Part 1: Youth Homelessness
Numbers vary, but according to the Big Issue, there are 268,385 vacant houses in the UK while the homeless charity Shelter estimates the number of homeless reached 280,000 in 2019. This means that there’s probably enough housing for the UK’s homeless population, which according to Shelter, is one in every 200 people. The government’s own figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government noted that homelessness has increased by 165% since 2010; yet paradoxically, there are no definitive statistics available to show just how many people will be sleeping rough on any given night. While the reasons for this are numerous, and fiercely debated; it’s widely agreed that a combination of austerity policies, the decimation of the social housing stock as well as the perpetual increase in both the costs of rents and mortgages on properties have all contributed to the rise in homelessness. However, when understanding youth homelessness, there are often different factors at play that warrant further discussion.
There are four categories of homelessness, as defined by Crisis, a leading homeless charity in the UK. By far the most recognisable form of homelessness is rough sleeping, where individuals are forced to live on the streets of city centres. Secondly, are the far less recognisable homeless people living in temporary accommodation such as night shelters, hostels, B&Bs, women’s refuges as well as private and social housing. Next are those designated as statutory homeless. This describes individuals or families that have approached their local authority for assistance as they are deemed as being in ‘priory need’, and are owed a duty by their local authority as they are either homeless, or in imminent danger of becoming homeless.
Ironically, the group that makes up the majority of the homeless population, despite almost never featuring on official statistics, are final category listed by Crisis; the ‘hidden homeless’. This type of homelessness can take many forms; from staying with friends or family, sofa surfing or making do with a ‘bed in a shed’ arrangement. Tragically, the demographic best represented among the hidden homeless, are youngsters. The difficulties of a sofa surfing teenager are compounded when they don’t feature on the headcount of the homeless population, forcing them to attempt to handle their situation with only casual help; or with no help at all. There’s no way of knowing how many children will be going to sleep hungry, cold, scared or inadvertently putting themselves in considerable danger just to get a place to stay.
The circumstances that conspire to make a youngster can vary dramatically. However, in a 2018 study by the homeless charity Centrepoint, ‘Making Homeless Young People Count: The Scale of Youth Homelessness in the UK’, the following reasons were stated by young people who’d been living as part of the hidden homeless population as to why their home life had become untenable.
© Centrepoint: ‘Making Homeless Young People Count: The Scale of Youth Homelessness in the UK’, 2018.
By far the most common reason youngsters gave for having to sofa surf or engage in some other form hidden homeless was their parents no longer being willing to accommodate them, often as a result of a complex family breakdown. The exact nature of why a youngster’s family broke down can be because of any number of reasons, but there are some factors that appear to crop up again and again. Instances of mental health issues within the family, cultural differences and their associated expectations as well as discrimination or tensions if a parent begins a new relationship can be enough to make a youngster leave their home as they feel they have no other choice.
The next most common reason for becoming part of the hidden homeless was other people, outside of the youngster’s family, not being willing to accommodate them either. If a young person’s luck in sofa surfing runs out, they may well have to resort to rough sleeping which puts them at even greater risk.
Centrepoint cited several other reasons why youngsters can find themselves on the streets. Persistent exclusion from school can not only result in a child becoming homeless, especially if the child’s home life is chaotic, but it can have other serious knock-on effects too. A lack of schooling will inevitably result in fewer qualifications attained, making the search for meaningful work that much harder; but it could seriously complicate the process of accessing the required help the youngster needs to deal with the problems they’re facing, both at home and at school.
Care leavers also run the risk of becoming homeless. Centrepoint states that over a quarter of the youngsters they’ve interacted with have been in the care system. Without a support network upon leaving care, youngsters in this position often have no choice but to be alone on the streets, complete with all the responsibilities and obstacles intrinsic to living independently at such a young age. Combined with the traumas often accrued during a childhood spent in care, homeless care leavers are among the most vulnerable in our society.
An underappreciated group within youngsters facing homelessness are those that are refugees, or have some other form of disputed legal status. Centrepoint maintains that 14% of the youngsters they interact with are refugees who often arrive in the UK without a parent or guardian. Fleeing unspeakable atrocities and often unable to speak English; after being granted asylum, some young refugees find themselves with nowhere to go and no one to help them, and can find themselves helplessly gravitating towards homelessness.
One path that can become alluring to a youngster that’s either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless is joining a gang. The promise of a pseudo-family structure and an income much higher than they could expect in conventional employment can be a difficult proposition to turn down, especially if youngster’s formative years have been dominated by an unstable family life and grinding poverty. However, gang wars can make a youngster’s local area too dangerous for them to remain living there, causing them to become homeless.
