Conversations on youth homelessness
This digital feature is the collective work of a group of young people with experience of homelessness. We have lived at street level, in hostels, emergency shelters, detention centres and on borrowed floors. We come from London, Liverpool, Birmingham & Uganda. Regardless of our origins, there are crossroads in all our experiences of life without a stable home. This feature captures six months of conversations on the challenges and also suggests a set of key requirements of care that we feel are non-negotiable for young people facing housing crisis. Please read and share.
Curators’ note: On Our Radar has been working with Comic Relief, St Basil’s and Evolve Housing + Support to offer a new way for those experiencing homelessness and housing crisis to document and share ideas and concerns. The Mobile Lives project was supported as a short action research project under Comic Relief’s Fairer Societies fund. Participants attended a local workshop on citizen journalism and commentary, and were given a mobile number to file thoughts and document issues as they arose in their lives. All reports were submitted via SMS or freephone voicemail into the Radar communications hub where concerns were logged, transcribed and thoughts developed with each person directly. We have agreed to remove names and attribution so that this report is the culmination of their shared vision - both at eye level and on the horizon.
In my late teens, I was squatting and, in patches, homeless. In this time I experienced first-hand the scale of homelessness in its different forms in London. On top of the official figures – 2,744 sleeping rough on any given night and 61,970 households in temporary accommodation – there are thousands more who make up what is often referred to as the ‘hidden homeless’. These are people who squat, sofa-surf or are simply not registered within any government system. In some cases people choose to distance themselves from society out of respect to their personal values, but in the majority of the cases I have witnessed, people have become homeless as a direct result of a poorly functioning social system. This includes: an overstretched housing system; social services unable or unwilling to respond when the family nucleus has broken down; deficient council housing; and a ruthless rise in rent prices and living costs.
I found that if I wasn’t well versed in my rights before entering a job centre or housing interview I would be turned away or denied the full extent of help. I was once told I couldn’t receive a benefit because I didn’t have an address to prove that I was homeless in order to claim the benefit which was specifically for homeless people in education (I was squatting at the time) so, aged 17, I was turned away with nothing and no advice whilst the balance in the bank put me £50 further into debt each week as charges accrued.
This is just one example of the myriad exasperating and illogical problems people encounter in trying to receive help from the state. Often things as ordinary as a poor credit rating, no proof of address, or not owning a passport (which cannot be issued without an address) can leave people penniless and unable to access state help.
Hostels often demand that tenants sign up to benefits, most of which go directly to the hostel. One hostel I was shown round had blood and faeces on the wall in the foyer and the private rooms were like cells, comprising a small window, a single bed, and a bin for used needles. I was a homeless and aged under 18 at the time, but an adults’ drugs hostel was the only place available. Many members of the public look down on the homeless for not going into sheltered housing, but after seeing some of these desperate, overpriced and often intimidating rooms I can understand why some would opt for self-reliance and freedom, even when accompanied by freezing temperatures and lack of amenities.
With all the empty properties in the UK some might see it as a resourceful and resilient attempt at self-sufficiency in the face of a difficult system. The reality is that squatters are often illegally and violently evicted, meaning that squats often don’t last as long as they might have 20 years ago, which in turn means many squatters are living in far worse conditions than is necessary.
Mental health conditions, which play a significant part in the narrative of homelessness, make it even more difficult to access help. As the popular saying goes, ‘getting a benefit is a full time job’ and many ill people cannot be as persistent and reliable as is required. This in turn creates impenetrable blockages to getting basic necessities. The gap in the system for helping mentally ill people out of homelessness, for me, is one of the saddest parts of the crisis.
Another fragment to consider is that there simply is not enough accessible housing available for the growing number of homeless. I have spoken to young people who have been told by desperate social workers that prison is their best option for getting housed. I believe that our government is not being realistic and honest about how many homeless people there are in the UK, and is therefore not doing enough to change this. And yet there is more than enough space. The latest Government data suggests that there are over 610,000 empty homes in England. Boris Johnson has boasted repeatedly that the price of London’s properties is rising, as if this is a triumph. But is selling off our land as investments for the super-rich at the cost of our most vulnerable community really how we want to live?
