Phil spoke to LandAid CEO, Paul Morrish, about his career in the youth sector, the future of New Horizon and how tackling youth homelessness is more than just providing housing.
Paul Morrish: What inspired you to first work in the youth homelessness sector?
Phil Kerry: One of my first jobs was volunteering at a summer camp. However, looking back, my mum probably inspired my career to youth homelessness from her voluntary work with the Women’s Institute. We would have an underprivileged kid come and stay with us every summer for a week. My mum, who is a caring soul, would spoil them rotten by baking cakes daily. But I would think that it wasn’t a very well-thought-out programme as the young person would see ‘here’s what you could have had for a week’ and then go back to their less privileged family. I remember one of the boys, a lad called Phillip from Dorset, had cigarette burns all over his back and that really stuck with me. So, I think that experience much have imprinted on me somewhere at a young age that it was good to look after others.
PM: What was your route to New Horizon?
PK: I became a teacher in Birmingham and then worked as a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteer. However, I really wanted to do more of the good stuff, so I moved to London and got a job in a youth charity. Over the course of 15 years, I got more interested in those who have less privilege and moved on to the next charity and on to the next. Prior to New Horizon, I worked for London Youth and every year we worked closely with young people and undertook much youth voice work. I was at London Youth for five years and then I decided that youth homelessness was what I wanted to focus on. New Horizon were in the London Youth Network and the rest is history.
PM: Tell us briefly about New Horizon’s history
PK: New Horizon was set up in 1967 by Lord Longford inside a church hall on Wardour Street in Soho. It was predominately a place for young people who had come to London and fallen into hard drugs, crime or prostitution. The place was run by paid volunteers who sat down with the young people, had a cup of tea and offered advice. Often volunteers felt bad about it and used to take young people home with them thinking, ‘well, I’ve got a spare room’. In some ways, New Horizon just evolved from there. We gradually recruited expert advisors and counsellors, adding bit by bit. We got safer and better and bigger year by year, but what hasn’t fundamentally changed is that we remain a safety net for those who find themselves with nowhere else to go in London.
PM: What is New Horizon doing now?
PK: For a long time, we were the only day centre for young people in London and probably in the country, although now there are similar organisations to us. What we do makes sense in London because of the numbers of young people that you would find experiencing homelessness in the capital, much higher than elsewhere. It was quite interesting when we recently moved to a bigger site in Kings Cross as all the regular visitors stopped coming as we were further away, or they don’t know where we are.
Since the pandemic hit, the organisation has reset and reinvented itself in terms of how we operate. With our new strategy, we have unique and genuine insights as we work with more young people sleeping rough than any other charity. From this, we have a responsibility to share and try to use these insights to advocate for change. For example, New Horizon is the only place that young people sleeping rough can visit in the day. We understand the raw reality better than others and so we can advocate for a new solution. Also, because we are an independent charity who isn’t very dependent on government money, we can openly voice our opinions. We can use our voice to lobby in a way that others cannot as they may be worried about their contracts.
“With our new strategy, we have unique and genuine insights as we work with more young rough sleepers than any other charity. From this, we have a responsibility to share and try to use these insights to advocate for change. For example, New Horizon is the only place that young rough sleepers can visit in the day.” Phil Kerry, CEO of New Horizon Youth Centre
PM: Apart from housing, are there other ways New Horizon support and service young people accessing the centre?
PK: Outsiders to the sector think homelessness is all about housing. Well of course it is and it’s one of the things that often draw people to it, but it’s also about solving the bits that go beyond having a place to stay. For us, we’ve built a strategy around four core components – keeping young people safe, finding housing solutions, developing the skills needed to live independently, and finally, supporting good physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Young people are often not safe either through rough sleeping, the impact of serious violence or the criminal justice system. We want to stabilise their housing and give them support through the day centre and our community services.
PM: How have you designed the service at New Horizon to ensure that it’s a positive place of change?
PK: There are several ways of approaching that question. The service is modelled around what young people want, so the centre feels like a smart, professional, well-invested place. Ten years ago, we spent £1.5m on it and we regularly spend a lot on maintenance. New Horizon looks like a brilliant space, but it also feels like it’s a young person’s space, that’s the balance. It’s not too clinical. And that says something right from the start with what we think and do.
We advocate for a better way of doing things. It’s partly evolutionary, our history as a church hall we realise that if you have a safe place, a cup of tea, a shower is absolutely fundamental. It starts with the basics and then you realise you need more and more and more and we’re always evolving and adapting, especially since we’ve come out of the pandemic. We offer doing things in new ways.
The thing that has been missing in the pandemic is the person-to-person interaction. In some ways this has allowed us to do things remotely, so we have moved past being a day centre and community outreach to take services to people who cannot reach us. This is good but you realise how that sense of community and having a physical building keeps the connections and is something that can be missing for some people.
“Outsiders to the sector think homelessness is all about housing. Well of course it is and it’s one of the things that often draw people to it, but it’s also about solving the bits that go beyond having a place to stay. “Phil Kerry
PM: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, did you see a change in numbers or the nature to why young people access the service?
PK: The numbers pre-pandemic had been steady with around 1000 young people each year. We have seen it change during the pandemic; we have seen much higher numbers of young people sleeping rough. We have seen the numbers of young women double, it used to be about 22% with 22/78 split, during the pandemic it has gone up to 45%. That is partly we think that young women have been affected more because of domestic breakdown or abuse. It is probably also a market reasoning that by opening things remotely, it is easier for young women to become engaged with services especially with the advice team on the phone and that relationship may bring them through the door.
