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17 October 2023

Homeless families stuck in a debt trap, says report

Launched in UK Parliament, report shows how debt both causes, and prolongs, homelessness for many families

Pile of bills sitting on a stair

Families made homeless, often as a result of domestic violence, are stuck in a ‘debt trap’, says a new report being launched today at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Households in Temporary Accommodation.

The research report by King’s College London and Oxford Brookes University, in partnership with Shared Health, reveals how debt is a major factor in why families become homelessness, how it worsens during their time living in temporary accommodation, and then continues to impact on families even when their homelessness ends.

The report aims to amplify the stories of women with dependent children who have experienced homelessness, living in temporary accommodation, and dealing with rent-arrears and other forms of debt. The report’s recommendations highlight an urgent need for systematic change across housing, domestic violence, welfare, transport, education, and childcare.

Key stats in England:

  • Nearly 100,000 households, including over 125,000 children are living in temporary accommodation (Shelter 2023).
  • As of May 2023, 5.7 million low-income families had unsecured debt (personal loans from banks and credit unions, credit cards, overdraft facilities, payday lenders and licensed doorstep loans) (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2023)

Key findings include:

  • Rent arrears is a leading cause of family homelessness. It is also a double-edged form of debt – it is both pushing women into homelessness and can act as a barrier to bidding for permanent social housing. This leaves many families trapped in poor quality temporary accommodation.
  • Women and children’s entry into homelessness is often the result of domestic violence. Women in the study variously experienced being financially controlled, forced to rely on credit for everyday necessities, and enrolled in coerced debt.
  • Debt typically increases during stays in temporary accommodation because of the high costs of transport to take children to existing schools now often long distances away, reliance on eating out given the lack of cooking facilities (even a microwave) in hotels, credit used to pay for the removal, storing, and re-buying of furniture and household items upon each move, and repeated errors in Universal Credit and council tax calculations made as families transition between tenure types. In the most severe case, a family was moved eight times in one year.
  • Even when permanent housing is provided, its often poor and substandard quality means that debts accrue still further to make the space liveable. As Jade explained, “I had no bedding, no pillows. I didn’t have a cup, a plate, a knife, or a fork. There was absolutely nothing in it at all. And not a penny. I was just literally given keys.” The standard lack of carpet, poor insulation, cracks, and sometimes vermin, can require borrowing to make possible the so longed for home. Debt is also needed just to ‘get by’ in daily life given the rising costs of food and other basics, the habitual non-payment of child maintenance by ex-partners, the need to service existing loans, the high costs and inflexibility of childcare provision which precludes paid work, and insufficient Universal Credit.

The research clearly shows how debt is not only causing, lengthening, but also outliving family homelessness. More action is needed on the punitive impacts of debt on women’s and children’s lives. For England’s lowest-income and most financially vulnerable, debt has become a necessity of survival, rather than choice.

Professor Katherine Brickell, lead researcher on ‘The Debt Trap’ from the Department of Geography at King’s College London


Dr Mel Nowicki, researcher on the study, notes: “While private debts are generally small and negligible in pure financial terms, our research shows the huge and disproportionate negative impact they are having on families’ lives and futures.”

Sam Pratt from Shared Health, partner on the research study, said: “As co-secretariats of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Households in Temporary Accommodation, we are working hard at a national level to ensure that the homeless journey is as short, safe and healthy as possible”.

“The case studies in this report give strong evidence of the negative impact of debt and homelessness on the health and wellbeing of the whole family. Many of the APPG recommendations for system change are reflected in this report”.

As a priority, the report pushes for rules on outstanding housing-related debt and property ineligibility to be scrapped.

The Debt Trap: Women’s Stories of Navigating Family Homelessness and Temporary Accommodation in Greater Manchester’

The research, funded by the Urban Studies Foundation and The British Academy, is based on in-depth research between June 2022 – October 2023 working with the same eight participants over this time to understand their changing financial and housing journeys. The report includes their stories and tables showing their financial situations. It also offers viewpoints from interviews with frontline staff, local councils, support workers, and local integrated service charities.

Images courtesy of Anthony Luvera

In this story

Katherine Brickell

Professor of Urban Studies

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