I feel this is a very important collation of work as the data used to inform policy is often lacking a grounding in the reality of experiences, leading to services which have major pitfalls resulting in often life threatening consequences. This report shows the findings, which have grown organically from the memory of times in which the participants felt their problems weren’t addressed correctly, or in cases at all, moving through to solutions. The patterns formed in the responses have created a united voice calling for a serious look at policy surrounding children and young people.
The next few pages show fragments of experiences in written and audio form followed by the solutions broken into sections, which became common themes as the group talked as a whole. What has struck me about these findings is the eloquence, intelligence and poignancy of the answers, which, I think, gives testimony to the importance of creating safe spaces for marginalised groups to talk freely with confidence and care. After unpicking each problem faced, and analysing the connections between them we realised that there it is not one little change that needs to be made, but a succession of transformations which would result in large policy change to ensure homeless young people are treated with the dignity and respect both needed and deserved in order to fully recover and transcend and not add trauma to past experiences. What we are proposing is a change in society’s attitude to the care of lone young people, something that I believe most people would agree to in order to create a more inclusive and progressive society.
#1: We need to be treated as individuals
"We can seek individuality through advocacy; by finding a moment to speak about the past."
"We find it by defining a person not by the challenges that they may face but by find ways of involving service users in the overall care that they receive."
"You move closer to it by promoting dignity within the services offered."
"Give more choice to service users and you’ll ensure person-centered care, driven by understanding."
"If society appreciates the reality, the variety, of different cases and life paths we can create a more flexible system based on respect."
#2: We need to remove the stigma
“We can acknowledge it.”
“We can acknowledge that the media has a big role in telling stories that reduce that stigma.”
“It has a great impact in how the public perceives people with alcohol and drug problems, housing and mental health issues.”
“There are no controls on the press. They say what they like about average, non-celebrity people. Even though it can do a fair amount of harm to the way society merges together.”
“Outside of the press, more street-level campaigning is needed in order to address the misinformation.”
“We need to stop people from fearing someone who is having a hard time.
"It can start with you. If you see a young man or a women crying in the street, go up to them and see if they’re ok.”
#3: We need access to safer spaces
I’ve been homeless a number of times. I went to prison for attempted burglary when I was 21 but I’m no burglar. I have had a drinking problem since I was 13 and this one night I had been drinking way too much and I went to my girlfriend’s road and climbed in a window that I thought was hers. It wasn’t, and I was just standing there when someone came down. Nothing happened; they asked me to leave, escorted me to the front door and I walked out but I went to jail for that.
I came out homeless. One charity came to see me in prison but they weren’t able to find me accommodation before I left. I was street homeless. I had my partner, who was really supportive when I was in custody, but she was being evicted from her house. She was put up in a Holiday Inn with her kids but I was not allowed to stay with them.
I have no parents. Well, I have a dad but he is a c**t. My mum’s dead. My uncle’s dead. My aunties are supportive but not so supportive that I could come and stay. I have an Irish traveller side of my family but to them, I’m an outcast. They have their own difficulties.
I slept on cold, hard tiles and in stairwells. I called on the council for help and they housed me for two days before they found my files. They said they couldn’t help me any more because of my history. All I had was a blanket and my dog. I slept in bins, holding my dog in my jacket - trying to find small contained places. I tried to tell them [the council] ‘I need help right now. I have nowhere to go, no finances’. But no-one seemed to be willing to help. I went back to sleeping on the main road or wherever I could get into using a card in a door. I’d wake up every morning baffled - what shall I do? I got hold of other charities. One told me to stay where I was, in that particular park, and they would come and get me - it could take up to 48 hrs. But I had to find somewhere warmer so I was in a stairwell next to the park, and they came but couldn’t find me, so they dropped my case.
I was drinking to get by and it went from bad to worse. I took 16 tabs of promethazine and a bottle of whiskey. I woke up in the ICU trying to rip a tube out of my throat. They sedated me and I was put on life support but I came through. The Homelessness team came to see me and when I was recovered they sent me to a hostel. I was there for two and a half months and in that time I didn’t touch alcohol. I thought about alcohol every single day but I was also thinking ‘you seriously need to recover’. I’d been throwing up blood.
The abstinence space helped me but the therapy groups grated on me. I was suffering from deep depression and I was being asked to talk about addiction daily. I couldn’t escape thinking about it and I thought ‘I am going to end up lapsing’. I did. I had a drink and then I drank more. One night I came back pissed and they kicked me out.