With there being so many identifiable pitfalls that can lead a vulnerable youngster to homelessness, what can they expect if they reach out for help? Centrepoint’s 2019-2020 National Picture; an annually updated database of national and local homeless statistics of 16-24 year olds, paint a mediocre picture at best. Nationally, approximately 120,000 youngsters between the ages of 16 and 24 were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. While 64% of those at risk were assessed by their local authority; 58% of all homelessness cases, however, did not report a positive outcome. There is no publicly available information on what happens to those who can’t be supported by their local authority.
Locally in South Oxfordshire, where SOFEA is based, the young homeless landscape is bleaker still. During 2019-2020, 156 youngsters that were homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, approached their local authority for help. Of those 156, 44%, or 69 youngsters, got assessed by their local authority. Out of the assessed youngsters, 40% of them, 62 in all, were offered support of some description. Even with 62 youngsters supported, only 26%, or 40 youngsters out of the original 156, had a ‘measurable positive outcome’, up to and including finding appropriate housing. Just one youngster was accepted as statutory homeless (considered a priority need for housing, provided certain criteria are met), while a shocking 73%, or 114 out of 156, were not supported into housing. As with the national data, there is no information available on the youngsters that slip through the cracks in this manner.
Part 2: Youth Homelessness, Precarious Employment and the Benefits System
For a vulnerable youngster who receives a ‘measurable positive outcome’ from their local authority, a phrase open to wild interpretation given the context; the struggles associated with living self-reliantly, especially given the trauma some youngsters in this position experience, are just the beginning. For many homeless youngsters, mainstream education was an unending struggle. Whether it was behavioural problems, truancy, consistent exclusions, problems at home or a myriad of other reasons, the academic attainment of homeless youngsters can be low, making the search for meaningful employment that much more difficult. With a lack of support, qualifications and options, an increasing number of vulnerable youngsters will find themselves in ‘precarious employment’.
Precarious employment can take many forms. It can be anything from temporary work, part-time or on-call work, agency work, self-employment in the ‘gig economy’, zero-hour contracts, cash-in-hand work or multiple precarious jobs worked by the same youngster. While this type of employment is preferable to some, especially those in full time education who may want to pick and choose when they work in order to balance their educational commitments; but to vulnerable youngsters, it could well be the only option available. In Martin Olsthoorn’s research, ‘Measuring Precarious Employment: A Proposal for Two Indicators of Precarious Employment Based on Set Theory and Tested With Dutch Labour Market Data’; his model, illustrated in the diagram below in Centrepoint’s report, notes precarious employment as the intersection between an insecure job, a vulnerable employee and limited support from the benefits system.
While atypical or precarious employment requires fewer formal qualifications or previous experience, as well as allowing those who would otherwise be on the peripherals of the labour market to earn an income, there are some significant drawbacks.
The flexibility offered by precarious employment is often touted as one of its biggest selling points. As mentioned earlier, while this can be a positive for those with more options in their academic and professional lives, this is rarely the case for vulnerable youngsters. Variations in hours lead to variations in pay; and in this instance, the flexibility is one-sided and the risks associated with the ebbs and flows in a company’s workload are being passed from the employer to the employee. This is particularly egregious when the employee, a vulnerable youngster, is desperate for the stability that employment offers and is in no position to take on any more risk. Coupled with a trend for precarious employers to publish shift rotas as little as 24 hours in advance; then there’s an argument to be made that, in this dynamic, the employer demands total flexibility of their employees, while offering zero flexibility in return.
The rate of pay is another factor that merits discussion; not just in terms of its adequacy of helping vulnerable youngsters in the here and now, but also how it lays the foundation for a youngster to lift themselves out of homelessness. In Centrepoint’s policy report ‘Young, Employed and Homeless: Homeless Young People’s Experience of Precarious Employment’; the youngsters surveyed said that they could typically expect pay rate of £7 to £9 an hour. While this is approximately the minimum wage for their age group, the problems arose as a result of inconsistent hours, which they had no control over. Centrepoint’s report noted that 38% of the youngsters surveyed said that their income wasn’t sufficient to cover the cost of their rent, while 35% said that their wages wouldn’t cover essentials such as food, bills and their commuting costs.
Low pay and inconsistent hours manufacture a perfect storm for vulnerable youngsters, where paying the bills is difficult and saving for a better future is all but impossible. To alleviate this, youngsters working in precarious employment often take on even more atypical employment to supplement their income; which as we’ll learn later, can cause even more problems.
