and ease with which the family moved from “flying high one minute,” as Sky puts it, “to ending up with nothing.”

Three months ago Sky worked as an office manager. The family were living in a private rented property. The landlord decided he wanted to sell up and the family were issued with an eviction notice. Sky says finding a new home became all encompassing. Her company wouldn’t let her have time off to look for a new home and she ended up losing her job.

Eviction day came and her only option was the hotel.

Looking shell-shocked she told me: “I was working and I ended up here so it’s very easy, so easy. It’s really a life shock basically.”

Although the legal limit for placing a family in bed and breakfast is six weeks, Sky has been here for double that time already. They share the property with ex-offenders on tag, the police are regular visitors and people come to the door looking for drugs. Redbridge borough council says it only uses B&Bs as a last resort and does its best to move people out as soon as possible. There is no sign yet of a move for Sky.

“Once you’re in, you’re in,” she said. “I feel like I’m serving a prison sentence and this is my cell.”

Families like hers are at the heart of a new report from the local government ombudsman, released exclusively to Channel 4 News on Tuesday. It describes a “worrying trend” in councils flouting the law, with increasing numbers of families put into B and Bs and too many being left there way beyond the legal time limit of six weeks.

Family life disintegrates

Karen and Gary Marquick, from Dorset (right), spent 11 weeks living in one room in a B&B this summer. They too had been in private rented accommodation but everything changed when Gary lost his job due to illness. The landlord decided he wanted his property back and, by now reliant on housing benefit, the family couldn’t find another landlord willing to rent to them.

Gary admits when he first saw the B&B room, he sat down on the bed and cried. Within just a few weeks, family life had begun to disintegrate.

“It was hard to keep the normal things going,” said Karen. “We had to sleep in the same room, eat in the same room. People often think of homeless people as being down and out people who lead chaotic lifestyles and have got themselves into that situation through wrong-doing. But that isn’t the case.

“After being in a bed and breakfast for not more than three weeks we were starting to lead chaotic lifestyles.”

The couple – now re-housed in a council property – admit the experience has had an effect on their health, the children and their marriage.

Their experience is all too common, according to the ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin. She says central and local government need to act urgently to end the use of B&B accommodation for families and young people.

Taking families out of B&B accommodation must become a priority for councils, says the government. And it has offered £2m to help.

But with homeless numbers rising.and a chronic shortage of homes, will it be enough to stop families ending up in B&Bs that can be anything but temporary?

Karen and Gary Marquick, with their two children, on a Dorset beach