Youth Homelessness and Mental Health Issues: The Impact of Covid-19 on Young People - YMCA DownsLink Group

Youth Homelessness and Mental Health Issues: The Impact of Covid-19 on Young People

Youth Homelessness Mental Health

Family Breakdown, Youth Homelessness and the Link with Covid

Family breakdown is one of the leading causes of youth homelessness and pressure created by COVID-19 has drastically increased the number of vulnerable young people presenting as homeless in Sussex and Surrey. In addition, job losses, poor mental health and substance misuse, all exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, have been contributing factors.  As the largest youth homelessness charity in the South East, at the start of the pandemic (March/April) we saw a significant rise in the number of young people presenting as homeless, with a 61% increase on the year before. 

The situation eased slightly when the government suspended new evictions during the height of the pandemic. However, worryingly, we continue to see a 20% increase in young people presenting as homeless at our Youth Advice Centre in Brighton and Hove.  Currently, there is still a ban on evictions, however it is unclear how long this will continue. Also, even if a ban of evictions remains in place, the new lockdown measures and the potential for longer winter restrictions will inevitably increase family tension, which is likely to lead to more young people leaving, or being thrown out of, home.  Our Youth Advice Centre in Brighton & Hove usually sees young people seeking help for a range of problems, but, currently, homelessness is by far the biggest issue. 

Increase in Emergency Youth Homelessness Cases

The way in which young people are also coming to us is changing. Emergency cases are increasing every week. These are cases where young people have been evicted that day and have nowhere else to go. We support them within our own supported accommodation services where we can, however we don’t have many ‘emergency’ beds. In this instance we spend time advising them and referring them or securing them alternative options.  Where possible, we’ll explore whether there is any way back to the home they’ve left, to repair their relationship with their family or caregivers, via mediation.

Family Mediation Can Reduce Youth Homelessness

The dramatic increase in requests for help from our family mediation service is evidence of the pressure many families are under due to Covid-19 both the lockdowns and social restrictions.  For the first time in three years, we are seeing long waiting lists for family mediation. We’ve witnessed an almost 100% increase in the numbers of young people and families requesting mediation in the last five months alone (April – September 2020).

Even if the young person isn’t able to go back to living at home, just being able to open up the channel of communication with their family can really help them get the ongoing support they need to overcome whatever challenges they’re facing. It can make a huge difference to their long-term prospects for moving on to successful independent living. Below is an example of how the one of our Family Mediators was able to help ‘Conor’ who presented as homeless in March.

Connor (not real name but real story)

I’d been sleeping on sofas and with mates, but I’d got to the point of running out of favours and had even started to sleep rough. It was putting pressure on me and my family. I couldn’t go back to my mums as there wasn’t room (she had someone vulnerable living with her) and we just weren’t getting on.

When we were referred to Sandy (counsellor) at YMCA DownsLink Group, Youth Advice Centre (YAC), I wasn’t sure it would help. But, in fact, it has been the best thing that has happened to our relationship. He gave us the space and time to actually listen and hear each other. Instead of being in conflict all the time, we are a lot more open, calmer and confident with each other. I feel that now I have the support of my mum. Along with YAC, she’s helped me find accommodation and get a plan together to help me get my life back on track.

YAC and Sandy have had a major positive impact on my life.

Conor’s situation isn’t unique. We’re seeing an increase in the number of older, young people (20+) seeking help. We know that as young people get older, help and support drops away, strained family relationships become unmanageable and housing untenable. Many ‘older’ young people (20-25) have been adversely effected by the downturn in the economy as they were already working on zero hour contracts, within the sectors, such as hospitality, that have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Young People and Significant Increase in Mental Health Issues due to Covid-19

Whilst the biggest issue for young people seeking support is homelessness, we’re also seeing an increase in those seeking support for their mental health. Worryingly, this includes, self-harm, suicide ideation and even suicide attempts. Again, the complex needs of the young people coming to us for support is increasing the pressure on our staff. As well as heavy caseloads, more staff time is required for them to give the attention needed to young people presenting with such difficult and complex issues.

Our staff at YMCA YAC are also having to deal with a significant increase in the number of young people presenting with neglect, and physical and emotional abuse issues. In the past six months we’ve seen a 45% increase in safeguarding alerts. Most notably, the increase in abuse being reported, is higher in cases of parent/partner/carer mental health issues and domestic violence. This has also increased the workload for our staff as they need to make considerably more referrals to, and work in collaboration with, Adult Social Care, Police, Community Mental Health Teams and GP’s.

