Blog: Priorities for addressing youth homelessness in Scotland

Dr Beth Watts speaking at The Rock Trust’s youth homelessness conference
Dr Beth Watts speaking at The Rock Trust’s youth homelessness conference

After addressing the international youth homelessness conference organised by The Rock Trust, Dr Beth Watts summarises her take on what the priorities should be in developing services for young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

There was a story to of two halves to tell in setting the context. Scotland has some of the most progressive homelessness legislation in the world; and since 2010 has combined these entitlements with a strong focus on homelessness prevention, including specifically for youth. The Children and Young People’s Act 2014 substantially extends the entitlements of those in and leaving care and strengthened the ‘Getting it Right for Every Child’ approach. Improving the life chances of young people was a major focus of Naomi Eisenstadt’s report on poverty in Scotland (along with housing), with her recommendations featuring prominently in the new Government’s agenda. Future devolution of employment support and some social security powers to Holyrood offer opportunities to protect and improve the supports available to young people. The recent announcement that out of work 18-21 year olds’ entitlements to housing support will be restored in Scotland is particularly welcome.

The wider context remains extremely challenging. Young people have an unemployment rate 2.5 times the average. Even if in work, many young people will be in insecure jobs and on low wages, and are explicitly excluded from the National Living Wage. Young people face a lower rate of Job Seekers allowance (80 per cent of the adult rate), and are far more likely to be sanctioned than older claimants. As homelessness is associated with a far higher sanctions rate too, homeless young people face particularly bleak prospects of maintaining a regular income if they claim out of work benefits. There are concerns that some young people are simply ceasing to claim these benefits, leaving them poor, reliant on family and friends and cut off from employment support schemes. The Shared Accommodation Rate has proved a continuing challenge since its introduction, with its extension to single under 35 year olds and, in the future, to social as well as private tenants further limiting young people’s accommodation options. The current hiatus on the future of supported accommodation funding is causing a great deal of concern in and beyond the homelessness sector.

Across these fronts, young people’s status as citizens with access to welfare entitlements on equal terms as older age groups has been dramatically eroded. It is perhaps not surprising then that poverty has grown fastest among younger age groups. In a recent I-SPHERE study, 20 per cent of destitute households were found to be headed by an under 25 year old. While relationship breakdown remains far and away the most important immediate trigger of youth homelessness in Scotland, poverty plays a key underlying role, putting strain on families and leaving young people struggling to access suitable accommodation on their own.

In 2014/15, around 8,000 young people were accepted as homeless (Excel file) – that’s 30 per cent of all acceptances, while 16-24s make up only 12 per cent of the population. This echoes large scale survey evidence that young people are two to three times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. Though the prevention agenda has substantially reduced statutory youth homelessness, this over-representation of young people in the homeless population continues. Crisis service monitoring in Glasgow has started to pick up a sharp increase in the number of young people using these services, echoing extremely concerning trends in rough sleeping in London. No available data sources give us a clear handle on the scale of hidden youth homelessness, but we do know that there have been sharp falls in the rate at which young people have been able to form separate households since 2010 and that many young people experience temporary living situations ranging from the safe if impermanent, to the extremely dangerous.

This was the context in which I sketched priorities for Scotland’s youth homelessness sector. St Basil’s positive pathway model proved a useful framework through which to do so, pointing to a focus on the range of services spanning prevention, accommodation options and employment focused interventions. I continue to think that this model could prove as useful in Scotland as it has for the nearly two thirds of English local authorities who use it to inform the development of prevention and housing services for young people.

There seem to be two major areas in which there is scope to improve youth homelessness prevention in Scotland. It was noted by a number of speakers that education have tended not to be among the partners round the table on youth homelessness to date, and there seems to be an appetite to change this. I think the smart money is on developing intelligently targeted school-based interventions, that target both particular schools and particularly young people based on the very clear ‘red flags’ we know leave some young people at greatest risk of experiencing homelessness. The Geelong project in Australia offers a really interesting model of how such targeting can be integrated with a pathway of support for at risk young people and their families. In Scotland, though the ‘Named Person’ provisions in the Children and Young People Act have proved hugely controversial, there remains hope in the youth homelessness sector that if implemented and resourced appropriately, they can help target early help at young people at highest risk of homelessness.

