More than 1 million children in UK sleep on floor or share bed, study finds

<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

More than a million children in the UK either sleep on the floor or share a bed with parents or siblings because their family cannot afford the “luxury” of replacing broken frames and mouldy linen, according to the children’s charity Barnardo’s.

The charity says increasing “bed poverty” reflects growing levels of destitution in which low-income families already struggling with soaring food or gas bills often find they are also unable to afford a comfortable night’s sleep.

Acute hardship was forcing families to adopt desperately improvised sleeping arrangements, it says in a report published on Friday. An estimated 700,000 children were sharing beds, while 440,000 children slept on the floor, leaving them tired, anxious and finding it hard to concentrate at school.

Parents and kids were often forced to share a bed, the Barnardo’s research found. Some parents would sleep on sofas or chairs to vacate their bed for their children. Other children would spend the night on mattresses or blankets on the floor, sometimes without sheets or duvets.

Some of the most vivid findings included a three-year-old having to sleep in a baby cot, a 17-year-old sleeping in a seven-year-old’s bed, and a parent sleeping on a child’s single mattress. Many families saw replacing broken beds as an unaffordable “luxury”. With soaring energy bills, even regularly washing bedding was hard.

More than 336,000 families could not afford to replace or repair beds in the last year, Barnardo’s estimates. More than 204,000 families said their children’s bed or bedding was mouldy or damp because putting the heating on was too expensive and more than 187,000 said they couldn’t afford to wash or dry bedding.

“People take it for granted everyone has a bed,” mum of two Shelley Nicholson told the Guardian. Last winter she slept on a sofa in her unheated front room, her daughters sharing a double mattress on the bare concrete floor next to her. For many people in poverty like her, she added, having a bed felt like a privilege.

Nicholson, a part-time charity worker, and her daughters live in a housing association property affected by damp and mould, just outside Carlisle, Cumbria. Two of their beds were broken but she said she couldn’t afford to heat the bedrooms anyway, so last December they slept in the living room every night for three months.

She tried make the best of it: “I thought if we put some fairy lights in the fireplace, we could trick our heads into thinking the fire was on and the room was warm. We had candles, and we all asked for big snuggly hoodies for Christmas. We just tried to make it as cosy as we could.”

There was no hiding the cold or the discomfort. “It does hurt your back, being on a mattress on the floor,” said her daughter Ash, 16, who was revising for her GCSE mock exams at the time. “You have little or no sleep, you are cold, you get to the point where you have just had enough.”

Shelley Nicholson with her daughter Ash, right.
Shelley Nicholson with her daughter Ash, right. Nicholson, who is on universal credit, loses around a fifth of her £1,000-a-month post-rent income through benefit reductions. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Shelley, who is on universal credit, loses around a fifth of her £1,000-a-month post-rent income through benefit deductions and, of all things, the bedroom tax. She said replacing most essential furniture or appliances was unaffordable for her: “It’s not just beds – it’s the whole spectrum of everything.”

It costs at least £200 to buy a basic new single bed with bedding, and £240 for a double. Barnardo’s provided Shelley and Ash with new beds this year – one of more than 400 families the charity has helped in this way over the past 12 months. Come winter, Shelley expects to move the beds downstairs – she says she can’t afford to heat the upstairs rooms.

Barnardo’s says up to 70% of the poverty support grants administered by its local staff can go on providing beds and bedding for families in poverty. Increasing bed poverty was confirmed by hardship charity Buttle UK, which said it gave out £400,000 in bed grants last year, up 7% in the past 12 months.

Meagre social-security benefit levels and policies such as the two-child benefit limit are fuelling the hardship that creates bed poverty, says Barnardo’s. It also wants the government to invest properly in England’s threadbare council-run crisis support schemes, which have been savaged by austerity cuts in recent years.

A government spokesperson said: “We know people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we are providing record financial support worth around £3,300 per household and driving down inflation to make everyone’s money go further.

“On top of this we are supporting families with food, clothing and other essential costs like beds through the household support fund and have raised benefits and pensions by over 10%.”