Welfare reforms are exacerbating youth homelessness new research reveals
Rick Henderson, Chief Executive of national homelessness membership body, Homeless Link, highlights the impact of recent welfare reforms on young people, and why gathering evidence on youth homelessness causes, trends and support is vital if we are to prevent and end the problem for good.
The current picture of youth homelessness is extremely concerning. Young people with experiences of homelessness are one of the most vulnerable groups in society and continue to make up approximately half of the people accessing homelessness services in England.
Our Young & Homeless 2018 research provides clear evidence that, while family breakdown remains the main cause of homelessness among young people, making up half of cases (49%), systemic issues including changes to welfare benefit entitlements and a lack of affordable housing are exacerbating the situation.
Ninety-two percent of the local authorities and homelessness services who responded to our survey identified delayed Universal Credit payments as having an impact on youth homelessness, with high proportions also reporting that sanctions and the capping of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) are having an effect.
Although the Government’s recent reversal of proposals to remove Universal Credit housing costs for 18 to 21 year olds is welcome, it certainly highlights the need to consider the impact that other elements of policy may be having on vulnerable young people.
For seven years, our national study on youth homelessness has provided crucial evidence to inform and improve policy and practice. By exploring key trends and the availability and nature of accommodation options and support, we aim to make an important contribution to the evidence base on youth homelessness in England.
To ensure the research focussed on issues that most concerned young people, we consulted with the National Youth Voice, organised by St Basils charity and made up of young people aged 16-25 who have experienced homelessness.
While the scale of youth homelessness is difficult to quantify, the situation is by no means improving, and the majority of homelessness agencies reported an increase in demand for their services over the past year, with many services and local authorities noticing more young people sleeping rough.
What’s more, the support needs of young people are becoming more complex, with 82% of services identifying an increase in those experiencing multiple disadvantage. Mental health problems were the third most frequent support need with 35% of people presenting with this issue, and yet despite this prevalence, agencies say there are significant barriers to young people accessing mental health services, something that has to change.
So what else have we learned? For a start, it is clear that not enough is being done to prevent youth homelessness, and more focus should be given to this area, with the Homelessness Reduction Act having an important role to play in acting earlier.
Despite young people reporting that problems often started in childhood or adolescence, early intervention services are less widely available than other prevention initiatives, such as advice services and joint working between children’s and housing services.
This indicates that, backed by investment, mainstream services need to intervene sooner to support those at-risk. For example, young people recommend providing education on life skills and healthy relationships in schools and offering mediation to the whole family before tensions reach breaking point.
The difficulty young people often face in accessing existing accommodation services was another key finding of the report, and is an issue that we need to find a solution for. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said women-only accommodation was hard to access, while 58% felt that emergency accommodation – which is vital for preventing people from sleeping rough or being offered inappropriate housing such as B&Bs – is difficult to secure.
Although youth homelessness charities and councils are working hard to successfully support many vulnerable young people away from homelessness, more needs to be done. In light of the research, Youth Voice and Homeless Link have provided practical recommendations for policy makers and practitioners. These cover access to appropriate and affordable housing options, the provision of an effective welfare safety net, preventing youth homelessness, improving access to and provision of certain services and moving on from homelessness.
It is vital that national and local government and the voluntary sector now use the evidence to prevent and improve the support on offer for those who do become homeless. The Homelessness Reduction Act and tailored service initiatives will have a significant role to play, but must be backed by enough funding and resources. There is no excuse for failing young people – we must ensure that everyone has a place to call home and the support they need to keep it.