We need longer-term solutions to end youth homelessness

17 May 19

The government must look further and aim higher if it wants to end youth homelessness says Reform’s Aidan Shilson-Thomas. 

In the last decade homelessness has risen at an alarming rate, and many young people live with the threat of homelessness.

Last year over 100 000 young people approached their local authority for help. This does not capture the whole picture: many more young people will be hidden homeless, and will avoid seeking help until they are in crisis. Yet Reform research published this week shows that youth homelessness is predictable, so it can and should be prevented.

The government has said that preventing homelessness is ‘at the heart’ of its policies. The Homelessness Reduction Act that came into force in April 2018 was a step change in legislation. Now, local authorities must act not only to relieve homelessness, but to prevent it.

This is a move in the right direction, but preventing youth homelessness will require sustained commitment from central and local government. Our research found that short-term thinking and planning are making it difficult to shift the agenda towards prevention.  

Local authorities are being asked to help young people threatened with homelessness before they are in crisis. However, a lack of funding means that many cannot afford to think so far ahead. The HRA comes at the end of a decade of cuts to non-statutory services and a 20% reduction in spending on housing support.

Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, funding for housing support for young people in particular fell by 18%. In these circumstances, several local authorities who were interviewed for our research said they felt like they were ‘firefighting’ and were not resourced to prevent homelessness.

As spending on prevention has gone down, spending on temporary accommodation has increased, prioritising short-term fixes over long-term solutions. This is not cost-effective, and runs counter to the government’s stated aim of ending homelessness. If the government wants the HRA to be successful, then local authorities must be better funded.

'To allow local authorities to shift their focus to prevention, they need the security to plan for the future. However, Reform heard that short funding cycles do not allow this to happen.'

To allow local authorities to shift their focus to prevention, they need the security to plan for the future. However, Reform heard that short funding cycles do not allow this to happen. Some councils feel like they are ‘lurching from year to year’ because of this. Short-term grants that run for two or three years make it difficult to commission services, or hire staff, for long periods of time.

Central government itself is also practicing a kind of ‘political short-termism'. Policy at the centre is heavily focused on rough sleeping, which is the most visible type of homelessness. Parliament and charity leaders have argued that the government urgently needs to create a cross-government strategy to end homelessness in all of its forms. Instead, the Government have created a Rough Sleeping Strategy.

The aim to end rough sleeping by 2027 is laudable, but this does not go far enough. A vulnerable young person who is made homeless, but who does not sleep rough, can still face the same threats of abuse, substance misuse, and violence in other unsafe forms of accommodation. Rough sleeping policies cannot meet the challenges of less obvious forms of homelessness - this is especially true of youth homelessness.

It is clear that there is no quick way to end homelessness, so we need to stop thinking in the short term. The secretary of state responsible for housing James Brokenshire has said that he wants to create ‘a sustainable strategy to end homelessness for good’.

To stay true to this, the government needs to spend money on prevention, not relief, and to stop young people from falling into homelessness. If it does not, they may become the rough sleepers of tomorrow.

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