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What more can be done to protect 16-17 year olds from homelessness?

There's no magic formula for protecting 16-17 year olds from homelessness but we do know the strategies and interventions that can help. Anne Limbert from Shelter looks at the myths, legalities and practicalities of making sure the right approaches are used more widely.

Shelter’s aim is to prevent people from falling into the downward spiral that leads to homelessness. Without a stable home and support to overcome traumatic events, it’s so much more difficult for someone to rebuild their life. This is particularly true for young people just starting out in life, which is why housing advice is at the heart of the NHAS (National Homelessness Advice Service) Improving Outcomes for Young People website, providing up-to-date information for anyone working with young people (aged between 16-25) to avoid homelessness and start planning for the future.

16-17 year olds do not make snap decisions to leave home and seek help as a result of run of the mill family tensions. In reality most of these young people are more likely to have homelessness forced on them.

However, we also recognise that not all homelessness can be prevented. The Improving Outcomes for Young People website is based on the Positive Pathway, an approach that is about more than housing. Crucial to any young person's development is the opportunity to:

  • access education, training and employment
  • be able to successfully manage their finances
  • enjoy positive relationships with peers, family and the wider community
  • have access to information in support of their physical, mental and sexual health.

The experience of our Children's Legal Services shows that 16-17 year olds do not make snap decisions to leave home and seek help as a result of run of the mill family tensions. In reality most of these young people are more likely to have homelessness forced on them: parents no longer able or willing to look after them as a result of alcohol/drug abuse, serious mental health problems or eviction; the young person being kicked out because of pregnancy; or other agencies such as Youth Offending intervening because it is not safe for the young person to continue living at home

Multi-agency approach

While finding somewhere to live is the most pressing need facing young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, they are likely to have a range of multiple and concurrent needs including health, education and employment. They are particularly vulnerable and exposed to higher risks if they spiral into street homeless, and it is very likely that an early incidence of homelessness in their life will lead to long-term problems during later stages of their adulthood. So it’s essential that young people are not passed from pillar to post. Legal advice, support and services for homeless 16 and 17 year olds must be underpinned by multi-agency written protocols, clearly setting out the practical, people-centred assistance available.

Unfortunately some local authorities have not complied with their statutory duty to put such protocols in place, and many advisers are not clear about the duties of Social Services. We cannot emphasise enough the role of Social Services in this, given that Children's Services has primary responsibility for homeless 16/17 years olds under s20 Children Act 1989, as shown in the G v Southwark case.

A clearer picture

Mythbusting is essential to ensure young people have realistic expectations of the housing options available and encourage them to take up early advice and intervention. Advisors need to be aware that what is a realistic option for a 16/17 year old and a care leaver is very different to an 18-25 year old. Many voluntary agencies such Shelter and Citizens Advice produce accessible public information for young people - in particular ShelterCitizen's Advice and The Site - while the NHAS website matches that with information for professionals working with young people.

In particular, schools and educational institutions could take a more proactive role in identifying at an early stage instances of potential crisis. They could also disseminate information to young people and their families, provide initial general advice by relying on the information already available in the sector, and, when appropriate, refer cases to agencies that can help at an early stage. Their role in raising awareness and early intervention could make a big difference to the outcomes of individual cases.

Finding and keeping a home

Finally, where remaining in the family home is an option, families need tailored support to deal better with everyday pressures. In a rapidly changing world, families can benefit from a better understanding of the realities facing young people and how problems affecting the household, such as benefit cuts, may affect its young members. Shelter, for example, runs family service projects which adopt a holistic approach by offering tailored advice and support around all kinds of issues from mental health and substance misuse to domestic violence and budgeting.

We need to be aware that most 16-17 year olds who are homeless are not going to be negotiating the housing market because they are children, and that leaving home is not necessarily their choice. But if young people, their families and agencies working with them, have a better understanding of their rights and options, there’s more chance they’ll be able to negotiate the realities of the housing market and the assistance available – and there's more chance of improving their chances of finding and keeping a stable and happy home.

If you would like further information on NHAS, please write to Anne_Limbert@shelter.org.uk.

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Channel website: http://www.homelesslink.org.uk

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