Youth homelessness is increasingly visible in every town and city in the UK. Walk along any UK high street and you will see the evidence of rough sleeping. Why? Significant changes to housing benefit, alongside the staggering rise in house prices and rents, means homes, particularly in the South East, are increasingly unaffordable. For young people, it’s even worse. 1 in 5 homeless people in the UK are aged 16-24. In the UK, recent research estimates that over 103,000 young people are homeless or at risk of homelessness.* These figures only include young people who have asked their local council for help, so the true figure is likely to be much higher.
The main causes of youth homelessness are varied and complex, but, one issue that has a major impact is family breakdown. Around six in ten young people who come to YMCA YAC (Youth Advice Centre) say they had to leave home because of serious arguments with their parents, or step-parents, and have been told to leave. Others may have faced a situation where it is no longer safe to stay. The frightening reality for many young people is suddenly having nowhere to call home. For a while, they ‘sofa surf’ with friends or family, but ‘favours’ can quickly run out until they find themselves with nowhere else to go.
Teenage years can be tricky for everyone but imagine going through them without a family to fall back on, or a safe place to live? The knock-on effect of not having a stable home, at this crucial time, can be serious and long-lasting. In the worst cases, becoming homeless at a young age leads to a cycle of deprivation which is very difficult to break. The cycle may start with missing school and exams, which in turn affects training and education, leading to lack of self-esteem and mental health issues, which makes finding and keeping employment hard, leading to poverty and so on. For some drink and drugs provides an escape which makes the cycle even harder to break.
Effective, early intervention is essential. That’s where the YMCA steps in. Our primary aim is to prevent any young person from becoming homeless in the first place. YMCA Youth Advice Centre (YAC) is at the front line for young people facing homelessness. Our flagship centre is in Brighton & Hove, but we want to open one in all the towns we work in. Money raised from our fundraising events such as Sleep Easy will help us do this. YAC offers support and advice to young people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, which includes; assessing needs, securing accommodation in the private rented sector and referrals to specialist housing schemes such as ‘Empty Homes’ and ‘Supported Accommodation’. But, more importantly, it also offers support and advice in many other areas, including family mediation. Last year, 61 families in Brighton took part in our family mediation programme, and of those, 48 stayed together, preventing 48 young people from becoming homeless.
Care Leavers at High Risk of Youth Homelessness
A group of young people who are particularly at risk of homelessness are care leavers. They often have little choice but to deal with the challenges and responsibilities of living independently at a young age. For some, traumatic experiences in their early years can make them especially vulnerable. Almost 30% of the young people living in our supported housing fall into this category. We provide a vital stepping stone for those young people who aren’t ready to live alone. As well as a safe place to live, our ‘More Than a Room’ programme aims to develop ‘resilience’ in our young residents, so, however difficult their start in life, they can go on and live successful, independent lives. The difference we make is clear; in 2019, over 70% of the young people living in our supported accommodation moved on positively to independent living.
Another significant factor in the cause of youth homelessness is the rise in mental health issues. We work extensively to help all young people by offering specialist support through counselling services (YMCA Dialogue) both in the community and via schools. Last year we provided 3,500 children, young people and families with therapy. In addition, around 68% of the young people living in our supported accommodation suffer from mental health difficulties. Some of the money raised by Sleep Easy will also go towards funding these services. In some cases, this means counselling with a qualified therapist. However, for others, it will be much more about helping them learn skills, that many of us take for granted, for how to ‘cope’ better with daily challenges. This often starts with building a trusted relationship with a project worker; an adult in their life who won’t let them down. This may be something they haven’t experienced before. This is a crucial element on the journey to resilience and isn’t a quick process. But over time, they begin to realise that this person will support them wholeheartedly, whilst holding boundaries around their behaviour so that they start to feel ‘safe’ both in the world and within.
Poppy, a resident in our supported housing, explains it better than us:
“You get a project worker when you move in, but I’ve got really bad trust issues. I don’t really trust a lot of people in my life. I trusted my mum and she let me down. So, it was hard for me to talk to my project worker, but we had a few sessions together and I was like, yeah, I like this woman, I like her a lot…just knowing that she was there made me feel safer. She became a person that I could rely on.”
Young people may also be affected by gang-related problems and in some cases, it becomes too dangerous to stay in their local area. They become homeless as moving away isolates them from their existing support network of friends or family. REBOOT is a prevention programme which we run in conjunction with the local police and crime commissioner, which works to address these issues before young people become homeless.
Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers
Another group disproportionately at risk of youth homelessness are refugees. This includes young people who have come to the UK as unaccompanied minors, fleeing violence or persecution in their own country. Many refugees who reach Britain will have endured a hazardous and often dangerous journey which began with an escape from their own country. Their only belongings may be limited to the clothes they stand up in. Our work in Guildford to help and support these vulnerable young people has achieved national recognition.
Very often unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrive in Surrey at a service station (M25 Jct 9) and are taken, by the police, to a police station. This in itself can be traumatic, as their experience of people in uniform whilst on their journey, may have been horrific. As they are found in Surrey they become the responsibility of Surrey County Council. The council will call YMCA Guildford Foyer requesting a bed for a newly arrived asylum-seeking child. If one is available, we do all that we can to welcome them, including accessing a translation service, to ensure they understand everything about their new home, who we are and what to expect from us. This can happen at 2pm on a Thursday or 2am on a Sunday morning. We have a range of welcome packs, usually donated by the community.
One of the greatest strengths of our work with this group is that we enrol them at Guildford College within days of arrival to ensure they feel part of the community and can continue their studies. We also give them access to the range of training and support on offer as part of our ‘More Than a Room’ programme. This is alongside speaking to the Home office about their arrival, taking them to the doctors, dentists and opticians. Often all they really need to do is sleep.
Once they trust and respect the team at YMCA, and begin to take the opportunities open to them, we see these young people flourish. Many develop the skills needed to move on successfully and ultimately, to belong, contribute, and thrive in their new community.
Get Involved – Join our Sponsored Sleep Out Event
On 9th October, we’re asking you to experience a night on the street. Aside from raising money, why a Sleep Out? One night outside might not seem like much of a challenge, especially when you have a sleeping bag, access to food and water, like-minded people sleeping next to you, and, the comforting knowledge that however bad the night, you can go home in the morning. We know one night in the cold can’t replicate the experience of homelessness, but, it can create empathy for what it must feel like to wake up and have nowhere safe to go; nowhere to call home.
Liv Pattullo shared her experience of Sleep Easy on social media:
“Did this (Sleep Easy) in March 2018 and it was eye-opening. In controlled conditions, with the luxury of toilets and no fears for safety, wrapped in 100 layers, it was still the most uncomfortable evening I’ve had to date. The snow helped us raise nearly £1500 – well worth a night of discomfort!”
Our mission is to prevent young people from becoming homeless in the first place. However, we cannot do it alone. Please join our Sleep Easy event, or host your own. Together we can provide young people with hope for the future.
*Centrepoint Databank Information