When we think of a homeless person, the stereotype that pops into many people’s mind subconsciously is an older man who shows visual signs of substance abuse. We sometimes think of homelessness as something that you’re at risk of later in life; but realistically there is a large issue of youth homelessness in the UK which needs our attention. A 2017 review showed that roughly half of the individuals who accessed homelessness services in the UK were between the ages of 18 and 24. That’s thousands of young people who are either at risk of becoming homeless or are already homeless.
It can’t be denied that what it means to be a young person has changed dramatically over the past few years. Across just a couple of generations, it’s become much harder to find a job, buy a house or grow a savings account; not to mention the societal pressures placed upon young people by high levels of social media influence. There are countless worries on young people as a collective, which has been shown to wreak havoc on their mental health but can also be one of the contributing factors to youth homelessness. A young person can end up homeless due to a number of reasons, including family breakdown, involvement with gangs and mental/physical health issues. There are also numerous reports showing how children leaving care have a likelihood of becoming homeless; as well as the many young people who come to the UK as refugees fleeing an unsafe environment in their home country. There can be so many different unfortunate incidents which lead to a child or young person sleeping rough, and the numbers keep rising. Even with the Homelessness Reduction Act, councils are reporting more and more people on the streets every year.
There also appears to be a large amount of youth homelessness which is not noticed or recognised by some statistics, meaning that the problem is much larger than it may seem. The Independent reported in 2015 that “83,000 homeless young people have had to rely on councils and charities for a roof over their heads during the past year”, which was over 3 times higher than the Department for Communities and Local Government reported figures of 26,852 youth homelessness. The so-called “hidden homeless” are thousands of people (a large proportion of whom are between 16-24) who have no alternative but to sleep on sofas, floors, night buses or with strangers. Some studies indicate that up to a quarter of a million people under 25 just within London have slept in an unsafe place, adding fuel to the hypothesis that our current analysis methods are flawed. As homelessness becomes even more of a high-profile issue lately – partly due to Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s very public campaign to reduce the number of people sleeping rough within Greater Manchester – it’s incredibly important that we start to have consistently accurate data. Without a clear understanding of exactly what problem we’re facing as a society in terms of youth homelessness, we can’t possibly begin to come up with a truly effective solution.
While it can be easy to give a few quid to every homeless person who you pass on the street, thinking you’ve done a “good deed” and giving yourself an ego boost; our social work community knows this won’t realistically help. The root causes of homelessness need to be addressed, from the level of support given to care-leavers to the involvement of education institutions in the safeguarding process. Young people have the potential to interact with dozens of services or individuals who can support them and reduce the risk of them becoming homeless; however, these services don’t have the capacity at the moment to deal with the ever-increasing statistics. As with so many areas of social work, the local authorities and charities working to help homeless people are obscenely underfunded. While the Homelessness Reduction Act represents a step in the right direction, youth homelessness will continue to be a serious issue within our society until we come together as a nation to tackle it. In order to protect our young people, and every other person who faces sleeping rough as an option, we need to ensure that services and councils are collaborating and are being given the funds and resources they need. In addition, by developing new tools to engage with young people, practitioners can prevent youth homelessness by helping resolve family conflicts, finding alternative care solutions, encouraging education and safeguarding vulnerable people from the clutches of gangs.
As well as working to reduce homelessness in general, we need to make sure we’re committing enough attention to youth homelessness specifically. We need more accurate statistics, which allow us to build more inclusive, collaborative and effective strategies. Everyone should have a safe place to sleep at night, and the fact that thousands of young people are should not only inspire sympathy, but also motivate action.
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