After everything, I was back street homeless again. I knew I had to get off the street so I went to the a reform centre. Some people really do care and they really tried to help. I was put into a residential house but this place was full of crackheads and alcoholics. I was in a room called the Fishbowl. It was just by the main reception. There were open shutters so people could see in, so there was no privacy. But you can just walk in with big bottle of whiskey and staff didn’t care. It was the wrong place to put someone who’s spent two months clean. The first night, I walked out house and didn’t return. I called the council. I told that that I’m not going back to that place.
That’s how I ended up at the YMCA hostel. I finally got to sit down with someone and I just told them how it was, laid in on a plate, all the reality and that night I was in a safe clean room. I think I had a good word put in from the previous hostel. I found out later that they had told the YMCA that I had been “a highly valued member of the house community”.
It’s going alright now; there are ups and down but I’ve got a really nice flat of my own. I’ve just passed my driving theory test and I’m contacting organisations trying to get some voluntary work. More than anything, I want to do my music. It’s a really big thing for me. I’ve melted two hard drives in the past just making so much music. The process is like self decryption. I am almost talking to myself; almost like writing memoirs, to relive and reiterate what’s gone by. In the past I’ve just had a pen and paper but I’m looking into studio space. I’m here now, things are looking up.
I’m 24. I believe that I’ve been burdened with this journey because I can take it. I don’t know if many people could have handled it so that’s why I’ve got it. Sometimes life can feel like you’ve been dropped into a game that’s been mapped out for you not to win. Eventually though, maybe you could come into some kind of brotherhood and move forward through generation to generation to overcome that game, to overcome all that has been and gone.
I’m 20 years old. I live in Southport and I grew up here. I became homeless in 2011 and went to a homeless organisation that has supported me in different ways over the past four years.
I grew up with my mum and my dad but they split up when I was about 10. My dad battered me when I was a kid. I never really see him much. I hated growing up. I was the middle child and my dad was an alcoholic, so whenever he came in drunk I was always there in front of him so I took the brunt of it. My older brother was always out and my younger brother and sister were just babies so I was about 5 or 6 at the time and that’s why I always got the brunt of it.
Growing up was pretty tough because I always got bullied. I’ve always been a big lad and I could’ve easily turned round and shut them up but I’m not the type of person to go around throwing my weight around. My family wasn’t the richest of people; my mum always struggled to get uniforms ready for September so sometimes we had to wear clothes from the year before and we never had holidays. It was pretty tough. If I could get away, I always would.
My older brother is 23. He still lives with my mum and the only thing he pays for in that house is the phone and the internet. A thing that miffed me off when I got kicked out was he’s older than me and I was the one who had to leave. I don’t speak to any of them now even though they live locally, just 15 minutes that way.
My nan helps me out a lot. When I don’t have enough money to pay for something, she helps me out a bit. And she’s there to talk to when I’ve needed it. Even if she’s very old fashioned, she’s always been there to talk to. She’s a lovely, bubbly person. I speak to her on the phone a lot.
When I was 16, I failed all my GCSEs because I’m dyslexic so from there I went straight into the army. But because I never had any life experience or anything, I didn’t last that long in the army. You need to have a bit of nouse about yourself so that’s why I didn’t last very long in there. I went back home and I ended up having arguments after arguments with my mum. She said: “You failed the army, you’re not even my son.”
I had a friend living in a hostel just up the road where I lived and basically from there I phoned them up and said, “I’m homeless and I don’t know what to do and I need a roof over my head.” They were like, “We don’t have any rooms but we have some coming up so if you can wait a week...” I slept in bus shelters for three weeks in the end, just going around town trying to find shelter and that. It was the worst time of my life not knowing where I’m going to live, but finally, I moved into the hostel.
“You can make emergency spaces safer by taking time to understand individual needs, not just shoving people to where they fit.”
“Once you understand, you can create wider linked space within the community for mental health and recovery and provide easier access to accommodation, reducing the stress and keeping us safe.”
“Discrimination within these services needs to be severely counteracted; creating spaces with no tolerance of violence, exposure and abuse. This impacts so negatively on young lives.”
“Every phone box should be a box for local homeless charities with a funded taxi services to pick up a young person when they need help and take them to a hostel.”
“There needs to be common access to basic information; access points that are easily found within every day life.”
“Young people with difficult lives need to have repeated opportunities to become more involved. Sometimes the time is not right and then the door is closed.”
