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Welfare reforms are exacerbating youth homelessness new research reveals

Louise Weaver | 17.04.18

Welfare reforms are contributing to homelessness among young people aged 16 to 24 by affecting their ability to access and sustain housing, according to Homeless Link’s Young & Homeless 2018 report, published today. Read the Young & Homeless 2018 report, funded by LandAid and Comic Relief.

The research is based on surveys with local authorities, youth homelessness services and interviews with young people experiencing homelessness in England. It finds that while family breakdown remains the main cause of homelessness among young people, making up half of cases (49%), structural factors including changes to welfare benefit entitlements and a lack of affordable housing are also significant contributory factors.

Ninety-two percent of survey respondents identified delayed Universal Credit payments as having an impact on youth homelessness, with 90% and 80% respectively reporting that sanctions and the capping of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) are also 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 highlights the need to consider the impact that other elements of policy may be having on vulnerable young people.

Scale and support needs

While youth homelessness is difficult to quantify, 55% of homelessness agencies recorded an increase in demand for their services over the past year. Furthermore, 45% of all respondents believed there had been an increase in young men sleeping rough, while 28% felt more young women were sleeping on the streets.

Over a quarter (28%) of young people accessing services over the last 12 months were aged only 16 or 17, and the support needs of 16 to 24s are becoming more complex, with 82% of services identifying an increase in those with multiple and complex needs over this period.

The top three support needs of the young people were not being in education employment or training (44%), a lack of independent living skills (41%) and mental health problems (35%). Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, 63% of respondents said there were significant barriers to young people accessing mental health services.

Inadequate prevention tools

With 37% of respondents stating that the range of services available to prevent youth homelessness was inadequate, more action is required in this area. This suggests that the Homelessness Reduction Act now has 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 at-risk individuals and families. 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.

Difficulty accessing services

The research suggests that young people often have difficulty accessing existing accommodation services. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said women-only accommodation was hard to access, while 58% felt that emergency accommodation was challenging to secure.

Emergency accommodation is vital for preventing young people from sleeping rough, and a shortage of provision can cause local authorities to use inappropriate housing such as bed and breakfasts. Sixty-seven percent of councils occasionally or often place homeless young people aged 18-24 in to bed and breakfasts – a 31% increase in use on the previous year.

Many people are turned away from services if they are considered too high-risk to others or their needs are too high, indicating that the increasing number with multiple needs are likely to have difficulty accessing key support.

Thelma Zunzanyika, a Youth Voice member and former St Basils resident, now living and studying at Derby University, was involved in developing the research. She comments: “The research that is being conducted concerning youth homelessness is very important because it helps to identify why there is a high number of young people that become homeless. For me, being involved in this process is quite vital because I stand as an advocate who can aid the decrease of youth homelessness showcased in the report, through sharing my lived experience.”

Homeless Link's Chief Executive, Rick Henderson, commented: “The picture of youth homelessness is extremely concerning, and there is clear evidence that systemic issues such as welfare reform and the housing crisis are worsening the situation. While youth homelessness charities and councils are working hard to successfully support many young people away from homelessness, more needs to be done. It is vital that we focus on preventing homelessness among vulnerable young people, and that those who do become homeless are able to get the support they need.

“Our research helps to identify trends, and better understand the causes of youth homelessness and where gaps in services exist, so that national and local government and the voluntary sector can improve the support on offer. 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.”