Systems and services failing to empower homeless young people

Molly Zakra and Lauren Page Hammick
Monday, November 23, 2020

As recent figures point to a rise in youth homelessness, Homeless Link’s new report uncovers a worrying reality of systemic failures curbing young people’s potential, undermining their resilience, and failing to empower them to leave homelessness behind.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the systemic disadvantages that have for some time sustained a youth homelessness crisis in England. 

As winter approaches, recent data shows that a growing number of young people are finding themselves without a home. There has been a 64 per cent annual increase in young people forced to sleep rough in London during April to September 2020. At the same time, helplines run by Centrepoint and akt reported a doubling in calls during the original lockdown, many from young people trapped in abusive households.

As we enter a second lockdown, the need for action to prevent and end youth homelessness has never been more pressing.

While we are generally aware of systemic issues including gaps in support from statutory services and insufficient welfare support, less attention has been given to how this impacts young people’s resilience and strengths. Our new report, We have A Voice, Follow Our Lead, reveals the upshot of this – that, in many cases, the range of services intended to support young people may be failing to provide an environment that allows them to thrive and move on from homelessness.

Co-producing the research with young people at Youth Voice, we explored how the presence or absence of confidence, choice, community, consistency and control affected young people’s ability to manage and respond to challenges they faced. When present, the assets tended to be mutually reinforcing, empowering young people to take advantage of positive factors and opportunities in their lives. This in turn energised them to pursue further opportunities such as education, training and mental health support.

Conversely, we can see the extent to which public services sometimes failed to develop young people’s strengths and agency, negatively impacting their internal resources and wellbeing.

The lack of effective prevention or early intervention work was visible in many young people’s stories. Agencies often did not recognise and address the risks and harms they experienced, including homelessness and abuse. Local authority gatekeeping was a barrier to support for many, especially those fleeing abuse inside or outside the home. For care leavers, a high turnover of social workers undermined relationships and meant safeguarding risks went unnoticed.

These experiences left young people socially excluded, meaning that they entered homelessness services with unaddressed trauma, low self-confidence and little trust.

Clearly, homelessness and other services have a vital role to play in developing and supporting young people’s resilience, and there is already a lot of good practice taking place. Our 45 interviews revealed that young people valued organisations that foster environments where adversity is recognised and addressed, that provide tailored support, and where participation and the development of strengths is prioritised.

Forming and sustaining trusting relationships with staff and peers was particularly significant in building young people’s self-confidence and a sense of control. Integral to this were advocacy and transparent services delivered on young people’s terms.

To support the spectrum of services working hard to unlock young people’s potential, it is imperative that government and local areas renew their focus on tackling youth homelessness and consider young people in their emergency and longer-term plans as the pandemic continues.

We are calling for the Ggovernment to develop a cross-departmental youth homelessness strategy that focuses on prevention, youth participation and multi-agency support, giving the fight against youth homelessness the urgency it deserves. In addition, local areas should receive long-term investment for a range of supported housing options covering the diversity of young people’s needs.

Ending youth homelessness not only requires spotting prevention opportunities and tackling the under-resourced system, but ensuring that we provide services that support young people as capable and passionate agents for change. We know that we cannot hope to make progress without working together across different agencies and fields of expertise, and best practice sharing will be key. It is time to take collective action to ensure that we can prevent and end youth homelessness for good.

Molly Zakra, researcher and Lauren Page Hammick, youth project managers at Homeless Link, the national membership charity for frontline homelessness services. 

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