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Councils' Attitudes Towards Youth Homelessness

“What did you do to get yourself kicked out?” This was a local authority’s reaction when 19 year old homeless applicant, Leticia Grant, turned up at their doorstep in need of their help. Her ex-partner was an abusive alcoholic so she fled the toxic environment at home. Her boss suddenly left without notice, causing her to lose her job, so she had no source of income. Family ties had completely deteriorated and by the end of 2013 she found herself street homeless. Leticia’s story has been documented in a video by the BBC to highlight that sadly her case is not unusual amongst young people.

As part of the BBC documentary Leticia went undercover as ‘Nicki,’ an 18 year old girl who had fled an abusive home environment. ‘Nicki’ went to 5 different local authorities across the UK see the different responses she would receive. All authorities deemed Nicki as non-priority and also told her that they did not have to help her. Surprisingly, some local authorities didn’t even attempt to make necessary inquiries, which is required by law whenever they have reason to believe that someone (of any age) may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. Only one authority found Nicki temporary accommodation for the night.

By law, Nicki cannot be sent off to a night shelter without inquiries being made in accordance with the law to consider her safeguarding. Many authorities told Nicki to go and stay with her family, to just ‘grin and bear it’, also without making any inquiries into her safety. This is poor practice; local authorities who are not acknowledging each situation are not meeting their legal duty towards applicants. Safety must be of paramount concern.

What should local authorities be doing in dealing with applicants?

Last year only 40% of young people asking for support were given an assessment to find out if they were eligible for emergency housing. Even if they are not deemed eligible section 179 Housing Act 1996 states that local authorities have a duty to ensure advice and information about homelessness are provided free of charge to anyone in their district. The test that local authorities adopt when deciding whether they have an interim duty to accommodate the applicant has a low threshold, namely, a ‘reason to believe’ that they need to.

Under section 27 Children Act 1989 a local authority can ask a range of other authorities to help them in delivering services to young people. Different authorities need to work together to provide a safety net for vulnerable people who are homeless or at risk. They cannot routinely refuse such requests, and each case will need to be assessed according to the circumstances at the time.

Reconciliation is an option for a young person and their family, as was a suggestion made in ‘Nicki’s’ case. However being told to ‘grin and bear’ going back to a family home where connections have disintegrated and not making a careful assessment in measuring the safety of them staying at home, is not appropriate. Nicki could not be expected to reconcile with her family where family ties are completely broken and not safe or desirable for her to remain in the family home.

Can young people like Leticia be deemed in priority need and vulnerable?

The law applicable to young, vulnerable people in priority need is set out in section 189 (1) Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness (Priority need for Accommodation (England) Order 2002

  • a person aged 16 or 17 who is not a ‘relevant child’ or a child in need to whom a local authority owes a duty under section 20 Childrens Act 1989
  • a person under 21 who was (but is no longer) looked after, accommodated or fostered between 16-18 (except a person who is a relevant student)
  • a person aged 21 or more who is vulnerable as a result of having been looked after, accommodated or fostered (except a person who is a relevant student)
  • a person who is vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation because of threats of violence from another person which are likely to be carried out

Young people are automatically categorised as being individuals particularly at risk of homelessness. Young people who are or have been street homeless may lack essential skills required to manage their affairs. Those estranged from their family similar to Leticia, may lack the advice and support normally available to young people. 16 and 17 year olds who are homeless and estranged from their family are usually deemed automatically vulnerable.

Under section 177 of the Housing Act 1996 it is not reasonable for a person to continue residing in an accommodation if it is probable that this will lead to further violence or domestic violence. Housing authorities should investigate this by making a proper assessment of the situation. Leaving accommodation due to violence should be apparent from the assessment of the reason for homelessness.

The law is provided for people to abide by it and it seems local authorities are not doing so. Local authorities, please be aware that gatekeeping is not tolerated. Young, single, homeless people should not be taken advantage of!

By Kate Smith & Natasha Deshmukh, Social Housing team.