The starting point for this research is the Government’s official figures – based on the number of young people aged 16 to 24 accepted as statutorily homeless – which come to 12,940 young people in England in 2016/17. However, Centrepoint has also compiled a central database based on the number of young persons who present to their local authority as homeless or at risk of homelessness, as well as those young persons who are assessed and subsequently accepted as statutorily homeless. The information obtained through these methods for the UK as a whole produced a total figure for youth homelessness of 86,000 people. This is a huge number for our society, even if one accepts that this information has been compiled in a different way to the official Government statistics and covers the entirety of the UK.
Indeed, we need to ask ourselves why so many young persons in our society are homeless and whether we can solve the problem by building more social housing. Whilst no one would disagree that we need more social housing, many people feel that this is not the complete answer to youth homelessness and that we need to recognise and tackle other factors at play as well.
For example, the Centrepoint report points out that there has been a big reduction in the number of family and friends being able to support young people and prevent them from becoming homeless. Related to this is the perception that young people are being priced out of housing and that some cannot afford to live in any housing sector – even the social housing sector.
As a result, some commentators have linked this point to the level of the Local Housing Allowance and say that unless and until the latter is increased, youth homelessness will keep on rising – even if more social housing is built. Others argue that we cannot just address the problem at the point of entry to social housing and that we need to recognise that homelessness can be traced back to the impact of childhood trauma or other adverse experiences and that until these are addressed, we will not solve the problem of youth homelessness.
That is why some consider that a housing-first approach will not solve the problem on its own and why initiatives such as early intervention to prevent trauma as well as tackling domestic violence and sexual abuse must play a part as well. Whilst these wider issues need to be tackled by Westminster, local authorities can also act and be part of the solution.
Clearly, local authorities have a key role to play in reducing homelessness given their statutory responsibilities, but it must be acknowledged that they are faced with the continuing challenge of finite – and shrinking – resources to meet all of their considerable commitments. Despite these difficulties, local authorities should continue to ask themselves how they can offer genuine preventative services and assessments on homelessness.
The recent introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 can be regarded as a double-edged sword for local authorities. It provides a positive change in expanding the responsibilities of local authorities by increasing their duty of assistance to those people deemed to be eligible and unintentionally homeless. On the other hand, it will lead to an increase in the number of housing duties that local authorities may need to fulfil, putting further pressure on their resources.
If they rise to this challenge, local authorities can play a key role in actively reducing homelessness.
The situation is different for housing associations – whilst they do not have this statutory responsibility, they are the largest grouping of social landlords in the country and have the collective resources and expertise to build more social housing. One of the main ways they can help reduce youth homelessness (notwithstanding the above points) is by building more social housing.
To be fair, that is what the housing association sector is doing as a whole, although the uncertainty caused by the introduction of the social rent reduction has had an adverse impact on their business plans.
The challenge for them going forward, however, is to continue building new social housing, even in the event of a downturn in the open market sales sector as open market sales are increasingly used to subsidise the building of social housing in the absence of Government funding. The sector needs to be brave, to keep on doing what it is doing and keep believing in the vital role it plays in maintaining and building social housing. Housing associations may have to look at new and different ways to do this, including sharing risk through joint ventures with house-builders, working with local authorities more effectively and sweating their assets more – but it can be done.
The state of affairs on youth homelessness is far from satisfactory, but if local authorities and housing associations – as well as central Government – can work together, we can make inroads into tackling this problem. It may take fresh thinking and new initiatives, but local authorities and housing associations can certainly provide a significant part of the solution.