Comment Blog 16 May, 2019

Youth Homelessness - A Seat at the Main Table

Youth homelessness is not a niche problem but seems all too often a mere afterthought in public policy, strategy and provision. Numbers of young people experiencing homelessness are notoriously uncertain, with much homelessness amongst 16-25 year olds hidden from both actual view and official statistics. Out of sight risks out of mind, so incentives to address youth homelessness more expressly, using also a truly joined-up approach, have been lacking. As the demographic most likely to suffer homelessness, young people deserve a strategic shift away from the periphery into an ambitious youth homelessness agenda.

Young people’s marginalisation in public homelessness provision has been very tangible at the local level. In 2017/18, as much as 52 per cent of an estimated 103,000 young people approaching their council for homelessness relief or prevention did not receive any documented support. This could happen mostly because local authorities simply did not have a duty to do so. As such, this age group was set to become a main beneficiary of the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA), which came into force in April 2018.

Since the introduction of the HRA, a young person should less likely be turned away by a council when they have nowhere safe to stay. At a minimum, young people will now be given good quality information about where to find the help they need; at its best they work with the council on an agreed personal housing plan help them access or maintain accommodation. Delivery is uneven, however, with variations in the HRA interpretation and implementation between local authorities, and is often generic instead of taking a more effective youth specific approach.

The HRA indirectly also encourages more and much welcomed cross-sector partnership, with local housing authorities seeking the expertise and services of the voluntary sector, such as the London Youth Gateway, the youth homelessness commission by London Councils. More directly it demands public sector partnership: the new Duty to Refer requires stronger joint-work between certain public bodies, like probation services and Jobcentre Plus, and local housing authorities. With children’s, social and housing services all coming into play together with education, criminal justice, and health provision, joint working at local level and the visibility of youth homelessness in local homeless and rough sleeping strategies are imperative. They also pose a real challenge. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is currently reviewing how to improve effective partnership to tackle homelessness.

MHCLG may too need to reflect on the effectiveness of its own strategic and cross-departmental approaches to youth homelessness. Its Rough Sleeping Strategy, published last August, largely overlooks youth homelessness and is likely to do very little for young people. Its plans to tackle the housing crisis will have to start defining much more clearly the need for accommodation access of younger generations in order to reduce growing intergenerational unfairness. As a structural driver of youth homelessness, the problem of housing supply is particularly pertinent in some parts of the country, like Greater London, where the youth population is the fastest growing demographic.

Similarly, different governmental and departmental policies tend to jeopardise youth homelessness prevention. Significant cuts in youth services and under-funding of young people’s mental health provision undermine the chances of any significant progress. Under 25s are not entitled to the National Living Wage yet have the same living expenses and housing costs as their older counterparts, while age-based restrictions in housing benefit entitlement further limit young people’s housing options. Meanwhile, new initiatives like the Home Office public health approach to serious youth violence fail to include housing and homelessness as part of causes and solutions. A youth homelessness ‘stress test’ to check if governmental policies and initiatives might aggravate circumstances or, reversely, whether young people actually also gain to benefit, might be worth considering.

Genuinely cross-departmental approaches and funding, which can shore up local partnership and joint-work, would make a further dent in improving prevention outcomes. As a unique data collection and analysis opportunity, the HRA has potential to create a much better understanding of the scale, causes and effective responses to youth homelessness on which any such initiatives can draw. Young people experiencing the trauma of homelessness at the cusp of adulthood should no longer be side-lined in public policy and services. It is high time that they get a seat at the main table.