Today I discovered that I was homeless for much of my childhood. As you can imagine, this came as something of a surprise to me.
As I was making the baby his breakfast and listening to the radio, I heard a discussion of government plans to cap the total sum of benefits that a family can receive. This, the presenter was saying, would make people homeless. No, said home secretary Iain Duncan Smith, not as you and I understand homelessness. “The public thinks that homelessness is about not having reasonable accommodation to go to” he said. “That’s not the definition. The definition inside government and places like Shelter is that children have to share rooms.”
On that basis, it turns out that I was homeless for years at a time as a child and didn’t even notice.
So is that right, that the government defines children as homeless if they have to share rooms? I looked it up in the Housing Act, 1996:
175 Homelessness and threatened homelessness.
(1) A person is homeless if he has no accommodation available for his occupation, in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, which he… is entitled to occupy.
(2) A person is also homeless if he has accommodation but (a) he cannot secure entry to it, or (b) it consists of a moveable structure, vehicle or vessel designed or adapted for human habitation and there is no place where he is entitled or permitted both to place it and to reside in it.
(3) A person shall not be treated as having accommodation unless it is accommodation which it would be reasonable for him to continue to occupy.
(4) A person is threatened with homelessness if it is likely that he will become homeless within 28 days.
There’s nothing in Iain Duncan Smith’s statement that can be directly traced back to that legal definition of homelessness. But perhaps it lies in subsection 3, that it would be unreasonable to expect someone to live in a house in which children have to share a room. Reading on through the bill to understand what ‘reasonable accommodation’ might be, I’m pointed to the government’s definition of overcrowding, set out in the Housing Act 1985. A house can be deemed overcrowded by either the ‘room standard’ or the ‘space standard’:
325 The room standard.
(1) The room standard is contravened when the number of persons sleeping in a dwelling and the number of rooms available as sleeping accommodation is such that two persons of opposite sexes who are not living together as husband and wife must sleep in the same room.
(2) For this purpose— (a) children under the age of ten shall be left out of account, and (b) a room is available as sleeping accommodation if it is of a type normally used in the locality either as a bedroom or as a living room.
326 The space standard.
(1) The space standard is contravened when the number of persons sleeping in a dwelling is in excess of the permitted number, having regard to the number and floor area of the rooms of the dwelling available as sleeping accommodation.
Here is gets complicated, with the number of people allowed in a house with 2 rooms or 3 rooms, and the number of people allowed in a room of a certain size. A room of 90 to 110 square feet, for example, can sleep one and a half people. (Children under 10 count as half a person, according to the government.)
It also gets a little odd. You can be fined for overcrowding your house, but since you’d technically be homeless if your house was overcrowded, does that mean we fine people for being homeless?
Or since living rooms count as sleeping accommodation in the official definition, if you share a bunkbed with your brother in the box-room, you’re homeless, but you wouldn’t be if you slept downstairs on the couch.
Perhaps I’ve misunderstood that somehow, but I suspect the minister has too. His paraphrase is certainly a little off the wall, although he’s right to say that the general public don’t understand the legal definition of homelessness. The homeless charity Shelter were also quick to suggest that he’s not got it right:
‘The Secretary of State said that, according to Shelter, a family where children share a bedroom would be defined as homeless” the charity said in an official statement. “This is simply not true.”
The 1996 Housing Act defines homelessness to include not just rough sleeping, but a broader range of circumstances that include reasons why people are unable to occupy their current home, such as because of a threat of domestic violence.
This wider definition is essential in order to capture the true scale of the problem and to tackle it effectively. Only the most severe overcrowding, such as people sleeping in kitchens, could be potentially considered by local authorities as homeless under the statutory definition. This would not include two children sharing a room.
So the good news is that perhaps I wasn’t homeless after all. The bad news is that our government minister in charge of homelessness doesn’t seem to understand it very well.