Youth Homelessness — [Dame Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:30 pm ar 1 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Llafur, Liverpool, Wavertree 2:30, 1 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered youth homelessness.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Siobhain. I should declare that my husband is chair of YMCA Together, in Liverpool—it is an unpaid role—and that I am a national patron for YMCA. I pay tribute to the colleagues and friends from various organisations in the homelessness sector who are here today. We have representatives from New Horizon Youth Centre, Centrepoint and Depaul. Thank you for the work that you do and for being here today.

Those colleagues who know me well know that I have a very keen interest in all matters relating to homelessness —hopefully, some would say a serious interest. I am also very proud to be a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. I use my role to regularly raise awareness, where and when I can. I am more than happy to be considered a broken record on homelessness. Given that I care deeply about being a voice for those who may feel they have none, I will accept such a charge. I know that if I am a nuisance to the Minister—I have a lot of time for her, as she well knows—and my hon. and very good Friend Mike Amesbury, I will be playing my small part in moving the needle towards progress and change.

Homelessness is multifaceted. Different forms exist. They range from sofa surfing and rough sleeping, to being stuck in temporary accommodation, and so much more besides. Yesterday we saw the latest statistics released by the Department and they once again reveal the scale of the problem—more than 112,000 households and 145,000 children in temporary accommodation.

Of course, homelessness is caused by different factors: poverty, trauma, leaving care, being a victim of domestic abuse—the list goes on and on, and different demographics of people are affected in a multitude of ways. They include women, young people, those who define as LGBTQ+, our veterans, prison leavers and many more. The solution to the homelessness emergency therefore must be multifaceted. Yes, we desperately need to build more homes for truly affordable and social rent, but so too must we properly fund our local authorities and reform the welfare system—although not in the way that we have seen announced this week—and essentially we must tackle the underlying trauma that the vast majority of people who find themselves homeless have experienced in one form or another. All of this will require all of Government—not just one part—to put it front and centre. Anything less is simply not good enough.

Amid such an emergency, young people are often overlooked by the system. There is growing concern that ever greater revenue constraints being placed on local government lead to young people and young adults getting a raw deal from a system already at breaking point. Young people who experience homelessness are overlooked, in my opinion, by Government, by the Department and, yes, by Members from across this place. Although I know that there are local elections tomorrow, I am saddened that we are not seeing more Members here today for this incredibly important debate.

I am reliably informed that this is the first time in nearly 40 years that such time has been dedicated to the specific issue of youth homelessness. The previous time, in 1985, was largely because the late Alfred Morris, the former Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe and latterly Lord Morris, took it upon himself to raise the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. I was reading through the Hansard entry and I despaired at the fact that that contribution, the words that Alfred Morris spoke in 1985, could be said here today, in 2024. The former Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe said there was

“no information available on the numbers of homeless adolescents and young people in London and the other major conurbations.”—[Official Report, 24 May 1985;
Vol. 79, c. 1303.]

He went on to talk about the lack of cross-departmental working to tackle the problem, saying,

“the present piecemeal approach to the problem of homelessness among young people is hampering other valuable work in this sector”,

and,

The DHSS, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and local authorities are all involved in different, but not very clearly differentiated, aspects of the problem.”—[Official Report, 24 May 1985;
Vol. 79, c. 1304.]

It is staggering to think 40 years later how little overall progress has been made. Even where it has been—for example, under the last Labour Government—surely it has since been eroded. We still do not truly know how many young adults find themselves homeless. The data collected by the Department could be so much better and so much more far-reaching. Given that we are almost certain to have a general election at some point in 2024, I truly hope that my Opposition Front-Bench colleagues will consider the demands that I will put to the Government today. Collecting better data on young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 will not alarm any fiscal hawk at the Treasury. It is good policy, and can be achieved very simply: by making amendments to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

As it is, we rely on the likes of Centrepoint, the national youth homelessness charity, which through its databank work has estimated that nearly 136,000 young people approached their local council as homeless in 2022-23. Many of them were not even close to getting formally assessed. Despite Centrepoint’s numbers being much larger than those of the Department, it should be noted that those are a small c conservative estimate that do not include the thousands of young people classified as the hidden homeless—for instance, those young people sofa surfing and those who have not approached their local council in any way.

To obtain such information for England, Centrepoint had to make freedom of information requests for every local authority in the country. That is absolutely ridiculous and shameful. How can the Government properly begin to solve the problem if they do not truly understand the scale of it? That is why charities like Centrepoint—teaming up with the likes of the Albert Kennedy Trust, the YMCA and the fantastic New Horizon Youth Centre, which does so much to help young people in London, and 100 youth organisations—are calling for a national youth homelessness strategy: a plan for the 136,000.

Back in March, campaigners calling for a plan for the 136,000 homeless young people garnered more than 15,000 signatures on a UK Government petition. As they rightly said in their petition,

“no one is talking about this” and there is no specific national plan to tackle youth homelessness. I ask the Minister to please refrain from trotting out the usual spiel about how much money the Department is throwing at homelessness—with little success, may I add?—and to instead commit today to start putting together a far-reaching and ambitious national youth homelessness strategy this side of the election: a plan for the 136,000.

