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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 10:27 GMT
Growing up homeless
Chloe, age eight: "Home is more than just a house"

By Brian Woods
Producer, Evicted

In 1966's Cathy Come Home, a family forced to sleep rough had their tiny children taken into care. That remains the worst fear of the 130,000 children made homeless through no fault of their own.

At 5.30pm on a freezing winter afternoon, Charlotte, aged 13, her two brothers, sister, and parents sit shivering in a bus shelter on the promenade in Minehead, Somerset.

Charlotte's dad, Lee, has just spoken to the housing charity, Shelter, whose lawyer has been threatening to take Minehead council to court if they did not house the family.

He tells the children: "Now, we've only got to hold out for two hours, and then hopefully if the judge makes that decision we're being treated wrongly... we've all got to hold on together."

Charlotte, second left, and her family
Charlotte, second left, and family
Charlotte's family is just one of more than 100,000 UK families who are homeless, and she is one of 130,000 homeless children.

Her story is told in Evicted, part of the BBC's No Home season which marks the 40th anniversary of the seminal social drama, Cathy Come Home. There are parallels between Charlotte's experience in 2006, and Cathy's in 1966.

Her family's descent into homelessness, like Cathy's, began with illness. When her mother developed post-natal depression, her dad had to give up work to care for her and the children.

Without his income, the family slipped behind in rent payments, which gave their landlord the excuse he needed to evict them so that he could sell their house. So began their decline into homelessness.

Rats and needles

Like Cathy, they lived for a while in a caravan, and then in a homeless hostel.

Scene from Cathy Come Home
The charity Shelter was set up after Cathy Came Home screened
The rats Cathy saw have gone, but there are other problems - the children regularly found used hypodermic needles in the toilets. When the hostel was closed for redevelopment, the family was evicted and moved again, the fourth time in 12 months.

"I don't like always packing our suitcases," says Charlotte. "All I've got is one little tiny suitcase full, so it's not very hard, all it is a couple of jumpers and a pair of trousers and underwear and that.

"You like to think you're getting somewhere and then you've just got to pack all your stuff up again and move. You don't know where you're gonna go and it's really horrible."

Cathy Come Home ends with a harrowing scene in which social services snatch Cathy's children as she beds down for the night on a railway station bench.

While this fate has not befallen Charlotte and her siblings, the fear of social services dominate their lives. She and her brothers are left confused after her father tells her they cannot be taken away, but authority figures at school say it is possible.

Life in one room

The impact of homelessness on children is disturbing. They are the innocent victims - entirely blameless even if their parents have fallen behind with rent payments - yet they suffer the most when the family is uprooted.

She said 'you're just a dirty homeless tramp' - I felt really upset 'cause it ain't my fault
Charlotte, age 13
Chloe, eight, came home from school one day to find her mother in tears, the locks changed and the family evicted from the only home she had ever known.

With her family in bed and breakfast accommodation, the pressure on her parents to find a new home put their relationship to the test. For the first time, she saw them arguing and crying as they and her little sister struggled to adapt to life in one room.

Who can say what long term impact homelessness will have on the self-confidence and self-reliance of a sensitive eight-year-old?

130,472 homeless as of June
Miss 4m school days a year
45.3m meals eaten by families without a kitchen
1.5m families in England on social housing waiting list
Families spend 645 days on average in temporary housing
"Home is more than just a house, it's a place you can feel safe," says Chloe.

Chloe's diet has suffered as well. With no cooking facilities beyond a kettle, the only hot food her mother can provide is Pot Noodle.

A friend in the B&B, 15-year-old Sarah, fares little better. Her mother puts tins of baked beans on the radiator each morning so she can provide her children with, if not hot, then certainly warm meals by the evening.

Friendless too

Homeless children also face problems in education. New research published on Wednesday by the housing charity Shelter shows homeless children are twice as likely to be persistently bullied at school.

Sarah and her brother Daniel
Sarah: Meals heated on a radiator
That's certainly borne out in Charlotte's case, who returned from school one day in tears after a classmate called her a "dirty homeless tramp".

"I started crying. I felt really upset 'cause it ain't my fault," Charlotte says.

Sarah, too, was rebuffed by her school friends, who refused to meet up with her because she was a "low life".

What her classmates thought was not a problem for long, however, as the local council then moved the family 15 miles from her school. She was offered no help to get there. As her mother could not afford the bus fares, in the middle of her first GCSE year, Sarah's schooling stopped.