However, we do see spikes; the Ukraine war is a good example. We have not yet seen people from the Ukraine, but we will. Maybe in six months we will start seeing people coming through our door because things may have sadly fallen apart for them. We see that particularly when there is conflict in the world, such as Afghanistan or Sudan. Depending on what is going on, we get a lot of European nationals, especially people coming to the UK for work. It’s always a bit of a flux. What is going on in society and in the world determines a little bit later who comes through our door.
PM: How do you make New Horizon an inclusive space?
PK: You have a centre filled with 50 young people, probably with 20 different countries of origin. Every kind of ethnic background. Every worldview and class. Every sexuality or gender identity. But because it was incredibly diverse, everyone just conformed which is great. However, we know that being inclusive can exclude too, so you must think of how to remodel the future. We are now moving towards drop-in time during the morning for anyone to come along. We also are trying to carve out single group spaces such as women’s or LGBTQ+ afternoons, offering a safe space.
PM: What are the sorts of challenges that young people present when they first arrive?
PK: Every challenge you can imagine, and some you just can’t. Last week we had a visit from one of our funders, and we did a live case study with them. We talked through the story of a young person who came to us last year. We read it out and they were shocked! “Are you sure you didn’t make that up?!” they asked. “You picked the hardest one, right?” And we replied “No, that’s quite normal.”
I can only reveal brief details about the young person due to confidentiality, but they were in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with their mum, homeless for three months, experiencing severe mental illness, and had lost all their I.D. That is a substantial amount of trauma.
PM: New Horizon manages the London Youth Gateway. Can you tell us how it tackles the problem of youth homelessness?
PK: The London Youth Gateway is made up of seven different organisations which together provide all the services needed to tackle youth homelessness across the capital. As a day centre, we think we do most things but mainly through this partnership we provide everything – basically, it is an end-to-end youth homelessness solution that is about preventing and solving people’s homelessness at or before a point of crisis. It has run as partnership for about nine years and is mostly funded by London Councils. It is entering a new phase now we are coming out of pandemic with a rebrand and a new sense of identity and purpose.
We collectively manage and coordinate the London Youth Gateway, but individual partners work together in smaller cohorts on specific themes or areas: AKT, Galop and Stonewall Housing for instance work closely to support young people experiencing homelessness who are LGBTQ+. The pandemic has enabled and encouraged people to do more together and to really value collaboration. We’re proud to lead it and we invest a lot of our own resources as we see it as a significant way of delivering our mission around making a dent in youth homelessness.
“We happened to know someone who had a spare hotel which needed redeveloping for a while, which is a deal of a lifetime. And because it happened during the pandemic chaos and in the middle of the budget year, all the money was politically available. I approached six organisations who I thought had the potential or propensity to give a large amount of money and quickly – LandAid was one of them – where we could get a project organised quickly! ” Kerry on LandAid’s involvement in funding the Hotel 1824 project
PM: Can you tell us about the Hotel 1824 project and how it came about?
PK: Hotel 1824 was a pilot emergency accommodation provision for young people sleeping rough we ran in partnership with Depaul UK. The need for the Hotel 1824 project has existed for many years, particularly through year-round youth-specific provisions. Every day of the year, there is lack of places for us to serve young people, so we have young people sleeping rough who turn up, but we just have to send them away. If they have I.D., then sometimes we can get them into a backpacker’s hotel or hostel for a short period of time to break up their periods of rough sleeping. However, our teams often had nothing to offer but, “Here’s a sleeping bag and a voucher for Sainsbury’s.”
These restrictions had been there for quite a while. About four years ago, we ran a design competition with a group of architects to remodel the abandoned York Road railway station. We have a blueprint of a 40-bed accommodation design. There is a real, clear vision of what this could be as a smart, new or remodelled building in a central London location. However, what has been lacking is opportunity.
We had already been pointing out that we were seeing more young people sleeping rough than in the official London rough sleeping figures
So, a while ago, I was asked by the then Deputy Mayor for Housing, James Murray, to lead a group for his Rough Sleeping Taskforce focusing on young people. The main takeaways included: there was a growing group within the London rough sleeping population who were young, the reasons for ending up and ways of negotiating rough sleeping were different and their potential ways out of the situation were also different so we need, for safety and operational reasons, to have a youth specific solution.
What had also been lacking was the revenue model or political investment, and the opportunity for that came up during the pandemic, partly through ‘Everyone In’ scheme. Suddenly, there were an abundance of young people experiencing homelessness in the participating hotels, and there was a realisation of the severity of the youth homelessness crisis. The Greater London Authority’s (GLA) rough sleeping figures showed that the numbers of young people sleeping rough increased steadily up to 10%, meaning there were over a thousand of young people sleeping rough during the pandemic and over a given year. And that’s only the ones we know. The GLA have been brilliant, and they run a world-class rough sleeping project, but I have been asking them all along to make this more of a priority.
Recently, a project seemed possible because the revenue became available. We happened to know someone who had a spare hotel which needed redeveloping for a while, which is a deal of a lifetime. And because it happened during the pandemic chaos and in the middle of the budget year, all the money was politically available, also via the GLA and London Councils. I approached six organisations who I thought had the potential or propensity to give a large amount of money and quickly – LandAid was one of them – where we could get a project organised quickly! Five out of the six said yes and we raised over £600,000 in about three weeks.