The job security and consistency of precarious employment has been highlighted by youngsters as a cause for serious concern. The constant variation in hours was a consistent theme, and not a single young person surveyed by Centrepoint said that they worked 40 hours a week, with 45% of the youngsters reporting that their hours fluctuated on a weekly basis. Instead, one youngster said that whereas she’d initially been given between 30 to 40 hours a week, this eventually dropped to 5, then 2. Another said that she’d been told to buy a uniform in anticipation of a busy summer with a hospitality agency, only she was never called in for any shifts. A third youngster was working for a food manufacturing company, only he was made to stay in the canteen in case he was called on to cover for other employees. On multiple occasions, after waiting for hours, he was told there was no work available and he would not be paid for the hours he’d spent waiting. Occurrences such as these can have a devastating effect on a vulnerable youngster’s mental health. On top of the persistent anxiety of bills piling up, youngsters were also left wondering if they were the right person for the job, or even if they were considered capable of it in the first place.
There also seemed to a considerable blind spot youngsters in precarious employment had in relation to their entitlements and employee rights. 80% of the youngsters surveyed in Centrepoint’s report stated that they were unaware of receiving entitlements including sick pay, paid leave or pension contributions as part of their employment contract; if they even had a contract at all.
One reason that vulnerable youngsters seek out precarious employment is that despite the lack of formal qualifications and previous experience, there’s opportunity to train and progress. But is there? The youngsters questioned by Centrepoint said training, or even the opportunity to train, rarely occurred. Even those who were looking to convert a temporary role into permanent employment reported that the chances of this happening were extremely slim. For the youngsters lucky enough to gain a new skill in their employment, it was never formally accredited, meaning they couldn’t mention it on their CV; further lessening their chance of securing meaningful employment.
However, possibly the single biggest problem with precarious employment is its relationship with the benefits system; in particular with Universal Credit. It’s common place for people in atypical or precarious employment to also be benefit claimants as it allows them to top up their meagre wages and cover their housing costs. In fact, all of the youngsters featured in Centrepoint’s ‘Young, Employed and Homeless’ report said they’d claimed benefits at some juncture since becoming homeless. In the place of Jobseeker Allowance and Housing Benefit, Universal Credit is designed to streamline the aforementioned benefits into one payment. While an effort to simplify the process is welcomed; but by attempting to pigeon-hole all benefit claimants into one category can create serious problems, especially individuals that are already employed. In Centrepoint’s research, 42% of the youngsters surveyed had experienced complications with their benefits while precariously employed.
While the relationship between Universal Credit and precarious employment is problematic on several levels, there are four main reoccurring issues mentioned by youngsters who are caught in the middle. Firstly, is Jobcentre Plus stopping benefit payments without the individual being informed, especially in regard to the youngsters receiving legacy Housing Benefit. Secondly, due to the benefits system lagging behind the individual’s fluctuating working hours, vulnerable youngsters routinely receive incorrect benefit payment amounts; as the benefits system can only respond to their previous, rather than current, circumstances. Thirdly, because precarious employers pay their employees irregularly, the value of the benefits they received was constantly changing; making saving and money management impossible. Finally, as youngsters in precarious employment never know what hours or shifts they’ll be offered, if any; Jobcentre Plus perpetually updates the individual’s Claimant Commitment due to circumstances beyond the youngster’s control.
In conjunction to the aforementioned difficulties, there are further complications associated with Universal Credit and atypical employment. Homeless youngsters often claim Housing Benefit to cover the costs of rent while living in supported accommodation while also claiming Universal Credit to cover other living costs. However, the complications come thick and fast when the youngster enters precarious employment, triggering a reduction in their Universal Credit allowance.
For every pound earned, Universal Credit is lowered by 63p. Once a youngster is earning more than £92.50 a week, a third of what someone earns working a regular minimum wage job would earn; their Universal Credit is cut to zero. Similarly, individuals claiming legacy Housing Benefit will see that allowance cut by a slightly higher rate of 65p for every pound earned. This means that one group will see their income reduced at a higher rate purely for being in the legacy Housing Benefit system.
Adding to the overall confusion is Jobcentre Plus’s mandatory monthly assessment for Universal Credit, as well as other benefits. Instead of being in step with the youngster’s pay day, the assessment takes place on the date that the claim was made. This means that if two of the claimant’s pay days fall within the same monthly assessment, as a result of inconsistent hours or shifts, the youngster could end up receiving a lower benefit payment the following month.
Coupled with the seemingly endless rise in house prices, the costs of supported housing soon become out of reach. The combination of depleted benefits and rising housing costs mean that vulnerable youngsters fall into rent arrears, which pushes them into debt and halts their ability to move on from supported housing.
A Centrepoint key worker stated that the practice of stopping Universal Credit payments during short stints in atypical employment locked vulnerable youngsters into ‘an endless cycle of debt’. The debts and rent arrears accrued by youngsters due to the relationship between Universal Credit, Housing Benefit and precarious employment essentially work to dissuade youngsters from taking on more hours in order to manage their finances and live independently. Ultimately, this bottleneck of youngsters wanting to leave supported accommodation, but aren’t able to, means that other vulnerable individuals in desperate need of supported accommodation can’t access it.
