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Rat bites and chronic asthma: Schools on the front lines of Britain's housing crisis | indigence

Rat bites and chronic asthma: Schools on the front lines of Britain's housing crisis |  indigence


Some children living in poor housing conditions woke up with heartbreaking coughs from the humidity, while others woke up to the smell of sewage seeping from the walls. Toby* woke up with a cramp in his chest.

His mother, who did not want to give her name, said he came to me crying at midnight. He is one of more than 3,800 children living in temporary accommodation in Lewisham. Lewisham has the 10th highest number of children living in such homes in England.

Nationwide, 142,000 homeless children live in places such as commercial hotels, converted offices and dingy hostels. This marks an all-time high following a surge in rents and no-fault evictions across the country.

Schools have seen this impact first-hand. A National Education Union survey last week found that 59% of teachers in England and Wales have seen their students' health often suffer as a result of poverty, along with housing problems. In Lewisham, south London, 11 head teachers signed a letter organized by community group Lewisham Citizens, declaring that the local housing emergency was putting students' health at risk.

Temporary housing was provided to mothers and children who had visible signs of rat infestation. Photo: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Beecroft Garden Primary School is a microcosm of Lewisham as a whole. Around one in five children attending school live in temporary accommodation, the same proportion as the borough as a whole.

The school is located in Crofton Park, a gentrified area of ​​the borough divided by a small bridge between multi-million pound homes and council estates. Some students come from deep-rooted, wealthy families, while others are displaced by councils or forced into lives of misery by negligent landlords. Where a child calls home has become increasingly clear, conditional on his or her attendance at school.

Naomi Lothian. Photo: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Some children cannot take a bath or wash their clothes. It affects students’ self-esteem. Many people worry that their friends will find out about their lifestyle. Naomi Lothian, the school's family support officer, said it had a serious impact on physical and mental health.

She grew up on a property near the school, across from the bridge that divides the up-and-coming area from the up-and-coming area. She is on the front lines of the housing crisis affecting the school's poorest students. People living in homes with damp and mold are coming to local schools with coughs and chest infections, while others are bitten by rats and mice in homes full of pests.

When the Guardian visited the school last month, Lothian was rushing around to deal with the needs of the numerous students under his watch, including a long-running case.

Two boys from the school had been living with their mother in moldy, rat-infested temporary accommodation for more than a year. A man has been without electricity and hot water for months after rats bitten through wires and damaged his boiler. Their mother was bitten twice by rats, and her three-year-old son suffered repeated chest infections from the fungus. Her older son didn't go to school for two weeks after waking up with a cramp in his chest.

When the Guardian visited the house, mouse droppings were seen on the floor and sofa, and large holes were visible in the floor and walls where rodents roamed. The family was sent there by Southwark Council.

Complaints about rats and mold were ignored by the lettings agency, which manages the property on behalf of private landlords. After months of emails and phone calls, Lothian heard that her family would be residing nearby. Shortly after signing her new lease, her family's current landlord called and told her she had 24 hours to leave.

For many families, temporary accommodation is no longer temporary accommodation. In Lewisham, 297 households had been in temporary accommodation for more than five years by the end of 2023, according to data obtained by the Guardian through a freedom of information request. In nearby Lambeth, 1,006 households had spent more than five years in such homes; 311 households had spent more than five years in such homes. For over 10 years.

At Rushey Green Primary School in Catford, most pupils live in social housing. Some people have been without heat for months, while others live in rooms that are damp and blighted by leaking sewage. A seven-year-old girl lives in a single room with her mother. She has an oven as her bedside table. They were housed in temporary accommodation by Lewisham Council four years ago. Her mother, who did not want to give her name, said they locked us in the building and left us there.

Cheryl Powell with her son Jaheen. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer

Her daughter often woke up at night to the smell of sewage and even suffered injuries while playing in the cramped room. She hit her mouth while doing a handstand, causing her to bleed, her mother said.

I didn't want my daughter to see me in the middle of the night, so I locked myself in the bathroom and just cried. I want her to see me as her strong mom.

The school's headteacher, Lisa Williams, said some of her students suffered from chronic asthma due to damp and mold, while others were bitten by rats or bedbugs. It was absolutely terrible, she said.

The Guardian spoke to several parents at the school who shared similar stories. A mother of two school-aged children lives in an apartment with one working window that has grown so moldy that mushrooms have grown in the doorway.

Teachers said the council was sending families from as far away as Kent in the borough. These students often become exhausted and miss school.

Cheryl Powell, 47, was sent to live in temporary accommodation in Woolwich two years ago. She has to take three buses to bring her son Jaheen to school. He has no life in him. At 6am she wakes him up and they leave at 7am. School doesn't start until 8:45 a.m., she said. He eats dinner (usually takeout) on the bus home and then goes to sleep right after boarding the bus.

School staff are not immune. Rosaline Fofornah is the school's supervisor. She lives in a mold-infested tenement. She said it would hurt me and my children.

For many children, remaining in that environment is the only option. There are so many families who literally live on top of each other. They either get private accommodation they can't afford or they stay where they are. There was literally nowhere to go, Lothian said.

Rosaline Fofornah at the bathroom door, the ceiling covered in damp mold. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer

Southwark City Council said it was made aware of problems at the home in Crofton Park in February and, after visiting the property, agreed the family should move. They moved as soon as a replacement home was found in early March.

A Lewisham Council spokesperson said: We expect temporary housing, whether managed directly by us or rented from the private sector, to be properly maintained and we apologize to families who have been disappointed in these cases.

Lewisham City Council is making substantial and ongoing investments in repurchasing and building new social housing in the borough, as well as maintaining and improving existing housing stock. The 2024/25 budget allocates approximately $80 million for improvements.




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