Over the last few weeks I’ve supported three homeless young people at three different London local authorities as they attempted to make a homelessness application, and in doing so I’ve witnessed a small part of the housing crisis and how it is impacting the lives of the young people I work with.
Different circumstances had led these young people to seek help from the council: Jade, 19 and in the early stages of pregnancy, had been sofa surfing between friends for several months after her mum kicked her out, but couldn’t find a private landlord who accepted benefit claimants; Dalal, 18, had received an eviction notice as her hostel tenancy had come to an end; and Abiola, 20, who had stayed with a cousin for months after running away from abusive parents, had finally been asked to leave, but his £6.50-an-hour job meant a rental deposit on a flat was completely unaffordable.
Each had their own history of vulnerability – parental abuse, time in care, low level criminality, learning difficulties, school exclusion. Each was trying hard to get past this and make something of themselves – at college or at work, in child care, as a personal trainer and as a theatre director. Each lacked the safety and stability of a home, a vital foundation for young person hoping to get on with their life.
When they asked for help from their local authority, none of them got the kind of initial response they might have expected or been hoping for. Jade told the housing officer she had “slept out” a few days ago because she had nowhere to stay. The officer’s reply seemed more aggressive than concerned: “I don’t understand what you mean, ‘slept out’, what does that mean? You’re not making any sense.” Dalal was told she was “coming in here, expecting that we can help and give you anything you want” before she’d even finished explaining her situation. When Abiola produced a letter from his cousin confirming he could no longer stay there, this was dismissed by the housing officer as ‘no good’, because it was addressed ‘To whom it may concern,’ rather than Abiola himself.
My role as a Just for Kids Law youth advocate is to try to negotiate through situations like this, by calmly reiterating our request to make a homelessness application. By intervening in each of these three cases I was able to ensure things didn’t degenerate into an argument and the meeting continued on a more constructive footing.
But without an advocate there, I do wonder what the outcomes might have been. Faced with a housing officer who appears unsympathetic, even confrontational, it’s easy to see how a young person who is already feeling frustrated, attacked and let down by services they have turned to for help, might have lost their temper, or run out of patience and left without taking their application any further.
The law states that if a local authority has “reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless or threatened with homelessness” then it should carry out investigations into whether it owes the applicant any duty to provide accommodation. This means that the threshold should be relatively low to start a homelessness application – legally speaking, no documentation or written proof is needed, just a “reason to believe” the applicant “may” be homeless. A trainer from St Mungo’s Broadway once told me that walking into a housing office in shabby clothes carrying a bag and telling them you have no-where to live should be enough, according to the law, for the local authority to start a homelessness application.
The reality, of course, is completely different. In London, as homelessness rises, genuinely affordable housing disappears and local authority spending decreases, housing officers at the sharp end of this crisis have the impossible job of joining up these irreconcilable facts. The well-established strategy of ‘gatekeeping’ appears to be an embedded part of how struggling services cope with increased demand. Whatever the reasons for their behaviour that I witnessed and whether it was deliberate or not, the effect of it will only be to make it less likely vulnerable young people will seek or receive the help they need in future.
Fortunately, for my young people, things turned out well: Jade’s pregnancy qualified her for automatic ‘priority need’ and she was accommodated while the local authority establishes whether it owes her a full housing duty; Dalal was refused help but I referred her to a JfKL solicitor, who challenged the local authority for failing to accommodate her as a child and she was awarded retrospective care leaver status, meaning she now has housing support; and while Abiola was told he could not complete a homelessness application, our approach to the local authority re-activated a referral to the YMCA, where he is now staying.
But things don’t always work out that way. At Just for Kids Law we know from experience how difficult it can be for young people to access housing, despite often being legally entitled to help from the local authority. A lot of the time we have to threaten legal action before a local authority will actually provide any help. My worry is that for those vulnerable young people who aren’t aware of their rights and don’t have that advocacy or legal support, the safe and stable home they need in order to get on with their lives will be even further out of reach.
Names and details have been changed