Part of the overarching problem, as reported by the youngsters themselves, are their interactions with staff at Jobcentre Plus. The seemingly uncontrollable rises and falls in their benefits and wages have made vulnerable youngsters hesitant to disclose short periods of atypical employment. They’d also refused job opportunities put forward to them by Jobcentre Plus staff because they weren’t permanent roles and lacked the consistency they needed to establish some stability in their lives. The desire among vulnerable youngsters to gain meaningful employment was palpable, although they didn’t sense this feeling was reciprocated by Jobcentre Plus. Instead, youngsters got an overwhelming sense that they were entering into a system where their benefits were contingent on them accepting any job that was handed to them; regardless of suitability. Youngsters forced down this path typically return to the benefits system in some form or another, underlining the diminishing returns this method yields.
Part 3: The SOFEA Way
Evidently, the existing pathways for vulnerable youngsters to lift themselves out of homelessness are not fit for purpose. They neither provide enough support in the immediacy when a youngster is attempting to enter meaningful employment, and they don’t give enough of a safety net when a youngster is earning and they want to save for their future.
Since its inception in 2014, SOFEA has helped over 400 youngsters gain qualifications and find decent jobs; all without them having to give up their rights to sick pay, paid leave, pension contributions and other perks. But it isn’t just about employment. At SOFEA, we regard the welfare of the youngster, both physical and mental, to be paramount. Shoehorning vulnerable individuals into precarious employment will always have a negative effect on their mental health. This results in the youngster feeling uninspired and unable to cope, causing them to re-enter the benefits system in some form or another.
So what does SOFEA do differently? Firstly, we recognise that the obstacles vulnerable youngsters face are often the result of years of psychological trauma; and the individual’s mental wellbeing has to be the priority with before any steps can be taken to improve their employability. To accomplish this, SOFEA utilises a number of tried and tested strategies that are known to produce positive outcomes. SOFEA encourages 16-25 year olds to get involved with the Mental Wealth Academy; a pioneering mental health project designed prevent vulnerable youngsters from falling through the cracks between Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS). In addition to supporting vulnerable youngsters, the Mental Wealth Academy aims to also support parents of children suffering mild to moderate mental health aliments. The Mental Wealth Academy has also forged close partnerships with Ark T, Oxfordshire MIND, Oxfordshire Youth and the Banbury Young Homeless Project (BYHP) in order to provide a more all-encompassing service for the youngsters we support.
Secondly, once the youngster has the mental health support required, SOFEA can assist youngsters in acquiring the qualifications they need to progress into meaningful employment. However, it is imperative to explain to the youngsters in our care that this isn’t school, or at least, not as they know it. SOFEA isn’t a setting where they are coerced into fitting in, as per mainstream education, but a setting designed to fit around them. This approach allows for all our youngsters, regardless of their prior educational attainment, can pick a path of progression that will benefit them the most. SOFEA offers fully accredited study programmes to allow youngsters to get their Maths and English GCSEs, either to improve their grades, or to get their grades. There’s also certificates and diplomas that our youngsters can study for; such as Personal Development and Employability (entry level to NVQ level 2), Warehousing and Storage (NVQ levels 1 and 2) and Team Leadership (NVQ level 2, leading to SOFEA’s apprentice programme). There’s also opportunities for youngsters to do more specialised training, with courses in Forklift licences, Food Hygiene, First Aid and Manual Handling. SOFEA believes that maintaining a sensible work/life balance is important; so outside of the more regimented study and training programmes available, our youngsters can also take part in fitness classes with an MMA champion, arts and creative media workshops, personal development programmes as well as specially organised trips and visits.
Finally, SOFEA understands that entering the labour market for what is often the first time for some of our youngsters, can prove to be a very challenging experience. In order to overcome what can be extremely deep seated emotional trauma, SOFEA provides the required help for youngsters to overcome these barriers by utilising our internal expertise and external partnerships to build the youngsters’ employability. Our employability programmes give vulnerable youngsters valuable work experience in our food redistribution warehouse, where they get the opportunity to develop the skills they learned in the classroom to build their confidence in the workplace. Alongside a personalised plan of support, there is a range of vocational training available to ensure that our youngsters’ new found skills are formally accredited, allowing them further personal and professional progression.
SOFEA’s model of education and training proves that vulnerable young people don’t have to be pushed down a path of precarious employment, benefits and debt. With the right amount of targeted investment in time, care, education and training, those who feel as if they have no future, or at best, a bleak one; will surprise everyone, including themselves. All they need is a chance.