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Housing

‘We’ve had no sleep and the kids are off school’: Life in crowded rental homes during a 40C heatwave

Record-breaking temperatures are proving unbearable in the UK but for families forced to live in cramped homes it can be even harder to manage.

The heatwave is proving unbearable for people all across Britain but for families squeezing into overcrowded homes it is particularly oppressive

Temperatures soared above 40C in the UK for the first time on Tuesday after a Met Office red warning for extreme heat indicated the temperatures pose a threat to life.

While the heat is dangerous for people on the street, it is also a risk to the people living in cramped flats and in temporary accommodation, such as B&B rooms and other makeshift accommodation.

Anna (not her real name) and her family of five, including children aged eight, five and six months, share a one-bedroom flat in Lewisham, south London, paying £778 a month in rent.

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As temperatures continued to heat up she told The Big Issue that she had been forced to keep her children off school because they could not sleep due to the extreme heat.

“We did not sleep last night, I even wrote to my MP at three o’clock in the morning because it is me, my husband, my eight year old, my five year old and my six month old and we are all crowded in one room,” said the secondary school teacher, who is currently on maternity leave.

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“In the past few days the kids haven’t been able to go to school. Every day I have to receive a message from the school asking me why the kids are not in school. I have to be truthful to them. I told them that we all live in a one bedroom flat and we are unable to sleep.

“Last week I took the kids in but I think it was the worst thing as a mum that I have ever done, taking my kids knowing fully well that they did not sleep the night. So I decided that this week I’m not going to do that. They are unable to sleep. They are restless.

“My husband couldn’t even go to work as a security officer. This is not only affecting kids, I am at home with the six month old while most of the time my husband works. We are just stressed and troubled and we don’t know what to do.”

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The family moved into the property in 2012 as intermediate renters, a type of accommodation typically available at 80 per cent private rental rates designed to offer living space to key workers or people who are saving up to a home but can’t afford one.

Anna and her husband have had three children since moving into the property and she told The Big Issue the family have been on the waiting list for social housing for two years.

But the current overcrowded situation is proving particularly dangerous during the current heatwave. Anna has been tracking the heat in her living space during the week and recorded a temperature of 33C on Monday night. On Tuesday temperatures rose again in London.

heatwave rental homes
Anna* tracked the temperature in her living room on Monday as her and her family prepared to go to sleep. Image: Supplied

“All we are asking for is bigger accommodation. We want to live in the area,” said Anna. “At one point I was so frustrated I told them to even move us out of London.

“The situation we are in is something that I never thought we would be in. I thought, worst case scenario, my youngest child wouldn’t even have been born in this house. But no, we are here.

“We knew this summer was going to be our worst summer and unfortunately it has become our worst summer. We are just here with nothing. We are just with sweat and there’s nothing I can do with the kids. They are not going to school. All I’m hearing is: ‘Mummy, I’m bored, I’m restless, I cannot breathe’. My heart is just broken.”

Almost 100,000 households are living in temporary accommodation in England, according to official figures, many in conditions such as these.

Sara Emerson, an outreach worker for homelessness charity Justlife working with single adults in emergency accommodation in Brighton, told The Big Issue its clients face a number of hurdles in managing the heat.

Emerson said many of the people she supports have limited mobility and limited access to facilities.

“They may be much less able to make themselves comfortable, they may have a shared shower that they might struggle to access or the whole building is wanting to use it all at the same time,” said Emerson.

“There may not be laundry facilities which mean they can’t wash bedding that’s been slept in on a very hot night. These kinds of things affect everybody, but if you’re more stuck in the space that you’re in then you’ll be more affected by things.”

The buildings used for emergency accommodation also pose a problem. People are often housed in tiny rooms, Emerson said, leaving little room for “luxury” possessions to beat the heat, like fans.

Buildings can also be tightly populated, driving up the heat, while, in some cases, people do not have the option to turn off heating or control other utilities in their home. 

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“They might be tiny little box rooms and that’s got all your worldly possessions in plus you and it’s 40 degrees,” said Emerson. “So trying to manage a space that small with all your stuffing can be really difficult, really uncomfortable, really unpleasant.”

She added: “People have no say on what their environment is like. One client was saying: “I was in there and the heating is stuck on and it is unbearable”. That is particularly in accommodation for people who are wheelchair users who need lift access. 

“It’s not their fault in any way. They would turn their own radiators off but they’re not able to.”

A report from NGO Human Rights Watch warned earlier in the year that uninhabitable temporary accommodation in London was “violating children’s human rights”.

HRW’s Alex Firth called for a human right to housing to be enshrined in law to allow families living in makeshift homes to challenge their living situation.

The issue is magnified in the heat, Firth told The Big Issue, particularly as temperatures are set to rise and extreme weather is set to become more frequent due to climate change. 

“Homes in the UK are not built to withstand this weather, but it is even worse for those in substandard housing or poor-quality temporary accommodation,” said Firth.

“Too many people are stuck with whole families living in single bed flats or in converted metal shipping containers. They rarely have proper ventilation, and sometimes cannot even open windows due to crude safety features.

“Homeless families are currently feeling the heat worse than anyone and paying the price for government inaction.”

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