Developing whole family interventions is the second preventative theme I identified as a priority. While there has been impressive capacity building around mediation provision in Scotland – for instance the establishment of the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution in 2014 – and there is a strong consensus that mediation works in preventing youth homelessness for at least some young people, provision remains uneven across Scotland and uptake a challenge even where mediation services are available. Though existing evidence on effectiveness is promising, we do not yet know what kind of mediation works best for which young people and in which circumstances. It’s also important to remember that whole family interventions extend beyond mediation, to parenting support, intensive case work, family counselling and the provision of ‘time out’ accommodation for young people while these supports are put in place. There is evidence from the US and the UK regarding the effectiveness of such approaches in reducing the likelihood of children and young people engaging in risky behaviours (anti-social behaviour, offending, substance misuse), but youth homelessness has tended not to be at the centre of such interventions. There are increasing – and I think compelling – calls for it to be so.

Developing genuinely affordable, stable and replicable accommodation options is a huge challenge in the context of young people’s low and fluctuating income (whether in or out of work) and limited entitlements to help with housing costs. In addition, it is absolutely essential that these accommodation options don’t create a poverty trap for young people by making work unaffordable. There are a number of approaches that seek to square this circle: minimising capital cost or building costs through particular construction methods e.g. the YCube model or by scaling up ‘community hosting’ models like Nightstop and the longer term Supported Lodgings Model. These non-congregate models offer a particular promising route, in that they avoid the negative impacts of larger hostel-type accommodation and because there is some evidence – particularly in the case of Supported Lodgings – that they are associated with positive outcomes in relation to placement sustainment, employment and management of substance misuse. Other approaches have focused on drawing in social investors and local partners to develop a distinct offer, and the St Basils Live and Work scheme offers a particular impressive example of this. A cohort of young people in Birmingham now have access to apprenticeships and accommodation (with support) that enables them to live benefit free. Whether an approach like this is replicable in Scotland is a question well worth considering alongside growing attempts to develop effective sharing models in the private rented sector. Something of a cultural antipathy to sharing and privately renting in Scotland provide a greater challenge in this area than is faced in the South of England.

It’s very clear that these options will not always work well for the reportedly increasing proportion of young homeless people with complex needs. Housing First for Young People; small scale, high support supported accommodation; psychologically informed environments and trauma informed care all need to play a part here. There is substantial scope in Scotland for service development in these areas, with the emerging government level focus on Multiple Exclusion Homelessness potentially offering some opportunities. Such efforts will be able to draw important lessons from the forthcoming (year one) evaluation of the Fair Chance Fund projects underway in England. Scottish Government’s recent announcement of a ten year mental health strategy supported by £150m over 5 years may also finally offer a real chance to address the difficult transition from child to adult mental health services that remains an obstacle for young people trying to cope with mental health problems.

The final priority I identified concerns the employment offer to young homeless people in Scotland. There is a strong case to push beyond employability focused interventions and build partnerships with mainstream local employers to promote access to supported opportunities in ‘real’ workplaces. Job coach programmes that follow people into new work opportunities have been shown to increase access to and sustainment of employment, particularly for young people. There is also a call from those working with disadvantaged young people to take an asset based approach that builds on young people’s strengths and interests; no doubt in part a reply to the increasing emphasis on sanctions-backed conditionality we’ve seen in the administration of Jobseekers’ Allowance and employment support.

To maintain its deserved reputation as a world leader in responses to homelessness, Scottish Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector should seek out lessons from the rest of the UK and further afield to develop evidence-informed responses to youth homelessness. Perhaps we can look to the work undertaken by the A Way Home coalition in Canada for inspiration of how to achieve such collective impact. This week’s youth homelessness conference was an important step on that road – let’s keep the momentum going.

  • Dr Beth Watts is a Research Fellow at I-SPHERE, Heriot Watt University and a Non-executive Director of The Rock Trust.
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