Debt Trap Urbanism

Blog 5th March 2024

In this guest post, Professor Katherine Brickell and Dr. Mel Nowicki discuss their research on homelessness, temporary accommodation and debt, which was supported by a Pandemics and Cities grant from the USF.

Tackling family homelessness is an urgent national challenge. Single women with dependent children represent over a third of households in Temporary Accommodation (TA) in England today. A record 142,490 children live in TA, often for years, without a stable and secure place to call home. Given the cramped and poor quality of TA, stays should theoretically be of limited duration. However, in Greater Manchester, where over 12,000 children live in TA, the average length of stay is two years (Shared Health Foundation, 2019). Our USF-supported study explored how rental, council tax, and other personal debts are shaping families’ housing journeys into and on from homelessness and temporary accommodation. Working in collaboration for the first time with the Shared Health Foundation, we, Katherine Brickell and Mel Nowicki, found that debt not only causes, lengthens, but also outlives family homelessness. 

Between May 2022 and October 2023 we conducted repeat in-depth interviews with 13 women who, along with their children, had been made homeless in Greater Manchester. We have met each woman up to three times across this year-and-a-half period. In our second interviews with participants, we explored ‘journey mapping’ to better understand their housing and financial biographies. This consisted of using key images based on their initial interviews to create a visual map of their journeys into, through, and in the aftermath of homelessness and the varying ways debt accrues and compounds along the way. In October 2023, we brought together 7 of the women we had worked with to feedback our findings and to find out their views and reactions. As part of the research, we have also interviewed local frontline staff, councils, support workers and integrated service charities. 

In The Debt Trap research report and accompanying 2-page illustration, we offer a series of short and longer-term recommendations for action. These were presented at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Households in Temporary Accommodation and submitted to The Women and There are 105,000 households living in temporary accommodation (TA) (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 2023). 


Debt as a cause of family homelessness 

Bills stacking up on a staircase (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)
Bills stacking up on a staircase (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)

The research found that rent arrears are a leading cause of family homelessness. Women and children’s entry into homelessness and debt is often the result too of domestic violence. Many of the women we interviewed were economically controlled, forced to rely on credit for everyday expenses, and in some cases enrolled into coerced debt. Many participants describe these debts as another form of punishment which stays with them — and follows them around — even when they have managed to leave violent partners. Domestic abuse feeds the debt trap. 



Debt lengthens family homelessness 

Where they are necessary, stays in temporary accommodation need to be as short, safe, and healthy as possible, given the damage they can do emotionally and physically.  Yet, the research shows that a key barrier to this is the rent-arrears, which inhibit families’ transition to a permanent Council or social housing tenancy.  Dependent on the local authority, applicants who are in arrears can become ineligible to bid for homes or are deprioritised in the allocation system.  Women and children, including domestic abuse victim-survivors, remain in limbo in temporary accommodation until they can reduce or clear their arrears or, in some cases, prove their intent to pay.

Debt also typically increases during stays in temporary accommodation for a range of reasons – our research has identified four key contributing factors. The first is the high costs of travel to take children to their existing schools, now often long distances away. We have written a piece for The Conversation on this.  

Bus in Greater Manchester (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)
Bus in Greater Manchester (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)

Secondly, the costs of life in temporary accommodation are accrued through the reliance on eating out – in the case of hotels, there is usually not so much as a microwave, or in some cases even a kettle. Thirdly, credit used to pay for the removal, storing, and re-buying of furniture and household items upon each move contributes to the financial burden of family homelessness. And four, repeated errors in Universal Credit and council tax calculations made as families transition quickly between tenure types are also a factor in reducing income and adding unexpected further debt. Life on the move heightens the need for credit and the weight of new and existing debts. In the most severe cases, families were moved over ten times in one year, and usually with only a few hours of notice each time.  


Debt outlives family homelessness 

Sofa in temporary accommodation (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)
Sofa in temporary accommodation (Photograph by Anthony Luvera)

But even when permanent housing is provided, its often poor and substandard quality means that debts accrue still further in order to make them liveable. The standard lack of flooring, poor insulation, cracks, and often vermin, can require borrowing. This precarity is compounded by the habitual non-payment of child maintenance by ex-partners, and the need to re-pay existing loans. Insufficient Universal Credit rates do not cover the basics, and an eye-wateringly expensive and inflexible childcare system essentially blocks women from entering paid work. While these individual debts are generally small and negligible in pure financial terms, our research shows the huge and disproportionately negative impact they are having on women and children’s lives and futures. 

For families experiencing homelessness, debt is not a choice. Rather, it has become a necessity of survival. Women aren’t failing; women and children are being failed. 


Future plans 

Moving forward, we are developing two main areas of investigation. The first centres on exploring England-wide how housing-related debt influences bidding eligibility in local authority policies. As part of this analysis, we are studying whether and how widely exceptions for domestic abuse victim-survivors are being made. This data will be folded into a book that we are currently writing called Debt Trap Nation: Family Homelessness in a Failing State. 

Second, we hope, with future funding, to research the needs and experiences of homeless families with neurodiverse children. Most studies of homelessness focus on single people rough sleeping, the majority of whom are men. Where mental health considerations are researched in relation to homelessness, they tend to concentrate on substance abuse by single adults. Our future research will go against prevailing orthodoxy by re-centring the ‘hidden homelessness’ of families rather than individuals and by focusing on the neglected experiences (including mental health) of neurodiverse children and their families.