Housing and support gap faced by vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds without care status

Scarlett Cowling
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for children unable to live with family, but not all get the support they need, says Scarlett Cowling, 16+ specialist advocate at Coram Voice’s Always Heard service.

Some councils refuse to accommodate young people. Picture: Posed by model/Finwal89/Adobe Stock
Some councils refuse to accommodate young people. Picture: Posed by model/Finwal89/Adobe Stock

Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 establishes that local authority children’s services have a duty to provide accommodation for children under the age of 18 who are unable to live with their families. In parallel, local authority housing services also have a duty to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, who are deemed to be in “priority need” of housing. However, in 2009, the House of Lords considered the law in the case of G v Southwark Borough Council (referred to as the Southwark judgment) and found that the Children Act duty should take precedence over the Housing Act, clearly affirming the responsibility of Children’s Social Care to assess children who present themselves as being homeless or at risk of homelessness.

This means that where 16- and 17-year-olds require accommodation to safeguard and protect, and where criteria is met, this support should always be provided under Section 20 of the 1989 Children Act. In turn, this means the child becomes looked after and the responsibility of the local authority. This important difference is crucial for young people. It is vital for young people without family support to receive not merely somewhere to live but also the support and care they need to thrive in adult life. Moreover, a child who is in care is entitled to social worker support and after they turn 18 and become a care leaver, they are recognised as having a priority need for housing under Article 4 of the The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002, as well as the right to financial and other support from their local authority up to the age of 25. Children who are not in care have no legal right to any support from their local authority other than a place to live. And when they turn 18, all support is withdrawn and once again they are at risk of homelessness.

Despite this very clear statutory guidance, some local authorities refuse to accommodate children under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, opting instead to merely provide housing under the Housing Act.

Coram Voice’s Homeless Outreach Project works to support young people under 18 who find themselves in this predicament. In May 2020, Alicia*, aged 16, contacted the Always Heard Advocacy Advice line run by Coram Voice and funded by the Department for Education. An already challenging relationship with her mother had been intensified by the national lockdown and Alicia found herself sofa surfing. Alicia contacted the housing department of her local authority, who told her that their offices were closed and she would need to return home.

Alicia told the advice line advocate that she was experiencing anxiety and had been feeling especially low. Coram Voice made an urgent alert regarding Alicia’s safety to the local authority, informing them of where Alicia was staying, and that she was struggling financially. The local authority was aware of Alicia, and again informed the advocate Alicia had a home with her mother she could return to. The advocate challenged this, asserting that Alicia had the statutory right to an assessment by the local authority.

The local authority started the assessment but did not provide accommodation. Alicia continued to sofa surf, eventually staying with an ex-boyfriend who she reported had previously been violent towards her. With growing concern, Coram Voice supported Alicia to access a solicitor. The solicitor challenged the local authority, informing them they were not meeting their legal responsibilities. This challenge was successful and Alicia was accommodated under section 20 and was provided a foster care placement close to her college. Alicia continues to stay with her new carer. She is working with the local authority to mediate with her mother.

It is clear that Alicia should have been taken into care at the outset for her immediate safety and then continued to be supported to tackle the challenges that would have left her at further risk of becoming homeless on turning 18. A forthcoming report by Coram Voice will examine the experiences of young people who have been supported by the Outreach Programme and the responses from the local authorities who have a duty to support them, detailing how and why these children were let down so badly.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity

POINTS FOR PRACTICE

  • Children’s Social Care must comply with law and statutory guidance, notably by accommodating under section 20 of the Children Act (1989) all children who present as homeless, or at risk of immediate homelessness, pending a full assessment of need.
  • The government should ensure all local authorities are aware that under-18s are expected to be housed under section 20 in almost all circumstances and that use of section 17 of the Housing Act or other arrangements should not be routine practice in local authorities for 16- and 17-year-olds.
  • Without care status, children experiencing or at risk of homelessness will have all support withdrawn once they turn 18, placing them at further risk.
  • Homeless 16- and 17-year-olds should always have access to an independent advocate to support them to make decisions about the services and type of support they receive from the local authority.
  • Professionals seeking information and guidance on the rights and entitlements for children under 18 as well as care leavers who are facing homeless can contact Coram Voice’s specialist advocacy service for a free consultation at coramvoice.org.uk/for-professionals/specialist-advocacy-service/specialist-advocacy-advice-consultation-form/

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