• Phoebe Gardner

The UK's hidden crisis - Youth Homelessness

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

(Written 2016)

“I spent more than a few nights sleeping rough. It was one of the worst things I have ever done...” recalls Charlie.  He is 19. In the UK today at least 150,000 young people are homeless, what’s more alarming is that this figure is likely to be a significant underestimate.

The UK has a hidden youth homelessness crisis.

Thousands are scared, vulnerable and don’t have a roof over their head. Think back to when you were 17 and if you were homeless, how frightened you’d be, relying on friends to put you up, having no idea how to get through to the next day, let alone think about the future and what if you didn’t have those friends? You’d turn to the government for support but what if they didn’t help you too? Two-thirds of young people who approached their local councils for help this year were turned away. What happens to the young people who disappear from the official figures?

The biggest cause of homelessness for young people is being told to leave the family home by their parents, other common causes are leaving care and being unable to pay rent. Charlie is 19 and from South West England. “I did go to the (Wiltshire) council but they didn't really help much. They tried to put me in assisted housing but I had just sorted a job out and it was too far to travel so after that, they couldn't do anything for me.”

Many local authorities offer no support to the people they turn away, or those who are deemed statutory homeless and decline any housing option given them. In order for a person to be classed as Statutory Homeless, they have to fit the Council criteria for emergency housing; for example, if you’re under the age of 21, pregnant and unintentionally homeless.

“It was around a year of numerous appointments and the best they offered me is a hostel which was a place for recovering drug addicts, it wasn't a place for me so I had to rely on friends to house me for most of it but spent more than a few nights sleeping rough.”

Charlie still needed to get up in the mornings for work and try to continue with his daily life as normally as possible. In 2015 general rough sleepers increased by 30%. “One of the worst things I have done...I wouldn't wish it on anyone, can barely call it sleeping as I wandered around most of the night trying to stay warm.” Charlie will not be in the official figures because he was never accepted as statutory homeless.

Luckily he was able to move back in with his dad, although he explains this is “as long as I can keep up with the rent, but he doesn't like me being there”. What would have happened to Charlie if he wasn’t able to return home? No one really knows. Returning home to family or friends is now the least common outcome for young people leaving homeless organisations. Without a system that provides adequate support for people who have no other alternative, what option does this leave them?

CenterPoint recorded an estimated 150,000 16-24-year-olds contact their local authority every year. One root of the problem is how we recognise a homeless person; homelessness isn’t just the typical sleeping bag on the streets. Rob Rees senior officer at End Youth Homelessness says the charity is “trying to challenge this stereotypical image, there’s a number of ways of being homeless - we’re trying to make people more aware of that.”

End Youth Homelessness is an organisation based in East London, it’s doing amazing things for raising awareness about the extent of youth homelessness. They support 11 charities across the UK. Rob Rees says “The massive thing we’re working on at the moment is to actually understand the scale of the problem, we’ve been doing a lot of work to figure out how many young people are homeless. What we’re trying to do is get a standardised approach and level of support across the UK.

The government now recognises you as an independent adult from 16, a lot of support stops from this point especially in terms of care provision. That’s where organisations like our charities pick that up, many of the young people we work with as a result of that have been referred to us – either through the health system or local authorities. What we found is that of all the young people that approach their local authority to get help with homelessness last year, only a third of them received support. What we’re now trying to do is find out what’s happening to those other two-thirds, and how can we best reach them.”

Since 2009/10 the number of rough sleepers aged between 18-24 in London has doubled. Rob Rees says “One of our charities in London now has a service in pretty much every borough. The organisation started in Soho, Westminster and I know the numbers of young people who are recognised as homeless is higher than anywhere else in London, higher than anywhere else in the UK.”

Awareness of this crisis is a major issue, national awareness is hard to achieve with the government releasing figures effectively giving a façade that it is an issue being solved. The government’s statistics used to be based on the number of bed-spaces available instead of the number of bed-spaces needed. Now government data only accounts for the number of young people who have approached their local authority and get accepted as statutory homeless. The proportion of young people deemed as statutory in England and Wales is falling: 20% in 2012 to 12% in 2013/14. On paper, the official number of young homeless people is going down.

This is not the reality. It is clear that the issue lies with the lack of funding and lack of acceptance of the existence of a problem.  Unison estimates that between 2012 and 2014 youth services lost at least £60 million of funding, a decrease of over 7,000 bed-spaces in homeless accommodation projects since 2010. In 2015 57% of services turned away young people because they had no recourse to public funds.

Maya is 31 and originally from Norwich, she now lives and works in South East London. Maya sits comfortably on a sofa in her flat, gazing every now and then to the window which overlooks the London skyline. She recalls “I got kicked out when I was 17 and I went to the council, Map - a family support group in Norwich and then social services. I didn’t want to move out, I wasn’t a rebellious child. I went round in circles for a few weeks and I stayed on people’s sofas when I had the opportunity, I was considered to be couch surfing so the council had to find somewhere for me to live. They put me in a hostel and I got £5 in Tesco vouchers a week.” This would just about get you a meal deal. “The council were paying for me to live there while they were finding a suitable place, that was from November to February. Once they found me a flat they deemed suitable that was their job done, so if I turned this place down and didn’t sign for it then I would go back to the hostel and they wouldn’t pay for me anymore.