Shelter research shows that children who are homeless or in bad housing are twice as likely to leave school with no GCSEs.

Ruth Kelly, Communities Secretary, recently made a speech in which she claimed that "Cathy's chances today would be significantly better."

But the children of families going through homelessness can still be devastated by the experience. On average they miss 11 weeks of school - nearly a whole term - and spend 645 days without a home.

There is no doubt that things have changed a great deal, but perhaps not as much as we might like to believe.

Evicted is broadcast in the UK on BBC One, Wednesday 29 November at 2240 GMT.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This story makes my blood boil and my heart break. Does it ALWAYS have to be like this?
Graham Burge, Samoens, France

I cannot understand why this happens in the year 2006. It happened to me when I was young but that was the early 70s. It's very sad but I would like to know why they keep having children when they know their circumstances are bad?
Margaret Horan

How typical that social services start wielding their authority on families (via the schools) rather than applying productive pressures on local government and the courts to produce the required housing. House prices are going up; this situation is NOT going to get any better, as affordable accommodation becomes harder and harder to obtain.
Mark, Hampshire

Why are children going through this still? My local authorities are doing a little more. My aunt and uncle-in-law live in an awful one bedroom flat with two children. The shower has just stopped working, so no washing facilities and the building is up for sale. Potentially they have the same problems as this family but the council and social services are willing to stump up the deposit and first month's rent to get them a house via the private sector. It is frightening how easy families can become homeless and I think it is time our country's priorities were re-thought.
Kate, Hastings, East Sussex

Until now, when I thought of homeless people it was always adults, so thanks for raising this issue. I will be watching tonight.
Becca, Milton Keynes

So sad. How can it happen nowadays? The government should spend less on weapons and give more help to families.
Jacqueline, Bruges, Belgium

It's time that the financial institutions were looked at as well, maybe using some of their obscene profits to subsidise - at least in the short term - those at risk of repossession/eviction? Surely better than the tokenism usually seen only at Christmas?
Steve, Harrow, Middlesex

It infuriates me that this can happen in this land of plenty. Having said that, as landlords who used to let well-maintained and decorated properties to DSS tenants, we no longer do so due to irresponsible attitudes. It saddens us as we wanted to help disadvantaged people in some small way.
Maureen B, Beckenham

I struggle daily with finances, but I am not on the streets. I would offer my spare room to anyone who needed it just to get them off the street and give them food and a hot shower when they wanted. I am horrified that this can happen in the 21st century in our country. It is not right, Tony Blair needs to wake up.
Pippa, Solihull, West Midlands

I work full-time, earn a decent wage, but it's not enough to rent privately. My son and I live in a one-bedroom temporary flat. There's one fire, which has CO2 alarms for it, faulty electrics and it's freezing. The guilt and pain you feel for your kids is overwhelming. Why is it ok to treat people in this manner, when most are trying to earn a decent living and raise their kids? It has to stop.
Becky, London

This is another prime example how in the UK we do not look after our own, but give funds and housing to the rest of the world. We need to ensure our own people have housing as these children are our future.
Debbie Gould, Bournemouth

I work in housing, and many tenants bury their heads in the sand when it comes to paying their rent. The majority can claim full housing and Council Tax benefit but don't always complete the necessary paperwork. They also have options to speak to money advice councillors who are there to help. All tenants should have some sense of responsibility, but, more often than not, have relied on everyone else to do everything for them - the welfare system must be addressed as things are getting out of hand. People who get into debt with their rent really need to get their priorities right. Many have fancy flat screen TV's, their children wear designer clothes. They must surely know their priority is to keep a roof over their heads.
Kate, Glasgow, Scotland

As there are so many private landlords with flats to rent, it does seem strange that councils can't sort out decent long-term lets for families like these.
Graham, Hornchurch, Essex

We lost our house in the late 1980's housing crash, I was 10 and had two younger siblings. We all got uprooted from our schools and were sent to live miles away in a privately owned B&B - what I've never been able to get over, is the fact that the B&B charged the council more per week in rent to house us, than our monthly mortgage. Why can't more be done to keep families in their homes, preventing the upheaval of the kids? And why pay over-priced room rental at B&Bs at the tax payers' expense - when keeping families in their home is cheaper and more constructive?
Anon, London

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