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Housing instability & childhood trauma: a call to action during the cost-of-living crisis

Written By Jade Serna

My childhood was defined by change. I had moved house 11 times, and country once, by the time I was 18. Childhood is often a blur for many people, as it is categorized by rapid transitions and new experiences, but most of the people I know had a stable base for such transformations to occur within. In my case, I have never been attached to one constant house as a childhood ‘home’ out of the mere fact we never stayed in one long enough for it to define a particular era of my life.

I remember the house with the triangle garden, or the one with the garage, or the one with the mean neighbours. There was the one that was near to the primary school, or the brief ‘home’ we made in the basement of my grandmother’s house in Canada, where myself, my sister and my mum were forced to abandon UK soil, alongside my dad, dog and all the childhood friends I had known up to that point.

Our living situation was less than ideal, but at the time I could never understand why I felt so lost in the world. I couldn’t comprehend that the constant feelings of extreme anxiety that were festering inside of me had something to do with this destabilisation. I knew that these constant moves made me sad and confused, my child heart crying out for the secure base that I saw my friends enjoy.

Entering my teens, I realised more and more how the living situation of my adolescent life had not been normal, and how this abnormality would continue to impact my mental health. But when things are happening to you, especially as a child, you are rarely able to step back and reflect on how they are hurting you. How each move disturbed my sense of belonging; how the clink of every set of new rental keys eroded my sense of self.

It is only after becoming an adult that I have begun to realise that I am not alone in this phenomenon, and that the psychological trauma of housing instability is pervasive and powerful. After taking psychology A level I was introduced to the idea that childhood trauma can affect you long into your adulthood. What I found it was not necessarily moving that was the issue, but the motivations for moving.

Some families make a conscious decision to relocate. However, the family unit remains intact as the parents have the time, stability, and financial means to support their children in this transitional period. In contrast, when families are forced to move due to financial problems or family breakdown, the children suffer from limited parental support as these caregivers are now weighted down by their own suffering and cannot appropriately provide the much-needed guidance and attention to these scared children. Consequently, the children are heavily impacted, as the physical upheaval of moving is compounded with the loss of emotional support their feeling of being safe and protected in the world is further destroyed.

One study that tracked children in Northern Ireland between 2001-2011 found that children are 5 times more likely to experience mental health problems after 3 moves. Other studies have found similar results, with the children of frequent relocators struggling with heightened levels of dissatisfaction and despondency. Their ability to form friendships and perform well at school was also negatively impacted.

Yet even as I write this, I recognise I sit from a privileged position. My family never experienced overt homelessness, narrowly avoiding this fate by having access to a relative’s home where we could take shelter. However, having come close to this brink I empathise deeply with those who have been faced with nowhere to lay their head. And what terrifies me the most is that housing instability and homelessness is increasing due to the rise of unaffordable housing prices and the cost-of-living crisis.

The latest government data shows that homelessness in England has risen by 11% in just 3 months, between January- March 2022, and risen on average 5% since last year. The UK housing emergency is a devastating reality, and approximately 17.5 million people are impacted and living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing. The housing system is broken in a myriad of ways. It is not that citizens are lazy or unable to bring home a stable income. My mother is just one example of this - she has been working extremely hard as a single mum and consistently bringing home a stable income since I was 14. However, this has not stopped us from having to move multiple times.

The issue is that the private rental sector is void of regulation; renters are thus at the mercy of landlords who impose unaffordable rents and unfair evictions. In the UK, the home let rental index has demonstrated how the monthly average price of rental properties has risen by 8.3% since last year to £1060 per month. These numbers exemplify the huge strain on the cost of living that is being felt by Britons, compounded now with rising energy prices and inflation that fails to keep pace with annual take home pay.

As with all things in this capitalist society, it is not distinctly the lack of material possessions that causes suffering, but the psychological turmoil such occurrences induce. Research from the national alliance on mental health have elucidated the connections between displacement and poor mental health, and how “the lack of safe and affordable housing is one of the most powerful barriers to recovery”. Children especially are affected by housing instability as one of the fundamental aspects of healthy development is the establishment of a sense of being safe in the world. The interdisciplinary approach to childhood wellbeing demonstrates how this is directly and inextricably linked to having access to a stable home.

There must be some change to the system, as the housing crisis is reaching a breaking point as even adults with stable, relatively high take home pay still struggle to afford increasing rents and soaring energy prices. It seems some sort of reset must be actualised, or else further generations of children and adults alike will be subject to the intense trauma of being without shelter.

Luckily, there are some amazing organisations working towards ending the national housing emergency. The links below are to websites/petitions that I urge people to sign or get involved in, as the housing crisis may seem irrelevant to you until you are faced with this devastating reality head on.

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