"The place they gave me was on one of the roughest streets in Norwich, with prostitutes all up to the street and dealers everywhere. It was a really stupid place to house a 17-year-old girl who had just got kicked out and lived in a hostel for 3 months. It was ridiculous, there were two stabbings in the time that I lived there which was a year and a half. Everything about the area was skanky. There was a woman having a wee in the stairwell when I went to go view the house for the first time, she was just squatting there.

"The council did a good job of housing me quickly and putting me up, but they didn’t do anything afterwards. It was silly, I said to them before I signed it ‘what actually made you house a 17-year-old girl in Normandie tower’ and they were like ‘well you know it’s close to the city, spacious flat, it’s got one bedroom’, it basically ticked their boxes. I hated the fact I had to repeat my story so many times, it was pretty traumatising going round and round in circles so much. That’s the end of the council picture, though, after that, I got a job and came off benefits.”

To get a council house you are placed on a waiting list, who gets offered housing is decided on a ‘points’ system, the points are based on your housing need. Maya explains how she felt “really confused with the whole system, having to bet on places - almost bid on them, having a certain amount of points on how bad your life is basically.”

Although Maya represents the old system - she was homeless in 2002, the issues Maya faced have not improved or changed drastically. Sarah Johnson is an outreach worker for Wiltshire council, her role is to sit in the three drop-ins for rough sleepers in North, East and West Wiltshire. She says they’re “dealing with a number of young people who have simply been thrown out of their homes by their parents. Many areas are failing young people by having little provision specifically for their age ranges.

Young people struggling with peer pressure and substance misuse issues are on the increase with support systems not being fit to deal with them.” Sarah has found “many rough sleepers are suspicious of support services for a variety of reasons. I can only speak for here, within Wiltshire because that is what I know, but there are large communities at present camping in the woods around the county and of course others sofa-surf at their friend's houses. I have noticed in my role how very easy it is to disappear.”

Young adults aged 16-24 now have the highest poverty rate of all adults. They are over three times more likely to be unemployed and five times more likely to be employed on zero hour contracts. Not only is there a hidden homeless crisis but a crisis affecting all of today’s younger generation, entering adulthood is a pivotal moment in anyone’s lifetime, but this is being severely hindered for thousands of people.

34% of young people living in homelessness accommodation have mental health issues (up from 23% in 2014). Sarah talks about a possible side effect of the lack of optimism for a positive future. “A homeless lifestyle can become established and a spiral of substance misuse and vulnerable housing can make them even more difficult to help as they rebel against any support that may be offered to them.”

Rob Rees at End Youth Homelessness recognises how “people do just fall into a life of not much hope and despair and start taking paths that aren’t very good. That journey to getting them to becoming independent adults, obviously a bed isn’t going to get past the severe trauma that a lot of these young people go through.”

He makes it clear that the charities his organisation supports “supply mental health help and get them back on track with education, a lot of work around empowerment and giving them the confidence to give them self-worth and they can go out there and stand on their own two feet and have happy, positive futures.” Street Football Association is a charity which does just that and more, “everything is about self-perception and self-empowerment. They have no confidence, role models, every adult role model in their life they’ve had a conflict with, it can lead to a complete feeling of lack of self-worth, complete vulnerability and isolation. The work they do is purely around building that confidence and self-worth back.”

Youth Homelessness Data Bank calculated that the number of young people facing homelessness has sometimes been more than 8 times higher than the government's official statistics. Out of the people, charities find they report there is typically a higher proportion of young men who have had previous convictions. There is a very strong link between homelessness and an offending history, housing is rapidly becoming recognised as a serious issue for juvenile prisoners leaving custody. It is suggested that secure accommodation on release can reduce re-offending by over 20%. No wonder the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders has expressed concerns that young offenders develop a chronic cycle and repeat a pattern of homelessness, offending and prison.

If prison is a young person’s only stable housing option, this loop is obviously going to be the easiest route to someone who has no life experience to know any better. More worryingly with a prison-overcrowding crisis also looming, it is recorded that 1,000 young people per year are remanded in custody due to the lack of suitable accommodation for them, this is at a cost of £5 million.

It’s depressing to think about the outlook and futures of all these young people, faced with the unimaginable situation of being homeless - but there is hope and it lies with us the general public. Perhaps the time of us relying on the government for support is starting to fade, replaced by help from charities instead. Supporting organisations like End Youth Homelessness, Crisis and Street Football Association will help supply a nationwide awareness that will help get these young people off their friend’s sofas, off the streets and finally back into a society they deserve. Volunteering and donating WILL make a difference, just spreading awareness so people know this is happening will make a huge change. Everyone deserves a fair chance at adulthood.

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