Youth Homelessness — [Dame Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:49 pm ar 1 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:49, 1 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I thank Paula Barker for leading the debate and for illustrating the issue so well with the story of Zephyr. Nothing tells a story better than an example like that. It is also an example of what can be done to help that person: he has accommodation and a job to go to, and he wishes to be a councillor and help others. That tells me that if the effort is made, a change can be made. The hon. Lady deserves to be congratulated, as do all the groups and charities that work to ensure that Zephyr and others can have a better life.

It is also a pleasure to follow Adam Holloway. I thank him for his interest, his observations, his focus and his two suggestions, which the Government should be encouraged to support.

I will give a Northern Ireland example, as I always do, because it is important that we have a perspective from across the United Kingdom: it adds to the debate and shows that what happens here is also an issue elsewhere. Homelessness has become a major issue across the UK, especially among our young people. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree referred to early intervention; I believe that there is a real opportunity for early intervention and to ensure that our young people, who are our future, have the means to get the best possible start in life. It is great to be here to talk about the issue and hear about experiences in other constituencies.

“A Place to Call Home”, a report produced by Queen’s University on behalf of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, included interviews with some 32 participants across three main strands. It showed that the basic minimum to support children and young people in Northern Ireland is not being met. I know that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to give a flavour of where we are. Now that the Assembly is up and working again, the responsibility for an action plan to address the issue will fall on the shoulders of the Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The issue of young people and families in temporary accommodation within the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has become a prevalent one back home, as they simply have nowhere to go. That is, without doubt, a form of homelessness. The figures speak for themselves and cannot be ignored. In the period from January to June 2022, households and families accepted as homeless in Northern Ireland included 3,495 children. Furthermore, in July 2022, 3,913 children aged under 18 were living in temporary accommodation in Northern Ireland, an increase from 2,433 in January 2019. That includes children living with their families and young people aged 16 to 17 living independently. That massive increase shows the size of the problem and illustrates that this is an issue not just here, but across the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Young people not having a decent place to live has a direct impact on other aspects of their life, such as poor health and wellbeing. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree talked about how Zephyr’s anxiety issues rose as a result of what happened, and depression and mental health had knock-on effects as well. We also have to be aware of wellbeing outcomes and the inability of children to learn at school and beyond. If someone is focusing on their health issues and how they feel mentally and physically, it is quite difficult to have a positive focus for the future.

It is worth noting that Northern Ireland has a major problem with hidden homelessness among our youth, who sleep rough or sofa-surf with friends or family. I probably encounter that every week in my office myself or through my staff: people depending on the good will of family members, or more often friends, living in their cars, sleeping on benches or sofa-surfing.

The Simon Community in Northern Ireland is instrumental in supporting young people with accommodation. It has youth accommodation projects designed to assist young people aged 16 to 25 in their transition towards independent adulthood. We must recognise just how difficult that is. Those projects provide a nurturing environment where young people can flourish. I give credit to the Simon Community for what it does and for how it tries to address these issues.

The hon. Lady’s introduction emphasised to me and everyone here how sympathetic she is to this cause. She has done some fantastic work on it through her role as shadow Minister for Housing. Data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows that 54% of homeless people report experiencing homelessness for the first time when under the age of 25.

This debate is so important, because it focuses on a group of young people who we hope will have opportunities for the future, as well as a job, accommodation and relationships that can help them to build the society we live in. Some 48% of those people experience rough sleeping for the first time before the age of 25. The impact of the youth homelessness crisis can be seen all across society. Until the root causes of youth homelessness are addressed, this crisis will continue to escalate.

I am ever mindful of the importance of this debate, and I want to suggest two suggestions that I think will be helpful. We are here not just to raise awareness of this matter, but to give suggestions, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree has done. We will hear more from others in this debate, and we look to our Minister to ensure that we can get positive responses.

What can we do? First, we need an early identification programme to ensure that children at school—as early as that—who are at risk are identified and supported. I suggest respectfully that the Minister should co-ordinate our campaign with the Department for Education to ensure that those who are showing signs of having problems at home and who may end up homeless or on the street are identified and supported.

Secondly, we need to have more affordable youth-friendly accommodation, like the accommodation the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree referred to, which saved young Zephyr and many others. Such accommodation will probably save many more lives in the future, but it needs help to make that happen. We need to have a focus on more affordable youth-friendly accommodation that young people can be expected to afford to live in. The hon. Lady outlined the issues: these young people are trying to study for their exams, their money issues are piling up around them, and they are wondering, “Where am I going to go next?”. These issues compound each other. We have all seen the extortionate prices people are paying for rent—it is completely unrealistic to expect a young person to be able to pay that, especially looking at the figures in London.

I look respectfully and honestly to the Minister for solutions. While there is an understanding of this situation, I believe it is so important that we take the appropriate steps to support our young people and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree says, address the issue of youth homelessness. It is a blight on society and it needs to be addressed. I look to the Minister to give us those solutions.