“School and colleges, hostels and youth services have a responsibility to keep the door open.”
“Being on the outside makes you angry at those on the inside who have it all. You turn your back and they make decisions about you.”
“Overall, each problem is interlinked. Without safe spaces, there is too much danger to cope with to consider the long game; without safety, you can’t work on confidence or skills like politics; without skills there are no job opportunities, and no cash for safe spaces.”
“No-one seems to be tying the treads together; the lack of multifaceted care is ignorant and destined to fail people.”
“If politicians just sometimes were able to say ‘sorry, I got it wrong’ they might trusted more. We all make mistakes.”
"Local key workers could have more powers within the local authority to make recommendations about young people who need a specific service or bit of help."
"They know but having that information without the power to act is pointless."
"We could still do with more marketing around where to find support services for accessing jobs, accommodation and health care."
"Getting online can be hard so use local papers, posters, or send texts directly to share information about services."
"Getting access to services is too much of a lottery."
“Services need to feel more open and friendly.”
"We need to stop giving powers to private organisations that can be ripping vulnerable service users off without anyone knowing."
“The quality of mental health services could improve through better training [that would lead to] better understanding.”
“More money needs to be put into creating lasting and individual care programmes that are sensitive to the needs of vulnerable young people, particularly respecting their confidentiality.”
“It helps to recruit happy, positive people who are happy to be engaging with young people.”
"If providers don’t have an idea on what a good mental health service looks like, listen to the user and find out what they think would help them the most and if appropriate, do it. The patient tends to know what’s best for themselves."
"Other things can help mental health eg enjoying nature and socialising, group activities - even going to the gym. These can cost money so giving people free passes could help."
"Mental health is linked to a safe environment. Without that, it can be hard to try and approach support."
“When a young person has run the course [of their therapy], there ought to be a cooling off period; sometimes support just stops.”
“So much centres around the relationship. You need to invest in those relationships.”
“If you do, then the support you get from professionals who go the extra mile and believe in you even when you can’t see it can be life changing.”
“Making decisions which stop us making choices or requesting help can only lead to more harm.”
“But the worst experiences are usually the result of a lack of training and professional support rather than a lack of compassion.”
“Invest in training. Invest in relationships. Invest in people.”
“We need support to be vocal; training and spaces to be encouraged to speak.”
“When people are given dignified care and paired with the right worker who genuinely respects them they can start to resolve feelings of worthlessness caused by trauma.”
“It is not all about expensive, serious intervention. Music is wonderful for a young person in pain.”
“Things are changing and we need more active available legal information around our information rights.”
“There are resources online but that’s hard to access so this education needs to be woven into our other youth services.”
“There needs to be dignity given to service users as owners of their own information.”
“You should have the option of not oversharing or giving away too much especially in a public place.”
“Young vulnerable people can struggle with judgement and trust.”
“Tell us why you need that information, who else will see it, and let us decide.”
Why is it that we have so many young people vulnerable today with all the wealth, technology and learning in the world? It seems from the government cuts that our leaders can’t truly comprehend the reality that some young people face; that many just can’t live with parents or guardians and must face a difficult lone path. Under these cuts, homelessness services are struggling to help, yet they’ve never been more needed.
When it comes to shaping care and support services, it’s the young people who have been homeless who are the experts on youth homelessness. We have lived it, while strategists and decision makers have passed us by on the street or turned the pages in the news. They haven’t felt it; haven’t had to scavenge for food or search for a warm place to sleep.
As society changes so does the nature of homelessness and there have been some positive changes. Fifty years ago you didn’t have easy access to places that would offer food with no questions asked or emergency accommodation. I think the public are starting to realise that youth homelessness, particularly hidden homelessness, is a huge problem and that there needs to be a national shift in gear.
This feature is so important because it’s a collective piece of work that shows so many different, converging stories about young people’s lives. We hope the fragments will touch both the professions leading the services and the young people who are going through hard times.
We want you to realise that you are not on your own.
Through joining the National Youth Reference Group [a youth-led campaign network] I will be going to parliament in February to take this work forward. I believe there will be change in the housing sector and that the change will be led by young people to ensure access to more diverse, relevant services when they need them. For myself, I am focusing on getting a permanent flat and continuing positively with my life.
I will keep moving forward.
For more information about the project or using the report content, please contact us on Info@OnOurRadar.org