Throughout lockdown, we’ve kept all of our accommodation projects and advice services open and we continue to house over 763 vulnerable young people every night. Within these services we have also seen an increase in referral requests for support with mental health issues in the last six months. Again, we have had more safeguarding alerts than usual and the ongoing strain of coronavirus restrictions on our young people is clear. Many of our properties have had to close their communal areas, which alongside the loss of jobs, and face-to-face educational provision, is leading to many of our young people spending long periods of time alone in their rooms. Our project support workers work everyday on ‘More Than a Room’ activities to ensure that they are not isolated.

Susie (not real name ), who has lived with us for 2 years, shares her experience of lockdown and how living with us has made a difference.

During the first couple of months living in supported accommodation, I got my first ever permanent job working in retail. I had this job for almost two years until they shut down their stores due to Covid-19. This was such a downer for me.

YMCA DownsLink Group have helped me tremendously – with food banks, rent management, social group clubs and one-to-one sessions to talk to a professional about my mental state. They have been there for everything I needed.

We all take for granted having constant support, until it’s no longer there. It’s a blessing to have someone always look out for you and it makes life that much easier everyday.

Young People Impacted by Job Losses due to Covid-19

Another area that has impacted vulnerable young people is access to training, employment and education. Opportunities to move on into college placements and other training opportunities have dried up. Many young people, particularly in transitional housing (ie building skills to live independently) have lost their jobs within the gig economy.  Since March, Brighton and Hove claimants for universal credit aged between 16 – 24 have trebled from 1,000 to 3,000 (Job Centre plus).

Our region is particularly impacted: there are many fewer vacancies in hospitality, retail and entertainment since Covid and the impact on young people in the Crawley area due to its proximity to Gatwick have been huge.

The increasingly competitive employment will continue to impact on vulnerable young people as the market squeezes out those without experience, and employers & colleges are less likely to take a ‘risk’ on young people who are not completely switched on and ready.

Chas Walker, YMCA DownsLink Group, CEO explains what he fears the long-term impact will be on vulnerable young people:

We have developed our services to provide both an intervention at the point of crisis for young people and their families through our supported housing. Ensuring young people do have a safe place to stay when they are homeless and the opportunity to get back on their feet. But we also focus on prevention through our family mediation work to support families to stay together and young people remain in the family home and our education services helping young people understand the realities of leaving home in an unplanned way. However, after 10 years of government austerity policies, public funding for this work only covers the very basics and we are increasingly dependent on our charities own resources to fund the true costs of being able to provide a comprehensive range of intervention and prevention services.

Young people’s mental health and wellbeing is also a major concern for us. Restrictive social distancing measures and the reduction in support from external agencies, has had an impact on the emotional wellbeing of residents and other vulnerable young people who reach out for YMCA DownsLink Group support. 

Mental Health and Counselling Support for Young People

As well as our supported and transitional housing projects, we also support up to a further 10,000 young people through our mental health and advice services, counselling and youth support projects. These too have remained open throughout lockdown, although many have moved online rather than face to face. We are the largest provider of counselling in schools in Brighton & Hove, and again have seen an increase in the numbers of young people being referred for support with anxiety related issues which started as a result of the pandemic and lockdown. Many are particularly anxious about returning to school, have an increased fear of social situations, and are worried about having fallen behind with school work, after such a long absence from the classroom. 

During lockdown we launched an online service to help cope with mental health pressures (e-wellbeing), which provides an accessible way for young people to manage their own wellbeing and self-refer should they feel they need more help. But, what is clear is that Covid-19 has created a public health emergency around mental health, and particularly amongst the young, who are likely to face it’s social and economic impact for years to come. All relevant bodies, from government and local councils, to NHS mental health trusts and charities, need to work together to increase the provision for one-to-one counselling and other mental health and wellbeing services. 

The Future: Reduce Youth Homelessness & Improve Vulnerable Young People’s Life Chances

As an organisation we are focusing now on delivering and fundraising for specific services to address some of the most pressing issues facing young people in our community. We’ve launched a Room Sponsorship scheme to encourage monthly giving which will enable us to deliver our More than a Room programme for our most vulnerable young people living in 24 hour supported accommodation. We want to expand capacity at our Youth Advice Centre’s both digitally and face to face (where possible) to be able to help more young people in crisis. We also want to be able to increase the number of family mediators we employ, so that we can prevent more young people from becoming homeless in the first place. And finally, we want to tackle head on the issue of more and more young people who are NEET (not in education, employment or training) through schemes like YMCA Positive Placements, which is ultimately the only way that our young people will be able to get onto a path towards independence and fulfil their potential.



YMCA enables people to develop their full potential in mind, body and spirit. Inspired by and faithful to our Christian values, we create supportive, inclusive and energising communities, where young people can truly belong, contribute and thrive.

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