As Alfred Morris highlighted in 1985, Departments did not work with each other then, and they still do not today. Those experiencing homelessness, not least our young people, are always the ones who bear the brunt of Whitehall working in its traditional silos. Despite a valiant effort by Eddie Hughes when he was a Minister to at least secure some cross-departmental buy-in for the rough sleeping strategy, this Government have shown no real vision in operating the cross-departmental working that a national youth homelessness strategy would rely on.

Young people can experience homelessness for a plethora of reasons. Their experience if they do can be nothing short of desperate, and they are routinely institutionally failed by the state. Many are not supported to transition into adulthood and, as such, they face unique barriers that can push them into homelessness. They may lack the documents to evidence their homelessness—for example, written confirmation from their caregiver that they are no longer welcome in the home. I have had the privilege of meeting many young people at New Horizon in London. They told me that they were not taken seriously or believed when they were presented at a council, and many local authorities fail to provide a proper homelessness assessment. Some young people are asked to return home when that may not be safe. Furthermore, they may not know what support is available beyond the family home that they need to leave. So we need wholesale change. Young people deserve better. Our care leavers deserve better.

The cost of youth homelessness to the Treasury is estimated to be £8.5 billion a year, or an average of £27,347 for each young homeless person. Young people are vulnerable to homelessness due to unique barriers, including a lack of visibility, reduced benefits and a shortage of affordable youth-specific housing. I just mentioned the poor outcomes for young people who approach their local council for support. In my city of Liverpool, 1,849 young people approached the council as homeless, but only 332 were assessed by the local authority. A total of 1,743 people were not supported into housing after approaching Liverpool City Council. I do not blame my council; I blame this Government. Resources are scarce and the council is stretched to absolute breaking point. Young people often bear the brunt of local government austerity more than most. Liverpool City Council is projected to see temporary accommodation costs rise from £250,000 in 2019 to £25 million by the end of this financial year, which is a rise of 10,000%.

What could a national strategy achieve? A national cross-departmental youth homelessness strategy could look at extending priority need to all care leavers up to age 25, as well as exempting them from council tax payments. A national strategy could work with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to look at taper rates for those young people in supported housing who are disincentivised from taking on extra hours at work, and as a result cannot move on to independent living. In hotspot areas, a national strategy could see councils adopting localised youth homelessness strategies, with dedicated youth homelessness teams. It could also look at repurposing a small part of the single homelessness accommodation programme to include youth-specific provision. We need a plan for the 136,000. A national strategy could do that and so much more much besides.

Behind the headline figures and the policies are human stories of desperation and frustration—stories of untapped potential and young people not being able to fulfil their hopes, dreams and aspirations. I have witnessed first-hand the fantastic work of local charities such as the Whitechapel Centre in Liverpool, the Mustard Tree in Manchester and the New Horizon Youth Centre in north London.

New Horizon’s chief executive, Phil Kerry, head of policy, Polly, and their whole team told me the story of Zephyr. At 20 years old, university student Zephyr suddenly had to leave his family home in east London after a family breakdown last summer. He had nowhere else to go, so he spent over a week on the streets of London, which he says was awful. He struggled to find food, so spent much of the week starving. During that time, Zephyr came across New Horizon Youth Centre outreach workers, who invited him into the day centre where he received food and was able to shower. He was given emergency accommodation for a week. After at least three weeks of waiting, he was accepted into a medium-stay hostel where he was able to volunteer.

Being off the streets and in stable accommodation allowed Zephyr to focus on his future. However, he was developing severe issues with his mental health as a result of being homeless and of his financial situation, so he had to drop out of university. Through mental health support, jobs education and training support from New Horizon, he is now in full-time employment as a support assistant for a housing association in London. He is still staying in hostel accommodation and is waiting until he can afford a room of his own in the private rented sector. Zephyr’s dream is to become a youth worker to help other young people in situations like his own.

There are at least 136,000 more stories like Zephyr’s, and for every Zephyr there is someone like him who may not have a New Horizon Youth Centre to support them. Never mind the economic cost: if a person fails to get angry when contemplating the possible waste of human potential through youth homelessness, I would argue that they are simply not human. Zephyr needs hope, but more importantly he deserves a future. Surely that is why we all entered politics. Austerity economics, the cost of living crisis, low wages and a housing crisis that is out of control have led us to this place.

All our young people are struggling, across the board, but care leavers, those who cannot access mental health support and those who have suffered family breakdown, have untold trauma and then fall on the wrong side of a homeless emergency—who will speak up for them? The third sector does an absolutely amazing job, but we cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibilities in this place and across Whitehall. This has been going on for far too long. The state has a much more active role to play.

It falls to all of us in this place to speak up for our young people who experience homelessness and, crucially, to make change happen. I hope that the Minister can agree today to changing how data is collected and commit to implementing a youth homelessness strategy. I would also very much welcome a commitment to looking at removing the elements relating to homelessness from the Criminal Justice Bill, which is an issue that I have consistently raised in this place.