Since when was a tent an acceptable home?

By Linda Jack

| 30 August 2012

A few days ago I took a tumble – not an unusual event sadly, I’ve always been rather accident prone!  I don’t know about you, when I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself I really appreciate being able to curl up in my nice warm bed… and have my daughter wait on me :-).

However, my good fortune contrasts sharply with the shocking case reported in CYP Now of the 16-year-old young man forced to live in a tent for nine months, resulting in him suffering physical and mental health problems. Despite the Southwark ruling, which we all expected to deal with what had up until 2009 been a scandalous loophole, we learn that this is not a one off case.

I am sure, like many of you, one of the most harrowing aspects of my youth work career has been dealing with homeless young people. Not only because of the physical risk they will be at, but also the emotional and mental trauma that often accompanies their becoming homeless. It is bad enough that a vulnerable young person may have been rejected by their family, but when that is compounded by the very authorities that are supposed to be there to help them, it beggars belief. I well remember the case of a 17-year-old young woman I was working with a few years ago.

She was exceptionally vulnerable, regularly self-harmed and had serious emotional issues. One morning she came in very upset, having been evicted from her hostel she was sleeping on her mother’s floor which, because of the family circumstances, could only be very temporary. I sent her down to the housing office at the town hall.

She returned in tears having been told to come back when she was “sleeping on a park bench or pregnant”. 

What both these cases demonstrate is the desperate need both to hold local services to account but also to ensure staff in all relevant services are adequately trained. Shelter is recognisably one of our most basic human needs, closely followed by and usually closely interlinked with, safety and security. And yet public policy rarely recognises this. Only recently we had Cameron suggesting that housing benefit shouldn’t be paid to under 25 year olds.

We have the single room supplement, the inability to claim benefits if you are studying, the continuing discrimination by a society which appears to choose to close its eyes to the needs of its often most vulnerable young people. And with the continuing demise of the youth service, Connexions and the voluntary sector, there is no doubt more of our young people will become invisible, easy to forget, easy to allow to fall prey to those who would wish to exploit rather than help them.

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