Nicola* was ten when her mother died. With no father around, it was left to the little girl’s elderly grandparents to take care of her. But, as she struggled with her grief at losing her mum, Nicola would often become angry. She regularly caused trouble at school and home. When she became a teenager, her grandparents could no longer cope and she ended up in foster care but she would run away, sleeping on friend’s sofas or floors. She told careworkers: ‘I must have been a very bad person because no one wanted to hold onto me’.
At the age of three, Michael* had been removed from his abusive home and placed in care. Over the next ten years, he lived in a total of 61 care homes and although he was registered at over 50 schools, he was always running away. He found himself homeless by the age of 16, admitting later: ‘I didn’t think anyone cared because no one would come looking when I did run away’.
Nicola and Michael’s stories might be heartbreaking but they are far from unusual. According to recent statistics, there are around 80,000 homeless young people in the UK today. Youth homelessness charity Centrepoint says more than 150,000 young people ask their local authority for help with homelessness every year but more than 30,000 are turned away thanks to lack of resources.
‘Young people are often the ‘hidden homeless’ says Frances Beecher, CEO of Centrepoint partner charity Llamau, based in Wales. ‘There are some who do sleep rough on the streets but the vast majority end up staying on the sofa of a friend, or a friend of a friend and so on.
‘But the trouble is, there are people who lookout for this kind of vulnerable young person and they will offer them beds for the night in return for sexual favours. This turns into exploitation and can lead to a downward spiral for the young person into offending behaviour. Often young people will tell us that they turned to drink and drugs simply to blank out what was happening to them – and who can blame them? But we must remember that these are still children, some as young as fourteen. As any parent knows, the teenage years are often the most difficult ones to navigate and they need as much support and help as ever.’
Worryingly, on World Homelessness Day, it seems that the number of young people without a safe and appropriate roof over their heads is on the increase. The figure in the UK has risen by 12,000 in the last two years alone. These are troubled children, coming from violent or abusive backgrounds and around 88 per cent will be suffering from some kind of mental health issue such as depression or anxiety.
‘Some of the problem is that services and support for these young people are being lost thanks to austerity cuts in local authorities but equally, financial hardship and family breakdowns are growing,’ says Frances Beecher. ‘At the moment, we seem to be able to hold stable that figure of 80,000 young homeless people, but we have to do something so we don’t see another increase in the next two or five years.’
According to the charity, most young people are only one step away from finding themselves without a home. ‘In around 80 per cent of cases, it can be something like the death of a parent, the break-up of a marriage or simply that there is no space anymore for the young person in the home anymore,’ says Frances. ‘It may be that the young person is leaving care or an offenders’ institute and if they decide they don’t want the help of statutory services or if those services are lacking in some way or a foster place breaks down, they can end up homeless.’
So what can be done? A lot, it seems. In fact, over 90 per cent of young people who come into contact with Centrepoint or its partner charities are able to turn their lives around.
‘We have proof that with the right kind of support, these children can move on positively with their lives which not only benefits them but means society won’t be paying for them for the rest of their lives,’ says Frances. ‘Just by bringing them into sheltered accommodation can save £20,000 out of the public purse which would have been spend on things like bed and breakfasts and youth offending services.
‘We have developed services for what young people need, whether that’s a safe appropriate roof over their head or access to specialist support workers or family mediators
‘Around 70-80 per cent of these young people have disengaged from education by the age of 12 or 13 but we can provide training that not only supports their learning but gives them the self-confidence and social skills they need to learn. With help, 86 per cent of young people return to some sort of education programme.
‘We had one young lad whose family situation broke down and he was in all sort of trouble, ending up in an institute by the age of nine. But we put him on a programme to learn basic English and Maths and he’s now got a full-time job in construction and has a phenomenal relationship with his family. Another boy left school at 12 and was even expelled from the exclusion unit he was placed in, but we got him into college and he did his A-levels and is now at university studying rocket science.
‘We try to mirror a young person’s normal route into young adulthood and life as much as possible. We don’t want that person – or that person’s child – to come back in ten or fifteen years with the same problems. Some people give up on children because they don’t have the tools to help them. But we can – and we know they can become not only participating members of society but they can contribute to it as well. We can’t let another generation of young people down.’
*names have been changed.
End Youth Homelessness, the UK’s national movement to end homelessness for young people, has teamed up with creative agency Leo Burnett for a campaign called “Get them to a Safe Place” - which highlights the precarious position 80,000 vulnerable young people find themselves each year. Watch their new video raising awareness of the issue below.